On January 21st 2008, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suffered one of his strongest defeats since his elections in August 2005, as the most powerful man in Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, openly sided against him in a recent dispute with the parliament (Majlis). Until recently, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has been Ahmadinejad’s most powerful ally. In fact he is the one who enabled Ahmadinejad to become president in 2005, after allowing election cheatings in his favor.
Ahmadinejad has himself to blame for the rift. Showing disregard for Iran’s constitution, he refused to sign a law passed by the Majlis, which instructed the government to spend $1 billion from the country’s currency reserve fund to supply gas to remote villages in mountainous parts of northern Iran. The urgency felt by Majlis was due to the fact that 60 people had been left dead by the recent cold spell.
The reasons, contained in a letter Ahmadinejad sent to the Majlis, was that the new law was against article 75 of the Iranian constitution. This article states that any law calling for extra emergency expenditure must justify how the money will be replaced later on.
Ahmadinejad’s action is a clear sign that the president is either ignorant about Iranian law, or arrogant. The latter is probably most accurate, because even a low ranking clerk in the Majlis could most probably tell you that it is not the job of the president to decide if a law is compatible with Iran’s constitution or not. This job, belongs to the Guardian Council, which is one of the most powerful bodies in Iran. It’s made up of 6 theologians, who are hand picked by the supreme leader, and six jurists, who are elected by the parliament. This body, among other things, reviews all laws by the Majlis, and decides if they are compatible with Iran’s constitution, and Islamic law.
Ahmadinejad is a man who prides himself for being a strong minded decision maker. He often talked about this trait during the 2005 presidential campaign, and after he entered office.
However, the implications of his recent bout of authoritarianism are likely to have very negative consequences on his career, both in the short and the long run.
First and foremost, it seems that the supreme leader is not backing him like he used to. This is a serious political loss for Ahmadinejad. He has until the next presidential elections on June 2009 to repair the damage. If he fails, it will most probably cost him the elections, because once the supreme leader turns against a politician or a political body, it could be the end of them in office. Just ask the Iranian reformists.
The other is that no one in the history of the Islamic Republic has ever tried to sideline the Guardian Council. By deciding on his own, without their consultation, that the recent law is against the constitution, it is likely that Ahmadinejad may have lost credibility, and even allies in this all important decision making body.
Moreover, with his recent decision, Ahmadinejad has also provided much needed ammunition to his internal rivals. Like sharks circling their prey, potential front runners and rivals for the next presidential elections have been looking for an opportunity to bite a chunk out the president’s credibility and standing.
Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani did this by resigning from his post in November 2006. Almost everyone interpreted his resignation as a sign that Ahmadinejad is unbearable to work with, especially for moderate politicians.
One of his other rivals is Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, who is the Majlis speaker. Hadad Adel is very well connected. His daughter is married to Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader’s son. He has been carefully setting the ground for his next move, which will most probably be the presidency. He also used the recent rebuff by the supreme leader to his own advantage. In what was regarded as an embarrassing gesture to the president, Haddad Adel read out loud the entire supreme leader’s rebuff letter to Ahmadinejad, to everyone in the Majlis.
Last but not least, Ahmadinejad’s rebuff by the supreme leader is very likely to have given Iran’s fed up parliamentarians their moment in the sun. Over the last two years, on two separate occasions they tried and failed to reduce Ahmadinejad’s term, because he kept on ignoring them. With less than seven weeks to go before Iran’s next parliamentary elections, anti-Ahmadinejad candidates for the Majlis are very likely to use the recent incident as part of their campaign to boost their number for the next term.
The recent NIE report was a victory for Iran’s foreign policy standing, and for its nuclear program, because it significantly reduced the chances of a U.S. attack. However, to Ahmadinejad’s dismay, it shifted the focus to the government’s internal performance, especially in the economic sphere. All eyes in Iran will be on what he does to improve the livelihood of ordinary Iranians. If he continues to sideline himself at the current rate, he will be deadlier element to his political career, than any US or Israeli sponsored propaganda campaign, or even sanctions.
Meir Javedanfar is the co-author of the upcoming book %%AMAZON=0786718870 “The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.%%” He runs Middle East Economic and Political Analysis (Meepas)