Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has cracked down so hard on postelection protesters that his forceful behavior has precipitated a second crisis that few foresaw -- a battle with mainstream conservative leaders who are the backbone of the establishment and regard Ahmadinejad’s aggressive style as a threat to their own interests.
The battle comes just as Ahmadinejad begins his second term and the stakes are how powerful he will be in his second term.
On paper, Ahmadinejad should not a strong president.
His hard-line conservative supporters are a minority in parliament, where they share power with a majority block of fellow conservatives usually labeled “traditionalist” and “pragmatic.”
Weakening his parliamentary clout further, there also are sizeable, minority blocks of reformist and “independent” deputies.
But if Ahmadinejad should be a weak according to his parliamentary base, his behavior – particularly in the current postelection crisis – has notably been the opposite.Tensions Hardening
The death of one protester, the son of a top aide to former Revolutionary Guard leader Mohsen Rezai, the only conservative to challenge Ahmadinejad in the presidential race, has been particularly noticed by mainstream conservatives.
So has Ahmadinejad’s showdown with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative usually considered one of the establishment’s most influential leaders. Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts, is widely believed to have financially backed the leading reformist candidate Mir Hossein Musavi against Ahmadinejad.
Now, as reformists have been forced from the streets, the tensions between the president and more mainstream conservatives are hardening.
“The conservatives who have a pragmatic view about the government and are looking at the future of the political system are the main opposition to Mr. Ahmadinejad," analyst Ali Reza Haghighi of the University of Toronto told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
"This group has long-term plans for itself and in this future program Mr. Ahmadinejad has no place. Therefore, they are planning for the next parliamentary and presidential elections and are trying to put their members in key policy-making positions," he says.Open Letter
The tone of exchanges between mainstream conservative groups and Ahmadinejad can be surprisingly sharp.
Recently, the head of the country’s powerful alliance of clerics and shopkeepers, wrote an open letter to the president reminding him to work in the interest of the Islamic Revolution.
The letter from Habibollah Asgar Ouladi of the Hay’atha-ye mo’talafe-ye eslami (Coalition of Islamic Associations), reads in part:
“If you make some mistakes by inaccuracy, by lack of consulting with other honest followers of the Islamic Revolution, and by policies that do not precisely follow the Velayat-e faqih (Rule of the Jurisprudent), it will demolish the people’s trust in you ... and it can damage the whole system irrevocably.”
Ouladi has separately praised Rafsanjani for trying to calm the postelection crisis and said he deserves full public respect.
The Coalition of Islamic Associations, with members in mosques and bazaars throughout the country, is a major backer of the mainstream conservative deputies who make up the largest block in parliament.
But Ahmadinejad has shown no readiness to listen to such warnings. Rather than reach out to other conservatives, he is proceeding alone with the first major step of his second-term: forming his cabinet.Young Cabinet
Ahmadinejad has rejected urgings from the parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, to discuss the appointees before he presents them to the legislature for approval next week.
Instead, he has signaled he may further challenge Iran’s aging establishment by forming a cabinet made up of “young people who have experience.” It is not yet clear what that means, but it may be more people like Ahmadinejad himself. That is, a second generation of revolutionaries who are ready, like the Jacobins of the French Revolution, to wrest power from the Islamic Republic’s founding generation and pursue their own purist vision of the future.
The mainline conservatives’ mounting frictions with Ahmadinejad suggest that his second-term could be filled with the kinds of power struggles now on display in Tehran.
Some analysts see Ahmadinejad’s prospects for dominating the establishment as limited. That is not only because ultimate executive power in Iran belongs to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but also because Ahmadinejad has made himself some very powerful enemies.
“Going forward, we are going to see, in fact, a weaker Ahmadinejad presidency, not because of Khamenei, but because of all the conservatives who now oppose him," Geneive Abdo, a regional expert at The Century Foundation in Washington, D.C., told Radio Farda.
"He now has heavyweight, big players in Iran openly against him, not the reformers who are sort of irrelevant, but he has now Larijani, Rezai, Rafsanjani, all these people with real power who now are working diligently to undermine his authority,” she says.Crises As Weapons
But other analysts say that Ahmadinejad is likely to respond to such powerful enemies by using political crises to neutralize them as he mobilizes parliamentary support for his government in the interest of stability. The model for using political crises may be exactly what he is doing now in making no compromises to end the post-election trauma in the country.
“We need to know whether [Ahmadinejad’s] type of management, which is not in favor of the ‘traditional conservatives’ and the ‘bureaucratic conservatives,’ can be understood, and countered, by these groups," says Taqi Rahmaneh, a reformist leader with the Melli Mazhabi movement close to former President Muhammad Khatami.
"He does not give a lot of importance to these groups. For example, he did not take part in [the annual commemoration ceremony] of the Coalition of Islamic Associations. He said that he was too busy last year, even though Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Khatami have always taken part in this ceremony,” Rahmaneh says.
Maintaining a crisis atmosphere also enables Ahmadinejad to sidestep rivals by going directly to his powerbase: a mass of poorer Iranians who see him as one of their own. That base can be called out for mass demonstrations and counterdemonstrations and its members are strongly represented in the Basij and Revolutionary Guards.
Combined, those are powerful tools for street power and Ahmadinejad has employed all of them in the postelection crisis.
What is not known today is exactly what Ahmadinejad and his hard-line camp would do with any additional power they wrest from the mainstream conservatives.
The hard-liners pledge loyalty to the supreme leader and that entails simply following his lead in directing the country’s affairs.
The president's spiritual mentor, the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, restated that loyalty as he called on Iranians to unquestioningly follow Ahmadinejad on August 12.
“When the president is endorsed by the [supreme] leader, obeying him is similar to obedience to God,” Mesbah-Yazdi said.
But all of the increasingly independent president's enemies in the postelection crisis – be they reformist or conservative – also follow the supreme leader. And that suggests, when so many rivals pledge the same allegiance, that following the supreme leader can be a relative thing.