As Iran’s woes multiply, leaders wrestle for power

Ahmadinejad and Khamenei battle over cabinet posts, prestige and power as country faces massive political and economic problems.

Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
It was supposed to be a piece of political theater. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew down to the Abadan oil refinery on Tuesday to dedicate a new terminal for refining gasoline as part of Tehran’s efforts to increase domestic capacity in the face of global sanctions. It was a message to Iranians and to the world that the country was seeing off the threat.
But the show turned into a mix of comedy and tragedy. Just before the president arrived, a fire broke out at the terminal, apparently caused by an accidental leak of gas. But that didn’t stop Ahmadinejad. With his audience fanning away the lingering smoke and fumes, and rescue workers treating the injured and carrying away the dead, he delivered his address, assailing Iran’s foreign enemies and asserting that it could meet all its domestic oil needs.
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His domestic enemies lost no time in blaming the president for the tragedy. Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani said Amadinejad’s government had pressured refinery officials to get the plant ready before they were confident it was safe.
For many observers, the incident illustrates just how disconnected Iran’s leadership is from the country’s massive political and economic problems as they devote their time and attention in a bitter power struggle. Iran faces international sanctions and increasingly tense relations with its Gulf Arab neighbors while its economy is forecast to shrink this year. Yet Ahmadinejad and his rival, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seem more preoccupied with personal infighting.
“This is the elite fighting it out among themselves. It’s not of huge relevance to people of the Islamic Republic,” Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at the London-based Chatham House think tank, told The Media Line. “It shows how detached the political elite are from reality of the country and its political and economic situation.”
Right now, the battle is confined to the corridors of power in Tehran. But analysts say it could eventually manifest itself in a more aggressive foreign policy as Ahmadinejad tries to demonstrate his independence and score points with popular opinion. Alternatively, the struggle could also create an opportunity for the country’s enfeebled reformers to assert power.
The two leaders have been allies for much of the past decade, and critics say they cooperated to ensure that Ahmadinejad won a second term in the disputed 2009 elections. That marked the high point of their alliance. Relations subsequently grew strained and finally snapped in mid-April when reports emerged that the Ministry of Intelligence had bugged the office of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s chief-of-staff, and reputed enemy of the ayatollah.
An angry Ahmadinejad sacked the intelligence chief, Heidar Moslehi. Khamenei, in turn, ordered the spy chief to stay put. Ahmadinejad then began boycotting cabinet meetings and parliament. Eventually, the president relented under enormous public pressure.
Indeed, Ahmadinejad has come out the loser in most of the infighting: Several associates of Mashaei were arrested on charges of corruption, demon worship and sorcery. Ahmadinejad was forced to retreat on a plan to take over the Oil Ministry on a caretaker basis and attend the next meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to press for higher oil prices.
Analysts say the catfight has nothing to do with ideology and strategy. Rather, it is a bid by the president to expand his authority and establish himself as a power behind the throne when his second and last term is due to expire in 2013. To do that, he has trampled on the authority of Khamenei, to whom he should be deferring according to the rules of Iran’s political pecking order.
Iran has no shortage of real problems. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said this week that it found that Iran is developing triggering technology used to set off nuclear weapons, fortifying the West’s claim that Tehran is developing a bomb. Tehran faces an increasingly assertive Saudi Arabia in the Gulf while Syria, its key ally in the Arab world, is paralyzed by unrest. The International Monetary Fund expects zero economic growth in Iran this year. Other forecasters are more pessimistic.
Ray Takeyh, who follows Iran for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says the president’s drive for power encompasses far more than a personal contest with the ayatollah.
The gradual elimination of subsidies on food fuel that began last December is aimed at strengthening support among Iran’s poor with targeted grants. Changes at the country’s universities, including revised curricula to stress Islamic teaching and the dismissal of some faculty are aimed at filling institutes of higher education with people loyal to Ahmadinejad, Takeyh said in an opinion piece in the Financial Times. He even ascribes Tehran’s tough nuclear stance as essential to Ahmadinejad’s drive.
“A new Islamic Republic is being born – a truculent dictatorship contemptuous of international norms as well as the mandates of its citizens,” Takeyh said. “This new direction in Iranian politics ought to disturb its internal guardians and the international community alike.”
Ansari is less convinced that the power struggle will fundamentally alter Iran, which he said had ceased to be an Islamic republic and was simply an authoritarian regime. He did, however, hold out the possibility that a prolonged internecine battle could undermine both rivals and enabling those urging a freer and more democratic Iran top fill the vacuum.
“These fights are making both sides weaker. Probably one of the beneficiaries is Rafsanjani. He is still there and is watching two of his most implacable foes beating each other up,” Ansari said, referring to Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a centrist and  pragmatic conservative who once served as president. “If the system starts to break down, people in the opposition could take advantage of situation.”