Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn't seem to have many fans left. Just days before his Aug. 5 inauguration to a controversial second term, Iran's President finds himself in a critical struggle over his political future. One thing has led to another: an ill-advised vice-presidential pick, uncharacteristic defiance of the Supreme Leader, verbal fights with influential Cabinet Ministers. The humble son of a blacksmith is easily the most divisive figure in the 30-year history of the Republic. Could his end be just around the corner?
Ahmadinejad is now fending off threats of being deposed by the country's hard-liners, his erstwhile allies. "It seems you want to be the sole speaker and do not want to hear other voices," declared an open letter to the President from one conservative group linked to parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani (a potential rival for the presidency). "Therefore, it is our duty to convey to you the voice of the people." The group, the Islamic Society of Engineers, alluded to a possible coup by comparing Ahmadinejad to both Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who was booted in a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953, and Abol-Hassan Banisadr, the Islamic Republic's first President, who went into exile after he challenged Ayatullah Khomeini's authority.
The President's future was already shaky after unprecedented attacks from the reformist camp, led by former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, in the aftermath of the disputed June 12 presidential election. Then, last week, he angered his conservative base by appointing a deputy and in-law, Esfandir Rahim Mashaei, who was once quoted as sounding pro-Israel, as his Vice President. After Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei issued a public letter criticizing the choice, Ahmadinejad at first was defiant and then, after Mashaei withdrew, turned around and nominated him as his chief of staff.
The stand-off threatens to tear apart the already fratricidal conservative faction. Ahmadinejad's enemies smell blood, and there is speculation that they may act to turn him into a lame duck, or worse, a sacrificial goat, before his second term even starts. To show that he can hold his own, Ahmadinejad on Sunday, July 26, fired his Intelligence Minister, who had earlier walked out of a Cabinet meeting to protest his vice-presidential choice amid a "verbal quarrel"; his Culture Minister also resigned over the brouhaha. The two Ministers, according to political analysts, were both particularly close to Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad had originally wanted to fire as many as four Ministers, but in a sign of his weakened position among the ruling hard-liners, he was informed that firing more than one would put his entire Cabinet to a vote of confidence in parliament (he had already removed nine in his first term). Some 200 parliamentarians, a majority in the Majlis, subsequently warned Ahmadinejad to "correct his behavior so that he follows the Leader's opinion seriously."
As one of only three Presidents in the Islamic Republic's history who were not clerics, Ahmadinejad is a bit of an outsider in his own party. Playing political chicken with some of the most powerful figures in the theocracy is unlikely to end favorably. Meanwhile, the hard-liners who consolidated their power in the aftermath of the election crisis are now seeing Ahmadinejad not just as too much of a wild card but also as too moderate.
Amid the turmoil is one almost paranoid bit of speculation: that the public brawl Ahmadinejad finds himself in is just part of the smoke and mirrors orchestrated by Khamenei or his protégés to lend Ahmadinejad more credibility. A political insider in contact with officials in the regime says Khamenei's second son, Mojtaba Khamenei who holds substantial influence among the ruling clergy and is seen by many as being groomed to succeed the Supreme Leader still firmly supports the President. "He needs Ahmadinejad around to give himself legitimacy," says the insider. "This is all just a game."
In any case, a sidelined Ahmadinejad would further radicalize the executive branch of the regime. Khamenei has shown in the aftermath of June 12 that he will not compromise with the reformists (although earlier this week, under intense opposition pressure, he ordered a prison housing political dissidents in south Tehran to be shuttered). There is thus little hope that a decommissioned Ahmadinejad would leave room for a compromise replacement who could defuse the postelection crisis; a coup would in all likelihood further fuel the opposition and throw the country into further chaos.
In particular, the gang of security chiefs, or the "New Right" including just-ousted Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehei, commander of the Basij paramilitary Hasan Taeb, and head of the Revolutionary Guards Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari may seek to further militarize the already repressive regime. One fundamentalist group linked to the Basij paramilitary force has gone public with plans to wrestle power from Ahmadinejad by advancing its own "desired Cabinet lineup." The spokesman, Lotfali Bakhtiari, said in an interview published in the newspaper Khabar, "Our organization intends to become the government's think tank. We want to introduce our élite into the government to serve the country."