Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad may be gaining support across the Muslim world for his fervent criticism of the United States, but inside Iran, he is losing strength. His political rivals are gaining new positions of power, and the population is increasingly unhappy with the economy’s continuing decline.
Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has had a weak presidency; ultimate authority rests with the Supreme Leader, first Ayatollah Khomeini and now Ayatollah Khamenei. The Islamic Republic’s first president, Abolhassan Bani Sadr, was dismissed from office a year after his election. Ever since, the regime has been intolerant of a strong president, and has repeatedly demonstrated that the office is subservient to the Supreme Leader.
Ahmedinejad’s election two years ago came with great expectations, with the new president pledging to “bring oil prices to the dining table of all households in Iran, and to crack down on corruption. Yet many of his first appointments were rewards to his supporters and cronies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij militia, armed groups that mobilized voters on his behalf during the campaign. For example, an the Oil Ministry gave a $1.3 billion no-bid contract to an oil company associated with the Revolutionary Guard, and Ahmedinejad appointed his brother-in-law as cabinet secretary.
Steps like these may have been overlooked in better economic times. But the Iranian budget is now running a 15 percent-of-GDP deficit, and foreign reserves are shrinking, despite the oil boom. Instead of distributing oil revenues through a program of low-cost loans, as promised, the government has been forced to ration gasoline, as economic promise has given way to crisis.
Tensions have also been on the rise since Ahmedinejad fulfilled his campaign promise to enforce Islamic strictures on social life. For two years, police have waged an intense campaign against women and young people. Last summer, more than 150,000 women were arrested in Tehran for wearing “bad veils, and barber shops have been given specific instructions on acceptable hairstyles for young men.
Demonstrations by bus drivers, school teachers, women’s rights activists, and students have been brutally suppressed, with dozens of arrests. Photos and video clips of police beating civilians in Tehran and other cities have been disseminated on the Internet.
But now Ahmedinejad’s opponents are moving to reassert longstanding constraints on the presidency. His foremost rival, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who Ahmedinejad defeated to win the post, has had a remarkable reversal of fortune, reemerging as leader of the Assembly of Experts, the powerful body that elects Iran’s Supreme Leader and that can even remove a Supreme Leader from office.
Moreover, conservatives who had aligned themselves with Ahmedinejad are now criticizing him openly. Even Ayatollah Khamenei, who as Supreme Leader is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has taken steps to demonstrate his authority, recently firing the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia.
Among Iran analysts, it is thought that these moves were intended to revitalize the military, particularly given the possibility of conflict with the US. But experts also note that the former commanders were close to Ahmedinejad and had made a great effort over the last two years to help him implement his agenda.
While Ahmedinejad continues his verbal attacks on the US, he does not control the policy-making apparatus that will decide about Iran’s nuclear program and its relations with the international community. The threat of sanctions remains potent, and the Iranian business community – not to mention the public – has felt the sting of isolation.
Considering the tangled involvement of Iran’s leaders in the economy, the effect of sanctions should not be underestimated. The economy remains the one area of Iranian life where Ahmedinejad retains considerable power. But here, his record is weak, and his pronouncements only exacerbate the problem by increasing Iran’s isolation from the global economy.
So, as disputes with the West come to a head, it is important to recognize the power shifts underway inside Iran’s opaque political system. Ahmedinejad may be making increasingly challenging statements, but he does not have the authority to act on them. Indeed, only a military confrontation with the US can bring him back to the center of decision-making. American policymakers should bear that in mind.
Mehdi Khalaji, trained as a Shiite theologian in Iranian seminaries, is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)