Magazine article The Middle East

The Struggle for Supremacy: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Unleashes a Political Firestorm by Challenging Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Magazine article The Middle East

The Struggle for Supremacy: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Unleashes a Political Firestorm by Challenging Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Article excerpt

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As Iran wrestles with the impact of harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and others, the country's political elite is locked in an increasingly explosive power struggle, the outcome of which will shape the Islamic Republic's strategies in a region undergoing potentially massive change.

In one corner is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a 54-year-old radical who seems determined to amass more power for the presidency, largely at the expense of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, placing his cohorts in key positions in government and the bureaucracy before his second four-year term runs out in March 2013.

Ahmadinejad also wants to ensure he is succeeded by someone of his choosing, building a political future for himself when his presidency ends. Under Iran's constitution, presidents can only serve two consecutive terms.

In the other corner is Khamenei, 72, with whom Ahmadinejad has had a stormy relationship, and Iran's powerful conservative clerics. This group has dominated the regime since it was installed in 1979 by the late Ayatollah Rubollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamist Republic.

This largely unelected group has turned on the upstart president, who likes to be seen as a man of the people, with particular venom because he has challenged the doctrine of velayat-efaqih, governance by the guardianship of Islamic jurists, decreed by Khomeini and the bedrock of the regime's legitimacy.

The struggle has been building for some time.

"Since the presidential election in June 2009, when Ahmadinejad emerged victorious amid widespread charges of fraud, he has consistently tried to out manoeuvre Khamenei, seeking to accumulate power in the president's office," observed US analyst Robert Dreyfuss.

"Khamanei, meanwhile, has repeatedly clipped Ahmadinejad's wings ... Though wildly exaggerated, and mixed with fanciful religious conspiracy theories, Khamenei's partisans aren't completely wrong when they argue that Ahmadinejad is seeking to undermine clerical rule."

Khamenei, who controls the judiciary, the intelligence apparatus and the military, and virtually the entire conservative Iranian establishment, including the commanders of the elite and powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has closed ranks against Ahmadinejad.

With odds like that, it's difficult to see how Ahmadinejad and his allies can hope to triumph. As the struggle unfolds, they appear to be increasingly on the defensive.

Khamenei, who became supreme leader after Khomeini died in D89, does not have the great man's charisma or undisputed religious authority, and he has appeared reluctant to unleash the full fury of the state against Ahmadinejad.

That could change as the president's support base erodes. But so far, neither man has shown any inclination to back down. If that continues, it may bring bloodshed.

Some experts believe the longer Ahmadinejad holds on, "the weaker Khamenei looks. If Ahmadinejad can withstand the withering fire directed against him in the media and by leading politicians, with each passing day he looks more like a survivor".

Ahmadinejad made his move, in what some see as a battle for Iran's soul, as the political establishment began manoeuvring ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2012 and the presidential race in 2013.

Under Iran's constitution, the firebrand president, first elected in 2005 and re-elected in a widely disputed poll in 2009 which triggered enormous street protests, crushed by the regime, can only serve two terms.

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His plan appears to be to set up his son-in-law and longtime chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to succeed him. Indeed, Mashaei stands at the centre of the power struggle and is seen by some as the mastermind behind Ahmadinejad's power play. …

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