x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Iran's president now under attack by hardliners

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is being criticised from all quarters - including conservative and hardline opponents.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is facing growing criticism from leading establishment figures with significant political clout.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is facing growing criticism from leading establishment figures with significant political clout.

The charges have a familiar ring. Iran's populist and polarising president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is being accused of monopolising power, riding roughshod over parliament, mismanaging the economy and being too aggressive on foreign policy.

As a consequence of these and many other failings, critics said, he is recklessly undermining the Islamic republic. Only this time the stinging criticism is coming not just from Iran's harshly suppressed opposition "green" movement, but from conservative and hardline opponents of the president. Several are leading establishment figures with political clout. Some have hinted that parliament has the power to impeach the president - a dramatic move that most analysts believe Mr Ahmadinejad's conservative opponents dare yet not make.

But the president's controversial chief of staff suggested last month that could change. Typically outspoken, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai even suggested a time frame. He revealed that the president had told him that his conservative rivals would brand Mr Ahmadinejad a "kafar" (heretic) in "one year". In response, the political editor of the influential, ultra-conservative daily, Keyhan, let rip at Mr Ahmadinejad recently in a remarkable speech. He warned that "a new movement is appearing" that "doesn't want to see the country in peace and tranquility".

Mehdi Mohammadi did not mention the president by name. He did not need to: he referred to a man who believes "all authority should be surrendered to me because I won 25 million votes" in last year's presidential elections. As significant as Mohammadi's cutting words was where he delivered them - to a gathering of Ansar Hizbollah, the self-proclaimed and fearsome Islamic vigilante group that the president relies upon as a bastion of ultra-conservative support.

Foremost among Mr Ahmadinejad's conservative opponents are Ali Larijani, the powerful parliamentary speaker, and Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. They and their allies fear that Mr Ahmadinejad's camp is trying to exclude them from power and, analysts say, they are now jockeying for position ahead of the next presidential vote, even though it is nearly three years away. Keen that the next president is a more pragmatic and less divisive, they are determined to prevent Mr Ahmadinejad being succeeded by a like-minded crony who will be equally hostile to their interests.

Their concerns, ironically, will be similar to those of the "green" movement before last year's disputed presidential election "that with the resources of the state, Mr Ahmadinjead will be able to buy the election, this time for an associate", said Farideh Farhi, an expert at the University of Hawaii. "There is no doubt that the more centrist wing of Iran's conservatism is worried about being pushed out of Iran's raucous political environment by forces within conservatism that they identify as 'extremist'," Ms Farhi said.

Mr Ahmadinejad's conservative opponents are, like him, so-called "principlists", a term coined in 2004 to describe a broad coalition of conservatives running against reformists in parliamentary elections. Unlike reformists, who try to marry modern politics with Islam, principlists draw their political inspiration from Sharia alone. Old political disputes, bitter personal rivalries and clashing egos partly account for the conflict among principlists. Mr Larijani and Mr Qalibaf ran against Mr Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election and both view him as a brash upstart with poor revolutionary credentials.

On social and cultural issues, there is little dispute among principlists. "The differences are mainly over foreign policy and the government's attempts to have total control of over economic policies," said a political analyst who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. Mr Ahmadinejad has "seriously undermined the principlist majority in parliament (which Mr Larijani heads) by using various pretexts on several occasions to refuse to implement" laws passed by parliament, the analyst added.

One recent example: the government has stubbornly ignored parliamentary legislation allocating US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) from the Oil Reserve Fund for the further development of Tehran's impressive metro system. The bill, passed in December, has been shuttled between various arbitration panels, the last of which approved it in March but Mr Ahmadinejad's government has refused to budge. Analysts believe the government is refusing to pay up because of the president's rivalry with Mr Qalibaf, the capital's mayor.

Mr Larijani on Saturday warned that parliament will begin using its "supervisory tools" if the government continues to ignore its legislation. Other conservatives have been more outspoken. Ahmad Tavakkoli, a hardline Tehran MP, recently reminded the president that parliament has the power to impeach him. There is little chance of that happening, given that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed Mr Ahmadinejad's contested election victory last year as a "divine blessing".

As they strive to corral popular and institutional support, Mr Ahmadinejad's principlist rivals will continue to attack his inflationary economic policies, which they view as his Achilles heel, analysts say. His government's apparent determination to force through parliament a bill cutting subsidies in autumn has left him open to attack. A recent strike among influential traders in Tehran's sprawling grand bazaar also forced the government to cave in over plans to raise their taxes, highlighting growing disenchantment among usually supportive sectors of the regime. While the president believes in a government-controlled economy, the bazaar merchants are mostly loyal to the Principlist Motalefeh party, which defends a free-market.

Whether Ahmadined's conservative opponents eventually make a concerted effort to oust him - which would require Khamenei's approval - will depend largely on the outcome of his foreign and economic policies, analysts say. If these are deemed to be preventing "the system from functioning properly," the second analyst in Tehran said, "Principlists may come to the decision that they need to sacrifice him to survive".

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

msinaiee@thenational.ae