The clock may be ticking on Iran’s fiery president

DARIUSH ZAHEDI teaches in the departments of political economy and peace and conflict studies at UC Berkeley. OMID MEMARIAN, an Iranian journalist, was awarded Human Rights Watch's highest award in 2005.

THE BUSH administration’s decision to step up pressure against Iran by going after Iranian agents inside Iraq, coupled with the Islamic Republic’s increasing economic and diplomatic isolation, have pushed conservatives inside Iran to further distance themselves from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Many pragmatic and traditional conservatives, such as former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, who is the secretary of the Council of Guardians, were critical of Ahmadinejad’s management of Iran’s economic and foreign policies before U.S. military forces recently detained members of the Revolutionary Guard and Iranian intelligence agents in Irbil, Iraq. This incident, coupled with the U.N. Security Council’s imposition of sanctions on Iran because of its refusal to abandon its nuclear program, has reportedly prompted 50 parliamentary members to sign a letter calling on Ahmadinejad to appear before parliament to explain himself. There have also been reports that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has given a green light to parliament to criticize the president’s performance. Coupled with the country’s deteriorating economy, these developments could push Ahmadinejad’s opponents to replace him with a less doctrinaire politician.

In Iran, the legislative branch and such supervisory institutions as the Council of Guardians have special powers to ensure that the nation’s policies conform to the constitution, Islam and the interests of the Islamic Republic. As former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, discovered to his chagrin, the president is accountable to the electorate but lacks sufficient power to fulfill his promises to the people.


Until municipal elections in December, the relatively young conservatives who control Iran’s parliament and the more traditional conservatives beholden to the clerics were unsure of Ahmadinejad’s popularity. As a result, they were largely deferential to the president, allowing him wide latitude in conducting the nation’s foreign and domestic policies. But Ahmadinejad’s humiliation at the polls -- about 90% of his allies lost -- has emboldened his opponents.

Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 on a populist platform of combating poverty and corruption through a more equitable distribution of Iran’s oil wealth. He comes from the most militant and ideologically driven faction in Iran, known as the Hezbollahis. In general, they are right-wing populists with security and military backgrounds in the Revolutionary Guard and the voluntary militia attached to it, the Basij. The president has gone out of his way to placate these extremist forces, granting them multibillion-dollar infrastructure contracts to develop the country’s oil and gas sector, among other enterprises. Most flamboyantly, he has endeavored to return the Islamic revolution toward what he views as its essence -- anti-Zionism and populism.

That has riled the country’s pragmatic and traditional conservatives. Many recognize that last month’s Holocaust denial conference in Tehran and Ahmadinejad’s repeated threats to wipe Israel off the map may have persuaded China and Russia to vote for U.N. sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program.

The economy remains a problem for Ahmadinejad. His decision to inject huge amounts of oil money into the Iranian economy and engage in deficit spending has stoked inflation, which has made it even more difficult for the poor to make ends meet. The prices of such basic items as beef, poultry, fruits and bread have increased by 25%, and rents have risen 30%.

In an unusual departure from the standard practice, conservatives blamed Ahmadinejad more than the United States after the five Iranians were detained in Irbil. Iran’s unexpectedly moderate reaction to the detentions indicates that Ahmadinejad’s voice in formulating Iranian policy may be fading.

But other developments also threaten to weaken his authority. President Bush’s rejection of the Iraq Survey Group’s recommendation that the U.S. seek out Tehran’s cooperation in stabilizing Iraq unsettled some in Iran’s ruling elite who believed that Bush had no choice, given U.S. domestic politics, but to invite Tehran to the table. The successful U.S.-led campaign to dry up financing for Iran’s much-needed oil and gas and other industrial projects will only exacerbate the nation’s economic woes. And Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of lower oil prices through increased production will put additional pressure on an economy chiefly fueled by petrodollars.


From the conservatives’ point of view, blaming a single individual who can easily be restrained or even removed for all that ails Iran could avert a legitimacy crisis for the system. Parliament can impeach Ahmadinejad, or the supreme leader can remove him. Short of that, a stern lecture from Khamenei could force Ahmadinejad to temper his words and play a less visible role.

Viewing himself as a man of God, Ahmadinejad is no doubt praying that the U.S. will not be satisfied with Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation and will launch military strikes against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear installations. Such action may or may not set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But it would surely give new life to Ahmadinejad’s militant faction, enabling him to rally the masses behind the flag, compel his conservative critics to close ranks behind him and crush the remnants of Iran’s liberal civil society and democratic movement.