The End of Ahmadinejad

Why this weekend's election means the Iranian president, and perhaps even the presidency itself, could be on their way out.

mf march6 p.jpg

Iran is a complicated country. It has an unelected dictator -- Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- as well as an elected parliament. It has opposition parties. There are checks and balances, although understanding them requires a very complicated org chart. Iranian politics are also in constant flux. Unlike the established democracies of the West or the streamlined dictatorships of the Middle East, Iran's complex political system has been evolving (and sometimes devolving) since its 1979 inception as a half-thought-out combination of democracy and theocracy, two ideas that turned out to be a lot more difficult to negotiate than Iran's revolutionaries anticipated.

The Iranian system now seems to be changing again. A national election this weekend, the first since 2009's protest-ridden vote, saw loyalists of Supreme Leader Khamenei sweep the parliament, while allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fared very poorly. Though outsiders often perceive the Iranian government as monolithic, it is not, and Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have been locked in a power struggle since April 2011. This vote, which appears to have been largely fraudulent, signals that the Iranian political infrastructure has probably now aligned itself against Ahmadinejad and behind Khamenei.

Part of the conflict is personal -- Ahmadinejad would like more power for himself -- but it's also about ideological differences. Ahmadinejad has attempted to make Iran's government more secular, which Khamenei naturally opposes. He's also pushed internally for more cooperation with the West, including over Iran's nuclear program. Khamenei supporters see this effort as a failure of Ahmadinejad's worldview, an embarrassment for Iran, and a lesson to not trust the Americans.

As increasingly crippling sanctions and the threat of an Israeli or U.S. military strike lead the Iranian regime to dig in, Tehran's leaders appear more paranoid, more entrenched, and less willing to tolerate dissent than ever. This means locking up dissidents, bloggers, and activists, but it also means winding down Iran's more democratic elements and unifying the government into something that more closely resembles a dictatorship. And it's not just Ahmadinejad who's being shut out (few analysts believe he will survive in the government beyond 2013, when his current term ends, if he even makes it that long). The entire office of the Iranian presidency could be scrapped.

Khamenei has been hinting since this fall, when it looked like he had finally triumphed over Ahmadinejad, that he would close down the presidency. "Presently, the country's ruling political system is a presidential one in which the president is directly elected by the people, making this a good and effective method," the supreme leader said in October. "However, if one day, probably in the distant future, it is deemed that the parliamentary system is more appropriate for the election of officials with executive power, there would be no problem in altering the current structure."

If Khamenei isn't already moving toward phasing out the presidency, the next year would be an attractive time to do it. Ahmadinejad is at a low point, his allies are especially weak, and the U.S.-Israeli threat has rallied the establishment around the supreme leader. If Iranians even bother to vote for a new president in 2013 -- few went to the polls for this weekend's parliamentary election -- then it might be their last.