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Ahmadinejad And Larijani Tussle In An Oil Slick

Iran's Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani (left) now has President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) in his sights.
Iran's Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani (left) now has President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) in his sights.
For years he has treated it with imperious disdain. But now, with his political capital hemorrhaging, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is being subjected to a relentless assault by Iran's parliament with the apparent approval of the country's most powerful cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader.

The attacks come in the wake of a bruising public power struggle between the two men and appear to be part of a concerted move by Khamenei to weaken a president he once treated as a protege.

The latest in a series of anti-Ahmadinejad ambushes came on May 25 when the parliament voted to investigate allegations that the president misused state funds as effective bribes by giving $80 each to 9 million voters before the 2009 presidential election.

To compound Ahmadinejad's indignity, the offensive is being spearheaded by the influential parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, a man he fired as secretary of the supreme national security council in 2007.

Larijani demonstrated his increasing clout this week by publicly calling on Ahmadinejad to name a permanent new oil minister to replace Masud Mirkazemi, who was sacked on May 14.

The appeal was part of a move to counteract the president's attempted takeover of the Oil Ministry, Iran's most strategically important ministry because of its control of the country's vast oil wealth.

Ambitious Plans Scrapped

Days earlier, the powerful Guardians Council had delivered a powerful rebuff to Ahmadinejad by declaring his proposal to name himself caretaker oil minister unlawful.

That ruling has reportedly forced Ahmadinejad to scrap ambitious plans to preside over next month's meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna, a gambit that would have boosted his standing in the ongoing domestic tug-of-war.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on May 23 that -- counter to earlier expectations -- the president would not attend the gathering, which Iran is chairing.

More immediately, his ongoing rows with parliament and Larijani may reflect maneuvering by Khamenei to end Ahmadinejad's ambitions to carve out a power base for himself after his presidential term ends in 2013.

Someone Less Divisive

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born commentator with the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company based in Israel, says the supreme leader no longer wants a divisive president and is seeking a less problematic figure to succeed Ahmadinejad in 2013.

Parliament will be instrumental in that search, with Larijani playing a leading role.

Ahmadinejad's favored successor Esfander Rahim-Mashei

"I think for the next presidential candidate Khamenei's going to back more of a consensus figure. For the sake of the stability of the regime, he needs a consensus figure." Javedanfar says.

"Otherwise, if the regime folds, historians will [see] Ayatollah Khamenei's bad choices in presidents and backing Ahmadinejad [as] one of the biggest factors.

"The key institution to look at from now on is the Majles [parliament]. This is going to be Khamenei's tool to create some limitations for what Ahmadinejad's doing. And this is going to boost Ali Larijani's position. This will make him a very viable candidate for the 2013 elections."

That would appear to finally crush Ahmadinejad's hopes of anointing his confidant and chief-of-staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, as his successor.

That ambition was already looking tattered following the recent arrests of more than 20 presidential advisers close to Rahim-Mashaei, some of whom have been accused of spiritualism and "sorcery."

Rahim-Mashaei's advocacy of a nationalistic form of "Iranian Islam" in place of the more traditional theocratic form has angered powerful clerics, who have branded him a leader of a "deviant current."

Headstrong President Overreaches

It was a row over Rahim-Mashaei that triggered the current standoff between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.

The supreme leader vetoed Ahmadinejad's attempts to fire the intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, in April after it emerged that the chief-of-staff had been subjected to electronic surveillance.

The Iranian president may have bitten off more than he can chew in taking on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But while Rahim-Mashaei might have become a lightening rod for conservative opposition to Ahmadinejad, it is the headstrong president who has miscalculated by overreaching himself, according to Michael Axworthy, an Iranian scholar at Exeter University in England.

Ahmadinejad, he says, is learning the same bitter lessons as his predecessors in the Islamic Republic -- that an Iranian president has little real power:

"[Abolhassan] Banisadr tried to make himself a powerful politician within Iran on the strength of the president's office," he says.

"He failed and he was removed.[Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani as president certainly didn't achieve what he intended to achieve and he encountered heavy opposition.

"Then of course, perhaps most famously, [Mohammad] Khatami had his reform program blocked. That was taken as evidence of the superiority within the Iranian system of the hard-line faction.

"But it did also show the relative weakness of the Iranian presidency and I think what we're seeing with Ahmadinejad shows it once again."

Comparisons with Banisadr have loomed large in recent weeks, with some predicting Ahmadinejad may ultimately share his fate. Banisadir, Iran's first elected president after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, was impeached by parliament after falling foul of Khamenei's predecessor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and eventually fled the country.

Yet some suggest the parallel is, at least, premature. While Khamenei may have finally lost faith in his troublesome president, he wants to retain him for the time being, according to Javedanfar:

"Khamenei doesn't want to let him go for now because the infighting that he has created has not reached a critical stage and at this moment, if he removes Ahmadinejad it would damage Khamenei's image and own standing," he says.

"The important issue to look at here is whether this is sustainable. I don't think it is, I think the fighting's going to continue and if it reaches a stage that the damage is becoming unbearable for Khamenei before the 2013 election, he will either remove Ahmadinejad or basically force him to resign."

Fighting Back

Such a scenario may yet unfold. Scott Lucas, an Iran specialist at Birmingham University in the UK and editor of the EA World View website, argues that the president's "street fighter politician" instincts preclude the possibility of him being quietly sidelined.

"He's like a prizefighter," Lucas says. "If he feels pressure, he's going to pull back but then he's going to jab back."

"It happened with the Ministry of Intelligence matter. When he got rebuffed on that, he finally admitted defeat but almost immediately came back and jabbed and said I'll be the caretaker minister of oil.

"Larijani said to the parliament, 'We want the president to name the permanent minister of oil, we want him named before the eighth of June before the OPEC meeting,' and as far as I know, there was absolutely no response from Ahmadinejad to that. So the situation is up in the air but it's still one of conflict."

If Ahmadinejad were to stage a fait accompli by turning up in Vienna on June 8, it would represent an audacious attempt to annex a huge swathe of Iran's economy at a time when parliament is trying to wrestle it from his grasp.

Parliamentarians have repeatedly accused the president of diverting precious oil revenues to pet projects without disclosing them.

To Lucas, Ahmadinejad's appearance at the OPEC meeting would also raise an intriguing question of whether Khamenei has rubber-stamped it with the intention of keeping the warring forces in balance.

"Ahmadinejad will use it as part of the continuing struggle to establish that he has legitimacy, he has authority," Lucas says.

"It will mean he will have shown that to the rising criticisms from the parliamentarians, including the factions surrounding Larijani.

He will have displayed a signal regarding the supreme leader. If he actually makes it to [the OPEC meeting in] June, the way to read the signal is: has he succeeded because the supreme leader, in this balancing role he often plays, has gone ahead and backed Ahmadinejad, or has he actually defied the supreme leader's office to hang onto this ministry?"

Either way, the sight of Ahmadinejad strutting on the world stage again will hardly be pouring oil on troubled waters.

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