The political arena of Iran has witnessed shifts of power balance, interests and alliances during the period between the 2009 and the 2012 elections. The 2009 electoral victory of Ahmadinejad was accused of rigging and triggered massive protests by the Green Movement’s supporters. The conservatives responded with extreme violence against the protestors and imprisoned most of the opposition’s leaders. President Ahmadinejad seemed powerful after having eliminated his opponents and secured Ayatollah Khamenei’s support. However, the President falsely thought that he could also challenge the authority of the clergy in a vain attempt to change the internal balance of power and promote a mixture of Iranian nationalism and religion instead of theocracy. The Supreme Leader who controls some of the most influential institutions in Iran stroke back by curtailing Ahmadinejad’s power and winning most of the parliamentary seats in the 2012 elections. In addition, the economic and financial crisis has further worsened the President’s position by limiting his popularity among Iranians. Thus, most probably Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will prevail and empower even more his position in a state that faces increasing international criticism.
Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2009 presidential elections with a two thirds majority was followed by protests around the country that accused him of fraud. The elections were characterized by high participation comparing to previous ones and the suspiciously quick announcement of their controversial results that led the candidates of the opposition to file official complaints. Indeed, the Green Movement’s leadership, former Prime Minister Hossein Mousavi, former Chairman of the Iranian parliament Mehdi Karroubi and former heir to the Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, Hussein Ali Montazeri, formed a strong coalition which sought to challenge Ahmadinejad’s victory and ultimately reform the Islamic Republic. Although Mousavi wanted to organize peaceful protests that would bring him to power in order to reform the Iranian state and not to bring up a revolution, the masses took to the streets and turned violent in numerous cases. To make things worse, Ahmadinejad’s supporters organized equally massive counter-rallies in order to declare their loyalty to the President. Actually, Iran witnessed the largest protests since the 1979 revolution but in the end the state managed to overcome this direct challenge to the President’s rule.
The fierce reaction of the government weakened significantly the Green Movement even though small protests and actions of resistance continue up to this day. The Iranian regime responded to the Movement’s massive protests with violence and arrests while censoring the media and limiting access to the internet and cell phones’ connectivity. The Basij paramilitary group was employed apart from the official state forces and the Revolutionary Guards in order to attack, imprison or torture the protesters. In addition, prominent reformist politicians were put under custody or house arrest. The regime’s propaganda used the, usual for the Middle East, “invisible hand” rhetoric and put the blame on “external agents,” the USA and the “Zionist state” in order to accuse the opposition of collaborating with Iran’s enemies. In the beginning, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appeared mild and conciliatory towards the opposition and assured them that the Guardian Council would check thoroughly the charges of electoral fraud. However, when the protests grew large again after the Council’s evaluation of the elections as legitimate, the clergy denounced the opposition, declared the protests illegal and gave its moral support to Ahmadinejad. Apparently, “God’s representatives” had decided to back Ahmadinejad’s political career even though it did not take too long before they turned against him.
After suppressing the Green Movement, President Ahmadinejad made the mistake of challenging the authority of the clergy over cabinet appointments and faced the wrath of the Supreme Leader. The conservatives’ “civil war” erupted in public in 2011 over the control of key positions of the state between the President’s people and those close to the divine ruler. The President managed to change the foreign minister, who belonged to the Supreme Leader’s inner circle, while he was absent in Senegal. However, when Ahmadinejad attempted to dismiss the head of the powerful Intelligence Ministry, his move was cancelled after Khamenei’s direct order. Suddenly, Friday sermons were filled with criticism against Ahmadinejad while the mullah glorified Khamenei in their speeches in another sign of Iran’s internal war. The Supreme Leader has been in command of the most influential military and political institutions of the country and apparently he preferred things to remain that way. In addition, whoever is in control of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry has direct access to information that might harm his opponent, a weapon that both sides could use in a country where corruption is widespread. Furthermore, the intelligence service might influence the results of future elections giving to its master the upper hand on the political chessboard.
Iran’s internal rift deepened while the 2012 parliamentary elections and the 2013 presidential ones approached since the two sides wished to extend and consolidate their influence. Those who were closer to the traditional clergy accused the President’s inner circle of corruption and economic scandals. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmdinejad’s Chief of Staff and one of his closest associates, attracted much criticism for his allegedly involvement in Iran’s biggest bank scandal and his nationalistic ideas that challenged theocracy. In reality, the clergy and conservative MPs should be blind to ignore Mashaei’s aspirations for the presidency in 2013 elections when Ahmadinejad’s last term will come to an end. However, it was not the first time that Mashaei had caused a rift among the conservatives. Back in 2009, Ahmadinejad had appointed him as the first Vice President but he was forced to resign after a direct command by Ayatollah Khamenei himself. In retaliation, the President managed to dismiss the Intelligence Minister and the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
At the same time a “Press war” emerged among news agencies, supporting either the President or the clergy and throwing accusations to one another. The most interesting example of that media confrontation is that of Ali Akbar Javanfekr, the President’s top media adviser and chief executive of the official news agency IRNA, who was handcuffed and arrested at his office for insulting religion. Only after Ahmadinejad threatened to release him himself, was Javanfekr freed. However, the humiliation of the President’s close ally by hard liners did not stop there: Javanfekr was recently jailed for six months while Ahmadinejad was absent for the latest UN General Assembly. Ahmadinejad’s request to visit him at the infamous Evian prison was denied by the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Larijani, who stated that the President has more serious issues to care about. Hence, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s alliance broke up and we can say nowadays that most probably there is no going back for them to the good old days of 2005 elections when they had their forces united for the first time. Khamenei’s plan to install a weakened and obedient President or Prime Minister is unveiled day by day.
The United Front of Principlists which is close to Khamenei managed to win more seats than the Resistance Front that backed Ahmadinejad in the recent parliamentary elections but the President’s problems seemed endless. Influential clerics, bazaar merchants, the Revolutionary Guards and most of the important groups have supported Khamenei’s side during the elections. Furthermore, the Supreme Leader has reached the point to even consider publicly of cancelling the position of President and establishing a parliamentary system in order to make sure that no one will challenge his authority. Khamenei must have had a déjà vu effect because Ahmadinejad is the third President with whom he had to enter a battle of nerves since his lifetime appointment as a Supreme Leader back in 1989. Whether the Supreme Leader will choose to eliminate the President in a final showdown and whether that will happen before or after the upcoming elections is not clear. Making such a move might cause a more direct confrontation with Ahmadinejad, attract unwanted publicity, and increase the responsibilities of Khamenei in a time that Iran faces multiple problems and threats.
Ahmadinejad’s position is further worsened by various economic issues which reduce his popularity and make him an easy target for his critics. The Iranian rial has been depreciated several times lately and the country’s foreign exchange reserves get rapidly decreased. In fact, the Iranian currency has lost as much as 40% of its value against the U.S. dollar in just one year. Meanwhile, the internal market is in great need for foreign currency in order to import basic goods since the international sanctions have limited Iran’s access to hard currency. The Central Bank of Iran used to have an easy access to dollars through the thriving oil exports of the country but now the state has only a limited connection to the American currency through informal links from neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, Iranians’ uncertainty over their country’s economic situation is further strained by governmental statements about self sustainability and “economic jihad”. The merchants of the Grand Bazaar in Tehran protested recently against the closure of the exchange centers by closing their shops as well. The deployment of the police and the Revolutionary Guards as well as some underground negotiations with the government led the merchants to reopen their businesses but the public discontent might boil over anytime. Hence, apart from the hard liners’ attacks, the President has to face a declining economy which might prove to be his Achilles’ heel.
The Iranian political status quo has faced a major turmoil the last years that tends to rearrange the internal balance of power. Apparently the ultra conservative clergy seems to have the upper hand in this upheaval but the important internal and external forces that fight for their interests in this autocratic state make its political future quite unpredictable. The Supreme Leader supported his bitter friend Ahmadinejad for the presidency back in 2009 and turned a blind eye when the latter almost eliminated any voice of opposition to his rule. However, whenever Ahmadinejad felt that he might act as a leader rather than a mere follower Ayatollah Khamenei’s inner circle responded fiercely. The President and his men have been embarrassed several times whenever the Supreme Leader and his supporters decided that they should make clear of “who is the boss.” Of course, such abrupt actions have a price and that is increased responsibilities towards the public opinion. The Grand Ayatollah’s image required him to play a mediatory role in politics even though he always ruled from behind the scenes. Thus, the direct interference against Iran’s President in a fragile era that the country faces serious economic problems and military threats might ultimately turn against Khamenei.
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