Ahmadinejad Isolated by Battle With Iran's Supreme Leader


A months-long political rivalry between the Iranian president and Supreme Leader Khamanei has left the former with less power, which is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the latter



Speaking at the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was interrupted several times by chants against his closest aide and the man he'd like to succeed him, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

It was déjà vu for the Iranian president, who had in the past waged similar attacks against his critics, haranguing them at public events. But now he, after a few months of bruising political battles that have damaged what remained of his credibility and popularity within Iran, had become the victim.

The incident gave the Iranian public yet another glimpse into a power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that has been unfolding over the past several months.

As a result of that battle, Ahmadinejad has found himself in a position familiar in Iran to other officials who have dared stand up against Khamenei.

He has come under attack from all sides, and his entourage -- several of whom have been detained by police -- is facing a long list of severe accusations, ranging from deviating from the principles of the Islamic Republic and promoting "Islam minus clergy" to sorcery and pushing for ties with Iran's enemies, including the United States.

Ahmadinejad has angered Khamenei with his repeated attempts to gain more power within the Iranian political system and to act unilaterally. In response, Khamenei has launched a campaign to weaken the combative president.

Last Friday's incident at Khomeini's mausoleum was just another warning to Ahmadinejad to surrender to Khamenei's will or face more attacks.

For now, Ahmadinejad doesn't seem intimidated or ready to compromise with Khamenei, who as Supreme Leader has the last say in all state matters and is politically above the president, not his rival.

The power struggle between the two first heated up in April when Ahmadinejad dismissed Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, apparently over his surveillance of presidential confidant and then-Chief of Staff Rahim Mashaei. It wasn't the first time Ahmadinejad had acted without consulting the Iranian leader.

Khamenei, who has a long record of reacting poorly when challenged, and who would have reason to oppose Mashaei for his more moderate views, was quick to react. In a public letter, he reinstated Moslehi, a slap to Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad accepted Moslehi back to his team only after publicly sulking and refusing to attend cabinet meetings for almost two weeks. It was when he finally came back to work that he began creating even more problems.

Ahmadinejad merged eight ministries into four, despite widespread opposition against the erratic, and declared himself in charge of the crucial Oil Ministry. This renewed a long-running fight between him and the Parliament, which said the move violated Iranian laws. One day after Parliament reported his "illegal action" to the Judiciary, Ahmadinejad appointed a caretaker.

Parliament's vote to notify the Judiciary highlights how isolated Ahmadinejad has become: only one lawmaker opposed the bill. He's lost political support elsewhere as well, including among some of his former loyalists. The most important of those is the ultra-hardline Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. In 2005, Mesbah Yazdi declared Ahmadinejad's election a miracle and a gift from the Hidden Imam. Now, he calls Ahmadinejad's entourage "garbage" and says publicly that the president has been bewitched.

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Golnaz Esfandiari and Kourosh Rahimkhani

Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Kourosh Rahimkhani is an independent scholar specializing in Iranian politics. 

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