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.
Far larger than life, images of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fill screens perched above Iran's cavernous parliament chamber where the archconservative president has come to make a pitch for his two new ministerial choices.Skip to next paragraph
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The replacements are "pious men" and it's his right as "coach of the team" to make adjustments, he tells the lawmakers.
The legislators offer exasperated criticism about the president's endless supply of new candidates – he has seeded like-minded ideologues at all levels of government – and his easy readiness to topple ministers. But on this day last month, they relent.
No Iranian president in recent memory has faced so much scathing and frequent attack from so many Iranian factions, or created so many powerful enemies, over issues that range from his imperious management style and eclectic economic policies, to snooty gibes from elite critics about lack of "intellectualism," analysts say.
But despite the criticism, Mr. Ahmadinejad's bold political moves have succeeded in increasing the power of his office, turning it into a post with more influence and power than at any time since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
"Ahmadinejad just broke all the rules," says an Iranian journalist who asked not to be named. "Whatever he does, he's always giving orders, giving commands – it projects an image of power."
"He's bold and idiosyncratic. He's not afraid of using unconventional methods," says a political analyst in Tehran. "All the presidents before now were consulting with [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali] Khamenei on major issues, but he doesn't feel the need to do this.
"He has made the presidency much more powerful, but made a mess with his power – administrative chaos, and allocating economic resources," says the analyst of the president's performance. "Because of pressure from outside he [believes] himself invincible."
But with the exception of the supreme leader – who in recent months has signaled both unconditional support and weariness with an irrepressible president – Ahmadinejad has few loyal backers among traditional power centers.
In large part, gushing oil revenues have helped mask overspending, mismanagement by inexperienced top-level appointees, and the impact of two sets of US-led United Nations sanctions over Iran's nuclear program.
Experts say that Khamenei is now convinced – if he was not already – that Ahmadinejad's unbending stance on continuing uranium enrichment has borne fruit, despite a UN Security Council resolution demanding it stop.
Little organized opposition
The president's hard-line allies were punished in local elections last December. And a parliamentary vote next March may roll back the conservative majority. But there is still little organized opposition. And as powerful rivals begin positioning themselves for those votes – including the next presidential election in 2009 – Ahmadinejad has gone on the counterattack, calling opponents of his nuclear policies "traitors."
"The power of the presidency is limited in Iran, according to the law, and the term of the president is limited," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper. "[But] Mr. Ahmadinejad tried to concentrate powers inside his own hand [and] uses the opportunities of the presidency more than any president before."
"Before this, I thought Ahmadinejad is not an experienced politician. But he has shown he knows well the functions of power," says Mr. Mohebian. "Every act he takes now is for the next election…. Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to show himself as very strong, the boss, and unpredictable. Maybe this makes Mr. Ahmadinejad a threat for everyone inside and outside [Iran], but it can help [him] be more strong."
The coup de grâce that has still unsettled Iran's political establishment was the resignation – or forced removal – of chief nuclear negotiator and Khamenei protégé Ali Larijani. After his sixth attempt to resign was accepted in October, Mr. Larijani was replaced by Ahmadinejad loyalist Saeed Jalili, who effectively shut down negotiations with the European Union in his debut solo meeting.
"The guts! Who could have done that? It was unimaginable a few years ago," says one veteran analyst in Tehran of Larijani's replacement. "It is damaging and it is definitely a shrinking of the velayat-e faqih [Iran's rule of the supreme jurisprudent]. It's an advance by Ahmadinejad, and a retreat by Khamenei."