It was the first time in the 33-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran that a sitting President had been called before the parliament, or Majlis, for questioning. But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was anything but cowed before a hostile room full of parliamentarians. In fact, as the members grilled him on a broad list of topics including his management of the economy, his defiance of the Supreme Leader and even his views on the hijab and Islam, Ahmadinejad was defiant and disdainful and managed to throw a few jabs back at his interrogators.
Ahmadinejad has long been at loggerheads with the parliament, and the motion to haul him in for questioning on Wednesday had been discussed for months. There had been some speculation that Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei would intervene to resolve the dispute, and there were rumors on Tuesday that some parliamentarians had withdrawn their signatures for the questioning session. But Ahmadinejad's appearance at the Majlis is a clear sign that Khamenei is giving the President's opponents a green light to go after him.
The session was broadcast live on state radio, which gave ordinary Iranians a rare glimpse into the deep divisions within the top echelons of government. There may have been another motivation for the rare public clash between politicians it sent a message to the international community. "For the first time in the life of the Islamic Republic, the Majlis worked to show the world that the existing democracy in Islamic Iran is a real democracy, not a fake one," said Ali Mottahari, one of Ahmadinejad's fiercest critics in parliament.
The session was led by Mottahari, who asked 10 questions before turning the podium over to Ahmadinejad for his one-hour response. One of the touchiest queries dealt with a public standoff between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei last spring after Ahmadinejad tried to fire Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, a close Khamenei ally. The President received a smack-down from the Supreme Leader, who insisted that Moslehi keep his post. In retaliation, Ahmadinejad refused to attend Cabinet meetings for 11 days. "Mr. President, what explanation is there for your 11-day protest in the face of a decree from the Supreme Leader to keep Mr. Moslehi in the Ministry of Intelligence?" Mottahari asked Wednesday. Ahmadinejad shot back with sarcasm. "People tell me all the time I should take some time off. But in this government, we haven't had a day of rest or vacation," he said with a chuckle. "And I've tried to explain this in an appropriate manner to the Supreme Leader."
In another caustic moment, Ahmadinejad was asked about his firing of then-Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, also believed to be close to Khamenei, while Mottaki was on an official trip to Senegal in December 2010. "Who appointed him? I didn't appoint him. Let me know if you appointed him," Ahmadinejad snapped. "There are accepted powers of the President that shouldn't be questioned."
Ahmadinejad wasn't the only person being scrutinized Wednesday; some of his top political allies were also called to task, including his controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, who was noticeably absent from the proceedings. Questions were raised about Mashaie's recent statements that seemed to praise Iran's pre-Islamic past, a sensitive subject in the country, and why Ahmadinejad appeared to support the statements in public. (Mashaie also faces possible jail time for his alleged links to a $2.6 billion bank fraud scandal, though this was not addressed on Wednesday.) Ahmadinejad made a joking reference to the pressure ramping up around him and his allies, including his press adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who was recently jailed for writing articles insulting the Supreme Leader. "We'll visit you and bring you some canned fruit," Ahmadinejad said, referring to Javanfekr.
Many MPs were incensed after Ahmadinejad's grandstanding, complaining that he avoided answering their questions and disrespected the parliament. One member howled that the President had taken subtle digs at the Guardian Council, Iran's powerful constitutional watchdog; the Expediency Council, which arbitrates disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council; and the judiciary. Even Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, who presided over the session, weighed in. "This kind of speech is not appropriate for the Majlis," he said.
Things may get worse for the President. The Majlis could push for further questioning or even impeachment, which was discussed in an afternoon session on Wednesday. "I hope the President gets impeached in this parliament," said Qodratullah Alikhani, a cleric and MP from the small town of Boin Zahra. But if Ahmadinejad's performance Wednesday is any indication, he is prepared to fight every step of the way. "Answering these questions wasn't very difficult," the embattled President said flippantly as he wrapped up his responses. "I think the people who wrote the questions are the same ones who got their master's degrees by just pushing a button. If you'd consulted with us, we could definitely come up with better questions." The next question the parliamentarians may be asking is how soon they can push the President out of his post.