Ahmadinejad's Days Numbered?
The arrest of a close ally of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is being seen as a major reverse for the Iranian president. Mohammed Sharif Malekzadeh was placed in custody on fraud charges in late June, just a few days after he was nominated as deputy foreign minister and then forced to withdraw by parliament. IWPR’s Iran editor Ali Reza Eshraghi looks at the implications.
Why is the arrest of Malekzadeh such a significant political move?
Malekzadeh is the most senior figure to be arrested so far, but a number of others have been detained as well, including Abbas Amirifar, who headed the government’s cultural commission, and Kazem Kiapasha from the presidential administration. The heads of two of Iran’s economic free zones and the director of the national museum have also been arrested.
The systematic arrest of a group of high-ranking figures while they are still in office is a rare occurrence in Iran. All those arrested are close associates of Esfandiar Rahim Mashai – Ahmadinejad's closest friend and the man believed to be running his administration from behind the scenes.
Like previous Iranian presidents, Ahmadinejad did not come to power backed by a united party that wielded social, economic and administrative influence. But he and his associates have tried to build up a support-base that will survive his presidency and continue to play a major role in Iranian politics.
Coming as they do less than one year from the next parliamentary election, these serial arrests indicate that certain segments of the Iranian regime have no interest in allowing this restless and wayward player to continue building towards a lasting presence on the political scene.
If there is a concerted campaign to undermine the president, who’s behind it?
The campaign against Ahmadinejad is driven by disparate groups – the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the clerics of Qom, supporters of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and old-style conservative groups. All have an interest in curbing the Ahmadinejad government, even if they disagree on other matters.
It is, however, in the nature of Iranian politics that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must have given tacit approval for such a direct move against the government. Without that, the attacks on it would have remained just rhetoric.
So does this mean the Supreme Leader has had enough of Ahmadinejad?
Ahmadinejad was supposed to behave like a good and obedient child towards the Supreme Leader, just as he kissed his hand after winning the presidency in 2005. At the same time, he had some leeway from Khamenei to marginalise certain senior politicians and parties, so as to give the Supreme Leader more space for manoeuvre.
Ahmadinejad enjoyed considerable popular support in the 2005 election, and even in the controversial 2009 ballot in which he won a second term. But as every Iranian politician knows, public support is not enough, unless you also have the ability to establish yourself within the regime’s power structures. So Ahmadinejad’s electoral victories were very much contingent on support from the Supreme Leader.
Frictions began emerging when Ahmadinejad began seriously believing he could carve out an independent political space for himself within the regime.
Isn’t it true that Khamenei departed from the political neutrality he’s supposed to maintain by endorsing Ahmadinejad after the 2009 election and sanctioning a crackdown on the mass protests that followed?
Khamenei’s supposed political impartiality is a myth – like his predecessor as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, he has never been neutral.
Although his relationship with Ahmadinejad has been pored over by analysts, many blank spots remain in it.
It would be a mistake to attribute the 2009 crackdown solely to Khamenei deciding to back Ahmadinejad. The reformist opposition had fallen out with the Supreme Leader well before the election, and a confrontation was inevitable.
What next? There’s even talk of parliament moving to impeach the president.
When 100 members of parliament demanded that Ahmadinejad be summoned for questioning, it was an unprecedented move. It remains uncertain whether it will actually happen, though. There are rumours that 30 lawmakers have already withdrawn their names from the motion, which would mean there was no longer the majority required.
In my view, these measures are more of a political manoeuvre that has a twofold aim – one, to prepare the ground in case there comes a time when action is taken against the president; and two, to serve as a deterrent, sending Ahmadinejad a message to that if he doesn’t knuckle under, he might really be impeached.
Does Khamenei really want to see Ahmadinejad leave office?
As I understand it, the plan is still for Ahmadinejad to complete his term and then step down. The complication is that he and his guiding light Mashai want to establish a place for themselves within the regime, so that they can continue to exercise power via government and parliament.
Some political factions are very keen to see Ahmadinejad slapped down with all due haste. Thus far, however, Ayatollah Khamenei has consented only to clipping the president’s wings.
Ejecting Ahmadinejad from office before the end of his term would come at a high cost, and it’s only likely to happen if he makes himself absolutely intolerable for the Supreme Leader and the regime as a whole. In other words, it depends on a cost-benefit equation where the price of removing him is set against the price of continuing to put up with him.
In this delicate situation, Ahmadinejad took a high-risk step by accusing the Revolutionary Guards Corps of controlling flows of smuggled goods. Under his predecessor Mohammad Khatami, the reformers tried to do the same thing, and lost. Ahmadinejad has since backtracked, denying the very frank allegations he made about the Revolutionary Guards’ complicity in smuggling – although footage of him making the comments is still available online.
At the moment, there are no real signs that Ahmadinejad and his opponents are moving towards a modus vivendi.