The ongoing feud between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei escalated on Sunday when Khamenei, in a speech to students, hinted at future changes in Iran’s electoral laws that would allow parliament to choose the president. Such a move would emasculate the powers of the presidency since members of the parliament, or Majlis, are all vetted for office by the powerful Guardian Council, which is completely under the control of the Supreme Leader.
Khamenei’s suggestion, couched in terms that suggested the change would occur sometime in the future, nevertheless was a challenge to Ahmadinejad’s power and fed the growing rift between the two leaders.
The power struggle had an impact on the endgame that resulted in the release of the American hikers who had spent 3 years in prison after authorities accused them of being spies. And there has been some speculation in the US government that the quarrel may have played a role in the recent plot to kill the Saudi ambassador.
The feud may have burst into the open relatively recently, but the tension between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad has been simmering for months. Ahmadinejad and his loyalists wish to reduce the tremendous influence of the clerical establishment on his decision making as president, making Iran more nationalistic and authoritarian, while giving a bigger role to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Khamenei, as the Supreme Leader, is the nominal head of the clerical establishment, although he is not respected as an expert on the Koran or Islamic law. However, to guard their prerogatives, the clerics are supporting him in the feud down the line. This includes the extreme conservative Ayatollah Yazdi who has been Ahmadinejad’s biggest booster among the clerics in the past, but who has sided with Khamenei in the dispute.
As Supreme Leader, Khamenei commands the Guard, but Ahmadinejad is the first president with an independent power center within the IRGC. The Iranian president was a senior commander of the Qods Force, the extra-territorial arm of the IRGC, and has given numerous economic opportunities to key members of the Guard during his terms as president. There are many in the Guard who share Ahmadinejad’s ideology and believe in his confrontational approach in dealing with Israel and the the US. Khamenei, on the other hand, has not let his hatred of Israel and the West affect his more secretive attitude in foreign affairs.
The real challenge to Khamenei’s authority came last April when Ahmadinejad dismissed a crony of the Supreme Leader’s, Heydar Moslehi, who was serving as intelligence minister. Within hours of the announcement of Moslehi’s resignation, Khamenei reinstated him — despite the fact that the Iranian constitution gives the president the power to hire and fire ministers. This infuriated Ahmadinejad who went to Khamenei and threatened to resign unless Moslehi was sacked. Khamenei called Ahmadinejad’s bluff, telling him, in effect, to go ahead, but Moslehi was going to stay.
In protest, the Iranian president absented himself from cabinet meetings for two weeks and when he came back, refused to allow Moslehi to attend cabinet meetings. Finally, after the Iranian Majlis threatened to impeach him, he relented and gave in to Khamenei’s demands. As a result of his opposition, 29 of his confidantes were arrested. Suitably chastened, Ahmadinejad explained his actions in the context of wanting what was best for Iran. “I am convinced that a strong and powerful president would lead to dignity of the Leadership and especially the nation. A strong president can stand firm as a defensive shield, advance affairs of the state, and bring dignity upon it,” he said in a statement upon his return.
In this particular dust up, and in other conflicts between the president and the Supreme Leader, Khamenei holds most of the cards. He is seen as Allah’s representative on earth and going against him as Ahmadinejad did was considered a shocking transgression. Ayatollah Yazdi remarked that disobeying Khamenei was akin to “apostasy from God” — a sentiment echoed by senior leaders of the IRGC.
What is behind Ahmadinejad’s “apostasy” is nothing less than a struggle for the future of the revolutionary Islamic Republic. In the past, Ahmadinejad has chafed at ministers who have been imposed on him by not only Khamenei, but also former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the cagey parliamentarian, Speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani. In response, Ahmadinejad has fired a record 11 ministers during his term of office, replacing them largely with cronies and loyalists who may not have been the best qualified applicants to manage the ministries for which they were chosen to run.
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