Ahmadinejad future in doubt after attack by religious leaders


IRANIAN PRESIDENT Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has suffered a series of dramatic setbacks in his power struggle with the country’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, after a failed attempt to challenge the clerical establishment, say Iranian observers and diplomats.

Mr Ahmadinejad, who drew on crucial backing from Ayatollah Khamenei during his disputed re-election in 2009, has been so roundly rebuffed by his erstwhile patron that it is not certain he will complete his second term.

In recent days, Mr Ahmadinejad and the men described as his strongest allies – his chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, and executive deputy Hamid Baghaei – have come under direct attack from senior figures in the powerful Revolutionary Guards and some of most important clerics in the Islamic regime.

Mr Ahmadinejad’s many enemies across the political and religious spectrum have scented blood after the arrest of at least 25 people close to him and Mr Mashaei. The president’s immediate entourage has been reduced to a handful of serious people and has faced accusations of corruption, revolutionary “deviancy” and even espionage.

Even the president’s spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who strongly supported him in the 2009 presidential election, is distancing himself. In a recent interview with Shoma Weekly, an Iranian publication, Ayatollah Yazdi said: “That a human being would behave in a way that angers his closest friends and allies and turns them into opponents is not logical for any politician.” He said he believed “with more than 90 per cent certainty” that Mr Ahmad- inejad had been “bewitched”.

“We saw that this questionable person [Mashaei] has conquered this gentleman [Ahmadinejad] and is in his fist,” he said.

Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, a close ally of Ayatollah Khamenei and head of the Guardian Council, also attacked Mr Ahmadinejad directly. “We did not expect this from him,” Ayatollah Janati said. In a reference to Mr Mashaei, he said that “some people seek to cause a deviation, and act against the country and the supreme leader”. The comments of the ayatollahs Yazdi and Janati have been repeatedly echoed by senior officials in Iran in recent days. “It is like wolves who have been waiting for a sign of weakness and they are now lunging in,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and co-author of book on Mr Ahmadinejad, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran.

In the latest sign of his dwindling authority, Mr Ahmadinejad’s bid to streamline his cabinet and merge eight ministries into four was blocked by the supreme leader in a private meeting attended by the parliamentary chief, Ali Larijani.

Unable to proceed with his initial plan, Mr Ahmadinejad fought back by dismissing three ministers and temporarily taking over the oil ministry but drew unprecedented criticism from Ayatollah Khamenei’s camp.

It has not helped the president that the attacks come at a time when the cash-strapped government, straining under international sanctions, has gambled on removing long-standing but costly subsidies on fuel, food and other daily essentials, triggering widespread popular resentment.

With zero growth projected this year, organised labour is beginning to flex its muscles. Last week, some union members refused to go to work over delayed salaries and rising unemployment. They blamed the president for the crisis.

Mr Ahmadinejad emerged from relative obscurity to win the presidency in 2005, not least because the supreme leader adopted him as his protege. In recent months, he has sought to assert the presidential prerogative in hiring and firing ministers. He got his way in December, sacking foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, a Khamenei favourite, without warning. When he tried to do the same in April to the intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, Ayatollah Khamenei struck back and ordered Mr Moslehi’s reinstatement.

In response, Mr Ahmadinejad took the quixotic decision of boycotting his own job and disappeared from office for 11 days. Ultimately, however, he had little choice but to return and grudgingly put up with Mr Moslehi.

“Ahmadinejad must know he was always pushing his luck. He has always been a risk-taker, and he always knew that sooner or later he would hit something hard,” a western diplomat said.

“Whether this is terminal for him, it’s a bit early to say, but the defence of the supreme leader and the attack on Mr Ahmadinejad has had the look of a whole government acting in concert. People were sent out to the regions, including the IRGC [the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], to send the message that the supreme leader is in control.” – ( Guardianservice)