In Iran, Ahmadinejad's bold gambits boost presidential power
The firebrand leader has succeeded in grabbing more control despite wide criticism at home and abroad.
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"Khamenei has never liked to be seen as overtly meddling…. But Ahmadinejad's bold and provocative moves ... have unsettled the political elite," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. They "are wondering if Khamenei is supportive of these rather partisan moves or unable to stop Ahmadinejad."Skip to next paragraph
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While theories abound about the sidelining of Larijani, some argue that the president's wide latitude is a function of trust, compared to ex-president Mohammad Khatami and two-time president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani.
"No matter what Ahmadinejad does, none of it threatens in any way the position of the supreme leader," says a political scientist in Tehran who asked not to be named. "His predecessors could not do that, because the supreme leader did not trust those two presidents. They had entourages that did not believe in the supreme leader's policies and the [divine sanctity of the] office."
Both Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Khatami also had close links to the outside world, so "you never know if your president is aligned with any [other] country," says the political scientist. "Ahmadinejad has no outside connection, so domestically he got a blank check to do what he wants."
Larijani was a "victim of this, though he had proved his loyalties [to the supreme leader] 100 percent – not 95 percent—but 100 percent in the last 20 years," says the political scientist.
That sleight of hand, which the supreme leader is widely believed to have accepted in advance, if not endorsed, illustrates how Khamenei "has moved closer and closer to the president," says a European diplomat. Ahmadinejad "has grabbed responsibility in fields that are not his. So today you can take the president's rhetoric as a 'guideline' " of official thinking.
Ideology of resistance
Ahmadinejad's freedom to maneuver has been evident far beyond Iran's borders, with his steady stream of invective against Israel, questioning the Holocaust, and taking aim at the US and its anti-regime policies. Analysts say Khamenei approves of how Ahmadinejad's anti-Western stance – especially during the 2006 summer war between Israel and Iranian-backed Hizbullah – has again turned Iran and the Shiite president into symbols of resistance across the Arab world.
Last week at a Gulf Arab summit – where leaders are wary of Iran's nuclear plans – Ahmadinejad won plaudits by offering a security pact and a 12-point cooperation plan. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Saturday asked Gulf leaders to instead increase pressure on Iran, accusing it of fomenting "instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or cost in the blood of innocents."
While replacing Larijani was "another coup" for the president, in the words of a second Western diplomat in Tehran, his performance at Columbia University in September also boosted his stature at home. Conservative local newspapers hailed the president for keeping calm, while being called a "petty tyrant" with a closed mind by the university president: "Getting insulted before he even stood up did wonders for him," says the diplomat.
In November, the president explained his bearing in religious terms: "I knew at Columbia, that my Lord was chairing that session." Critics who sneer at such words are "modern Satan worshipers," he charged, who "put on an intellectual demeanor; they don't understand as a much as a goat about the world."
Taking on some of the most powerful players in postrevolutionary Iran – several of them important rivals – he has pressed accusations of espionage against one former nuclear negotiator, and accused powerful friends of trying to get him off the hook. He questioned how revolutionaries like Rafsanjani had "become billionaires twice over, [and] broken every law of the land gathering this wealth."
Even the soft-spoken Khatami – who is being asked by some reformist factions to head their parliamentary lists – accused the government last month of "ignorance and lack of expertise."
"Ahmadinejad did not come out of nowhere. He was a reaction to how government was run in the Khatami era," says the Iranian journalist, of how Khatami's reformist agenda was undermined by hard-liners and vigilante groups willing to use violence. "Khatami could not do his job. People wanted a stronger president, after a weak president. [Ahmadinejad] knows that."