Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces a regime-buffeting revolt—not just from secular-minded students and youth who continue to gather at universities to denounce him as a traitor and call for his death—but also from the very heart of the Islamic Republic’s conservative establishment. Conservative members of Iran’s Majlis, or parliament, recently tried to summon Ahmadinejad for questioning, which in theory could have led to his impeachment. According to a letter sent by a parliamentary committee to the chairman of the Guardian Council, another governing body, they “refrained from the questioning and impeachment of the president” only because they were ordered not to do so by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The parliamentarians accuse Ahmadinejad of concentrating power in his office. They say he withdrew $590 million from the Central Bank’s foreign reserve fund without parliamentary approval, that he illegally imports oil and natural gas, and spends government money without transparency. These specific allegations reflect deeper and more fundamental opposition. Already scorned by reformists who believe he stole the presidency in a rigged election last summer—not to mention Iranians who want an outright end to the country’s theocracy—Ahmadinejad has now alienated many influential political and religious figures in the country.
The reasons for his break with the clergy may seem odd to those in the West who associate Ahmadinejad with radical Islam. He is a religious extremist—but not one cut from the same cloth as most of the country’s mullahs.
All three of the world’s monotheistic religions share a belief in a messianic figure who will bring the world justice. For the Shia Muslims of Iran, this figure is the Mahdi, known as the Twelfth Imam, who was hidden by God centuries ago and will reappear at a time of death and destruction. Ahmadinejad believes the Mahdi will soon return, and that it is his job as president to get ready.
According to Kasra Naji, who has written a comprehensive biography of Ahmadinejad, when he was first sworn in as president in 2005, Ahmadinejad told Khamenei he expected his tenure would be brief, as he would soon hand over power to the Mahdi. “I assure you, I really believe this. He will come soon,” he said. Naji relates a widely believed anecdote about a cabinet meeting at which the Hidden Imam’s return was reportedly on the agenda. Ministers debated whether new hotels would be needed to accommodate expected religious tourists, or if the spirit of justice and peace resulting from the Mahdi’s appearance would cause everyone to welcome strangers into their homes. They decided against building new hotels.
Ahmadinejad’s obsession with the Hidden Imam amuses some Iranians, but the mullahs aren’t laughing. If the Mahdi’s return is imminent, so is the end of clerical rule in Iran. Worse, rumours abound that Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, a man by the name of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, believes he already has a direct link to the Mahdi, which would make holy intercession by the clergy even more redundant.
Already predisposed to suspect Ahmadinejad because he isn’t one of them, Iran’s mullahs are furious. They recall that he wanted to allow women into soccer stadiums. On foreign trips he has shaken hands with women. Ahmadinejad’s traditional conservative political opponents in parliament sense an opening and are piling on. “There’s a power struggle,” says Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University and co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
The stakes are high, Akhavan says, because Iran’s political system is unstable, weakened by massive street demonstrations that shook the regime following Ahmadinejad’s supposed re-election in the summer of 2009. This is why Khamenei stepped in to put an end to parliament’s revolt. “Khamenei realizes that if there is open war between the president and the parliament, that’s the end of the Islamic Republic,” Akhavan says.
Despite the recklessness with which Ahmadinejad has spurned much of the Iranian establishment, he has also tried to cultivate powerful friends. For the time being, at least, he has the tacit backing of Khamenei, who endorsed Ahmadinejad’s declared victory in 2009 as a “divine assessment” and has now defended him from parliament’s wrath. Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland, describes this apparent support as “the great mystery of Iranian politics.” He suspects the two might share convictions about the Mahdi’s expected arrival.
Author Hooman Majd, a relative and friend of former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, says Khamenei blocked moves to impeach Ahmadinejad because he didn’t want to expose disunity within Iran’s establishment at a time when the country is threatened by the West. “It’s one of those ironies that what we hate most about Iran today is probably Ahmadinejad and his goons, and we are kind of keeping him in power in a weird way,” Majd said in an interview with Maclean’s.
Whatever motivates Khamenei to protect Ahmadinejad, the supreme leader is also an elderly man with rumoured health problems. (U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks cite a source close to Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who allegedly claimed Khamenei has terminal leukemia.) Ahmadinejad has invested more effort—and more of Iran’s wealth—trying to secure the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guards, a powerful branch of Iran’s military tasked with protecting the Islamic Revolution.
According to Naji, within months of taking office in 2005, Ahmadinejad awarded the Revolutionary Guards and affiliated front companies at least $10 billion in contracts without bothering to submit them to public tender. When millions of Iranians flooded the streets after the 2009 election, it was the Guards and members of their Basij youth wing who swarmed on motorbikes into crowds, swinging batons and smashing heads.
But by diverting so much capital to the Revolutionary Guards, Ahmadinejad has attracted the ire of another important power bloc: Tehran’s bazaar merchants, who control vast amounts of wealth and are typically conservative. Many went on strike this summer, with similar shutdowns occurring in bazaars elsewhere in Iran. As for Ahmadinejad’s “election gold mine,” as Naji describes Iran’s rural poor, the president hasn’t forgotten them, but with international sanctions biting and Iran’s economy stumbling, he has less cash to spread around the countryside. Outside of the Revolutionary Guards and his own hardline faction of radical conservatives, Ahmadinejad has few influential allies left.
“I think it leaves him very vulnerable,” says Ansari. “There are people waiting with daggers almost drawn on the inside who want to get rid of him. But I think the regime itself is extremely unpopular.” Ansari adds that even though Ahmadinejad’s most serious threat, at least immediately, is from within Iran’s establishment, “the question is can they get rid of him without disturbing the entire fabric of the regime?”
Struggles within Iran’s political leadership, in other words, may feed popular unrest. “Whenever there is a little clash at the top, the people will come from the bottom,” says Arash Azizi, an Iranian journalist and anti-regime activist who recently immigrated to Canada. “Then what will the reformist leaders do?” They may, he suggests, feel compelled to get behind those demanding more fundamental change.
There are other possible scenarios. Should Khamenei die, Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative and former president, will likely move to succeed him, and will then challenge Ahmadinejad, whom he despises, from an even stronger position. Ahmadinejad may lash out at the threats growing around him and try to consolidate more power within the Revolutionary Guards. Street protests, now sporadic, could again rock Tehran.
“The whole situation is extremely fragile,” says Ansari. “It will only take one thing to trigger everything off.”