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Iranian Conservatives Unite In Bid To Undermine Ahmadinejad

  • Robert Tait

Parliament speaker Ali Larijani (left) and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad at a gathering of the parliament and cabinet in February

Parliament speaker Ali Larijani (left) and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad at a gathering of the parliament and cabinet in February

Conservative opponents of Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, have launched a rearguard action aimed at weakening him and preventing one of his hard-line followers from succeeding him in the next presidential election.

The offensive, analysts say, has been undertaken by a united front of leading "principlist" figures including the speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani; a leading member of parliament, Ahmad Tavakoli; and Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and a defeated candidate in last year's presidential election.

A key aim is to weaken the support for Ahmadinejad from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by persuading him that the president's radical policies and divisive approach threatens the Islamic republic's stability.

One report has even suggested that conservatives have met to plot a way of impeaching Ahmadinejad and remove him from office, although seasoned observers caution that such an outcome is unthinkable without Khamenei's approval -- which is thought unlikely. Khamenei has given Ahmadinejad unqualified support since his disputed victory in last year's presidential poll, which reformist opponents say was stolen by massive ballot fraud.

However, the new anti-Ahmadinejad onslaught differs from the wave of opposition expressed by the mass demonstrations organized by the Green Movement in support of the defeated reformist candidates, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, which stressed human rights and greater social freedoms.

Rather than ideological differences, the conservative critics are driven by anger over being excluded from power and a desire to position themselves for the next presidential election, still nearly three years away. Analysts define their positions on social, cultural, and foreign-policy issues as belonging to a similar "paradigm" to Ahmadinejad.

Their minimum goal, according to Mehdi Khalaji, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is to loosen Ahmadinejad's hold on power and ensure a more pragmatic figure eventually succeeds him as president.

"Their goal is to have a president from [among] themselves," he says. "They want to remove Ahmadinejad from executive power because he is very, very exclusivist and he excluded everybody who is not from his own circle and he confiscated the executive power. They want to take executive power back. The main goal is to marginalize Ahmadinejad's faction from government."

Chastened Already

Ahmadinejad is believed to be positioning his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai -- whose daughter is married to the president's son -- to replace him when his second term ends in 2013. The idea is anathema to many conservatives, who have been angered by many of Rahim-Mashai's statements, including a comment in 2008 that Iran was friends with "the Israeli people."

Ahmadinejad's attachment to Rahim-Mashai has already landed him in trouble. Shortly after last year's election, he was forced by Khamanei to drop plans to install him as his first vice president after the proposed appointment provoked an outcry.

Meanwhile, conservative criticism of the president's economic record, which has been rumbling for years, has intensified in recent months amid government attempts to force a bill cutting subsidies through parliament.

But the opposition has gained new urgency following an attempt by Ahmadinejad last month to gain control over Iran's lucrative Azad University, a stronghold of the president's fierce political rival, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Conservatives were alarmed when Ahmadinejad supporters gathered outside the parliament in protest at its decision to block the move, says Farideh Farhi, an Iranian political analyst at the University of Hawaii.

"You had demonstrations in front of the Majlis [parliament] and Ahmadinejad's supporters were accusing the legislators who voted for the legislation [preventing the change of Azad University's constitution], as well as Mr. Larijani, of being in the pay of the British government," Farhi says. "The ability and willingness to bring supporters onto the streets to denounce even conservative opponents sort of jolted folks like Larijani, as well as others. And therefore, they are trying to figure out a way to contain this rather radical base that is willing to come onto the streets and accuse anybody of either being in the pay of other governments, or corruption or whatever."

Motivating Factors

Further motivating the conservatives, Farhi believes, is the fear that they could be caught up in a broadening purge of Ahmadinejad's opponents that has already swept away reformists like Musavi and Karrubi and targeted Rafsanjani.

"As long as that force was directing its actions towards the reformists then it was not a problem," she says. "But it has become increasingly clear that those forces are not only interested in purging Mr. Rafsanjani from the Iranian political system. If indeed he ends up being pushed out, then they would be starting to attack folks like Larijani, or [Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer] Qalibaf, or Rezai."

Larijani is believed to have tried to bolster the anti-Ahmadinejad bloc by attempting to enlist senior clerics, many of whom were scandalized by the heckling of Hassan Khomeini at a ceremony in June to mark the 21st anniversary of the death of his grandfather, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Revolution's spiritual leader. Ahmadinejad supporters, angered by Khomeini's vocal support for last year's postelection protests, shouted him down and prevented him from delivering a homage to his grandfather at the ceremony, which was shown live on nationwide television.

Scott Lucas, an Iran analyst at the University of Birmingham in Britain, says the humiliating treatment of Khomeini compounded clerical hostility to Ahmadinejad by creating a new focal point for discontent.

The anniversary of Khomeini's death "was supposed to be a grandstand occasion for the regime to stand up and say, 'we are legitimate, we've survived, we've made it,'" Lucas says. "That whole episode with Hassan Khomeini, who carries a great deal of respect -- even though he doesn't have the high religious title -- just completely ruined that. It just kept getting replayed again and again in the statements of clerics and of politicians who denounced what had happened to him."

But the conservatives' weapon of choice is likely to be the economy. A recent strike among traders in Tehran's grand bazaar that forced the government to back down over plans for a steep rise in income tax emphasized growing unhappiness among sectors normally supportive of the Islamic regime.

"They are trying to weaken Ahmadinejad by not only attacking Mashai, but also by attacking his economic agenda," Khalaji says, "not adopting his bills, challenging his economic views -- especially Tavakoli and Rezai. They pretend that they are economic experts and are outspoken critics of Ahmadinejad's economic agenda. So I think they want to portray Ahmadinejad [as] an economically failed president. That's why I think it makes sense for them to meet, to get together and to form a united front against Ahmadinejad."

Follow The Leader

The main obstacle facing the conservatives may not be Ahmadinejad, but Khamenei. Publicly withdrawing support from a president he has backed unstintingly could mean a damaging loss of face for the supreme leader, who has been accused of giving up his traditional role of impartial arbiter in his support for Ahmadinejad.

The president's opponents have been emboldened by Khamenei's role in the Azad University row, in which he effectively intervened on parliament's side by writing to Ahmadinejad to annul his proposed changes. Farhi believes political realities preclude Khamenei from siding openly against Ahmadinejad's conservative foes as he did against the reformists.

"The supreme leader's role is indeed constitutionally a role of balancing different political players within the context of Iranian politics," Farhi says. "Obviously Mr. Khamenei has abandoned the role of balancing the so-called principlists and reformists. But he is now faced with a new task of trying to balance among conservative forces and that is something he cannot abdicate. Because if he does that, then the basis of the Islamic republic becomes extremely limited and from the point of view of the majority of political players, very much defined by extremist politics."

However, Khamenei is still haunted by lingering fear of the now dormant Green Movement, Khalaji believes -- meaning he is unlikely to abandon Ahmadinejad completely or allow parliament to impeach him. And whether or not the leader is prepared to even dilute his support sufficiently to allow pragmatic conservatives to make a comeback at the next presidential election may depend on his assessment of the threat posed by the protest movement that was bloodily suppressed after last year's poll.

"He [Khamenei] does not think the Green Movement is weakened. He thinks it is controlled," Khalaji argues. "There were two mechanisms which were used to prove the popularity of the Islamic republic. One was public demonstrations, the second was elections. The Green Movement made these two mechanisms hard to use.

"Khamenei is deeply concerned with the Green Movement. He is deeply concerned with divisions among conservatives. He knows that his own credentials have been damaged and that his own circle is tightening. So, there are many considerations which prevent him coming out and criticizing Ahmadinejad or even allowing him to be removed from office."