Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: a political shadow

Hossein Bastani
19 August 2009

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was formally sworn in as president of Iran on 5 August 2009 amid criticism and scorn from millions of Iranians who doubted the integrity of the election of 12 June that awarded him a second term. What is striking is that at the time, and even more in the aftermath of the event, there has also been rising criticism of Ahmadinejad from his fellow conservatives. Even as he announced some of the members of his new cabinet in a television appearance on 16 August 2009 - including women members, for the first time since the 1979 revolution - the prospect of a challenge to his authority from other members of Iran's political elite is sharpening.

Hossein Bastani is an analyst of Iranian affairs. He is a member of the editorial board of Rooz online, and was secretary-general of the Association of Iranian Journalists

Also by Hossein Bastani in openDemocracy:

"Iran's coming storm" (22 June 2009)

There are four key reasons why many of his putative ideological allies are unhappy with the president. In various combinations and to a greater or lesser degree, each of Ahmadinejad's rightwing critics of the president highlights one or more of the following issues.

First, sections of the right see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as arrogant towards other conservative parties and leading figures - especially in his disregard of their positions and views. During the presidential campaigns of 2009 these parties, in order to avoid a split in their camp and to prevent the reformists coming to power, publicly laid aside their doubts and express support for Ahmadinejad (who was, after all, the preferred choice of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). But this investment of so much of their political capital has not protected them from a sense of humiliation at the president's behaviour and attitudes.

Even before the vote on 12 June - when the stout challenge of reformist Mir-Hossein Moussavi had created widespread expectations that Ahmadinejad might be forced to contest a second round - Habibollah Asqar-Owladi, the head of the largest coalition of conservative political parties, is reported to have told the president that the price of supporting him would be change in some of his policies. Ahmadinejad retorted that conservative backing would make little difference and did not deserve any expectation of a fresh course on his account. The right will not tolerate a continuation of this wilful, dismissal stance towards it. 

An act of disobedience

Second, conservatives disdain Ahmadinejad's (and the government he led) lack of respect for Iran's state institutions besides the presidency itself. For most of his first term after his election in June 2005, the president was regularly charged with breaching the law on the grounds that he made policy without consulting the majlis (parliament) and the judiciary. In this regard, Iran's national-accounting agency (the majlis's oversight body) found in April 2008 that the government's implementation of the 2007 budget involved infringement of 54% of the articles; and the state inspectorate organisation (the body with oversight powers over the judiciary as well as other institutions) reported in September 2008 that the administration had committed widespread financial violations.

But the most serious example of what conservatives call Ahmadinejad's "disregard of the institutions of state" is his alleged disobedience towards the supreme leader after the 12 June election. The occasion was the six-day period during which Ahmadinejad failed to act on Ayatollah Khamenei's written order to remove Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie from his post as the president's first vice-president. The conservatives were furious at the choice of Mashaie (whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son) on account of his statement in 2008 that Iran was "a friend of the Israeli people"; among their number, a rightwing organisation called the Islamic Society of Engineers  - on whose board Ahmadinejad himself had served before his election in 2005 - even warned the president that he risked repeating "Bani-Sadr's fate" (a potent reference to the first president of the Islamic Republic, ousted by the clerical elite in July 1991 after only sixteen months in office).

Third, conservatives view Ahmadinejad as inconsiderate towards Iran's senior clerics. This group has been used to a major share in every Iranian administration since the 1979 revolution, and has been shocked that Ahmadinejad had appointed only two clerics to his cabinet after 2005 (as ministers of the interior and of intelligence) - both of whom, moreover, he eventually removed in a quite unfriendly manner.

Indeed, Ahmadinejad has shown what rightists see as systematic indifference to clerical concerns. During his first presidential term, an open letter appealing for Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie's dismissal was signed by four Marja-e Taqlid (senior ayatollahs), fifty of the eighty-eight clerics from the Assembly of Experts, and around 200 deputies of the majlis. Against this background, Ahmadinejad  - in one of his first acts after his controversial re-election - actually promoted Mashaie to first vice-president. Even Seyyed Ahmad Khatami, the president's powerful ally in the Experts Assembly, and chosen to lead the Friday-prayers' meeting in Tehran on 14 August 2009 in place of the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, denounced this act. The clerics and their followers could not accept such a snub, and forced Mashaie's dismissal. 

A question of leadership

Fourth, the rightwing critics of the president are worried that his policies are weakening the Islamic Republic of Iran itself. A group of conservatives close to Hashemi Rafsanjani has voiced its concern over this issue many times since 2005. Members of this group argue that the president is responsible for a dangerous deterioration in Iran's economic position; an intensification of the crises in Iran's relations with the international community; and the weakening of intra-regime solidarity.

Such fears were visible before the 12 June 2009 election, when Mohsen Rezaei - the former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) - announced his presidential candidacy by saying that the country was on a "precipice", and later warned of the possible "disintegration" of the state. After the vote, this group of conservatives has found new grounds for concern in the unprecedented wave of popular demonstrations against the regime - which may have diminished as a result of the government's ferocious repressions, but whose sources of anger and frustration remain just below the surface.

These currents of discontent among Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's supposed political allies guarantee that during his second presidential term, the severe problems Ahmadinejad already faces will be compounded. The opposition to him from conservative groups, the majlis, the judiciary, and senior clerics means that he will become even more dependent on the constant support of Ayatollah Khamenei. But the supreme leader too would pay a cost were his backing for the president to become unconditional. A summer that began with a fictive triumph for the incumbent president is ending with a real shadow over his political future.

Also on the disputed election in Iran and its bitter aftermath:

"Iran's election: people and power" (15-18 June 2009) - a symposium with Ramin Jahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, Grace Nasri, Rasool Nafisi, Nasrin Alavi, Sanam Vakil, and Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour, "Iran's stolen election, and what comes next" (18 June 2009)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Iran" (23 June 2009)

Hazem Saghieh, "Iran: dialectic of revolution" (23 June 2009)

Reza Molavi & Jennifer Thompson, "Iran's quantum of solace: step back, look long" (25 June 2009)

Ali Reza Eshraghi, "Iran's crisis and Ali Khamenei" (29 June 2009)

Mahmood Delkhasteh, "The archaeology of Iran's regime" (2 July 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Iran: a green wave for life and liberty" (7 July 2009)

Hazem Saghieh, "Arabs and the Iranian upheaval" (9 July 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's tide of history: counter-revolution and after" (17 July 2009)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran: revolution beyond caricature" (7 August 2009)

Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005)

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)

Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)

Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)

Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009)

Sanam Vakil & David Hayes, "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: a blind leap of faith" (2 June 2009)

Omid Memarian, "Iran on the move" (11 June 2009)

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