x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Iranian president retreats on one front, attacks on another in TV talk

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed his loyalty to 'supreme leader' Ayatollah Khamenei after row over intelligence minister but announcing he had appointed himself temporary caretaker of the oil ministry, which analysts say Khamenei views as his domain.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during an interview on the state television network IRIB.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during an interview on the state television network IRIB.

The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gave a vintage television performance on Sunday night with an interview in which he retreated on one domestic battleground while asserting himself on another.

On foreign affairs, he branded Israel a "cancer" that must be cut out. He also claimed that the US had Osama bin Laden in custody for "a very long time" before he was killed by the American military in order to bolster US president Barack Obama's re-election bid.

But Mr Ahmadinejad's main focus was on the home front.

He appeared keen to defuse a growing rift with the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that was ignited last month by the president's attempt to sack the powerful intelligence minister.

After a defiant sulk, Mr Ahmadinejad recently accepted the ayatollah's public order to reinstate the clerical spy chief, Heydar Moslehi.

In the TV interview, the president proclaimed his loyalty to Ayatollah Khamenei, describing him as a loving and just father, both to himself and the nation.

But experts on Iran said this was far from a sufficient climbdown: Mr Ahmadinejad did not explicitly acknowledge that, under Iran's Shiite Islamic system, the ayatollah is an absolute leader chosen by God, a commander who is far more than a father figure.

Mr Ahmadinejad also appeared set for another contest of wills with Ayatollah Khamenei by announcing that he had appointed himself temporary caretaker of the oil ministry, which analysts say the supreme leader views as his domain.

Enduring America, a website with well-informed Iran coverage, compared the president to a "prize fighter, tactically retreating on one front while jabbing on another".

Just hours before, Mr Ahmadinejad basked under the television spotlights, his hardline opponents had denounced his decision on Saturday to merge several government ministries and dismiss the ministers of oil, welfare and industries.

Legislators and Iran's constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, insist the mergers and appointment of any new ministers must be approved by parliament.

Mr Ahmadinejad, handled with kid gloves by his interviewer, brushed aside the controversy as the cut and thrust of healthy, democratic discourse. "I'm not worrying at all," he proclaimed. "Debates are a part of freedom."

His parliamentary opponents do not see it that way. They are determined to curb his ambitions to boost the powers of the presidency - allegedly at the expense of the clergy - and have threatened moves to impeach him.

As caretaker oil minister, Mr Ahmadinejad will get to chair Opec's biannual meeting in Vienna next month, although protocol suggests he should appoint a representative instead because it is not a heads-of-state summit. Iran is the cartel's president for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"He wouldn't miss that opportunity for the world. He will see it as the perfect podium to preach from," an analyst in Tehran said.

Mr Ahmadinejad has been haemorrhaging support from fellow hardliners in recent months. His Achilles heel is his steadfast support for his chief-of-staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie. The president is widely seen to be grooming him as a successor to prolong his own political life when his second term ends in mid-2013. A growing number of hardliners, however, insist Mr Mashaie must be sacked. They have condemned him as a "deviant" figure who is trying to undermine the clergy.

Mr Ahmadinejad's one-time spiritual mentor, the ultra-hardline Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, said on Sunday there was only one way to explain the president's otherwise inexplicable attachment to his chief of staff: Mr Mashaie must have cast a "spell" on him.

Mr Ahmadinejad ignored this controversy and instead used the opportunity to claim that Iran had made huge strides under his presidency.

"We can proudly announce that we are the only country in the world where no family is hungry or without clothes," he proclaimed.

In a transparent attempt to rouse support and boost national morale, he declared: "Iran has the best history, the best geography, resources, people and, finally, leadership."

Some conservative websites were furious that his interviewer had given the president what they saw as a far too easy ride. They claimed he was allowed to pontificate and was never grilled over ties to Mr Mashaie.