The latest piece of political theatre in Iran features a bitter public tussle between the country’s hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and its equally hardline supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It’s the kind of venomous power struggle that Iranians love cracking jokes about over a good cup of chai. Who’s up and who’s down? And is the battle real or just an act? Collective cabs in Tehran, those four-wheeled vehicles for gossip, are buzzing with elaborate conspiracy theories on the issue, the PBS news site Tehran Bureau reports from the capital.
It all started in mid-April with a revelation worthy of a spy novel: the offices of Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, had allegedly been bugged by none other than the Ministry of Intelligence. Ahmadinejad promptly sacked the intelligence chief, Heidar Moslehi, but the supreme leader, who notoriously dislikes the president’s right-hand Mashaei, ordered the embattled spymaster reinstated. In a fit of pique, Ahmadinejad then boycotted cabinet meetings and avoided public appearances for over a week.
His defiance quickly precipitated the spat into a full-blown political storm, with personalities from across Iran’s conservative political spectrum—from influential clerics to top-level members of the elite Revolutionary Guard—thundering that an affront to the supreme leader constituted an affront to the Islamic Republic. Some even suggested the president should be impeached. A sulky Ahmadinejad eventually reappeared in the majlis, Iran’s parliament, after receiving an ultimatum to return or resign. But in a sign of how much the president’s gutsy standoff irked many within Iran’s conservative camp, several associates of his ally Mashaei, a highly controversial figure among Iran’s hard-liners, were arrested on charges ranging from corruption to demon worship and sorcery.
Given Iran’s opaque politics, interpreting the latest brouhaha is like “reading the entrails of an ancient Roman sheep,” says Michael Axworthy, director of the Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies at Exeter University in the U.K. It seems clear, though, that Ahmadinejad is trying to carve out a bigger role for himself, something that triggered a vigorous push-back from the rest of the conservative establishment, says Axworthy, who is also a former head of the Iran section of Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Though Iran’s outspoken president dominates the headlines in the Western media, in reality he doesn’t have much institutional power, and the supreme leader remains the ultimate arbiter of Iran’s politics and society.
Ahmadinejad’s attempt to replace the head of the intelligence ministry—in response to the allegations of illegal wiretapping, which several analysts think are dubious—is in line with his track record of trying to replace senior officials who are normally under the informal control of the supreme leader. Ahmadinejad is widely believed to have forced Ali Larijani, the current parliamentary speaker, to resign from the post of nuclear negotiator in 2007. He also fired an interior minister and a foreign minister, neither of whom he’d picked personally.
The president and his camp are trying to curtail the power of the clergy with a strategy that could be dubbed “death by a million paper cuts,” says Reza Marashi, research director of the National Iranian American Council, a non-profit based in Washington. They represent a generation of fiercely anti-Western veterans of the Iran-Iraq war who believe the clergy has failed to keep the country “on the true path of the 1979 revolution,” says Marashi. The latest challenge to the establishment, though, has cost the president dearly. Khamenei’s harsh rebuke and public humiliation of Ahmadinejad has some calling him a lame-duck president with two more years to serve before elections in 2013.
But the spat appears to have weakened Khamenei, too, by forcing him to intervene directly in Iranian politics to reassert his authority and abandon his traditional posturing as a leader above the fray. And scolding Ahmadinejad is risky, given that he personally supported the president’s disputed re-election victory in 2009, calling it a “divine assessment.” In general, the president continues to be useful to the supreme leader “as a front man with an electoral constituency, and a successful populist politician,” says Axworthy.
The fratricidal feuds among the conservatives are unlikely to bring about any significant political change. If anything, the rift highlights the complete absence of Iran’s reformist opposition from the political scene. Weakened after the violent repression of the 2009 post-election uprising, the best that liberal-minded Iranians can do for now, says Marashi, is “happily watch these conservative factions continue to weaken each other.”