Despite domestic waves, Iran will keep its president

Tehran and Iranian opposition websites in recent weeks are rife with rumors that the regime is about to replace ultraconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Such allegations feature claims that the new president was rebuffed when he tried to meet with regime stalwarts, such as the head of the country's wealthiest religious foundation, and when he sought guidance from leading mainstream clerics.

Contributing to the speculation on official displeasure with Mr. Ahmadinejad was Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's grant of executive branch oversight powers in October to the Expediency Council, a state agency headed by Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who lost the 2005 presidential race to Ahmadinejad.

If the speculations prove true, Ahmadinejad would not be the first Iranian president to be removed from office. The Islamic republic's first president, Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, was elected in January 1980 and kicked out in June 1981. Indeed, there are parallels between the circumstances facing Ahmadinejad and the situation that confronted Mr. Bani-Sadr. For Bani-Sadr the international environment was difficult because of the Iran-Iraq War and the hostage crisis, while Ahmadinejad must contend with global concern over his country's nuclear program, its support for terrorist organizations, and his belligerent foreign policy declarations. On the domestic front, Islamic fundamentalists who were consolidating power in the revolutionary government competed with Bani-Sadr, while Ahmadinejad faces rivalry both from an older generation of conservatives and from pro-reform political organizations.

In 1981, the Iranian parliament declared Bani-Sadr incompetent because of his continuing disputes with his rivals, thereby opening the door to his impeachment. The founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, gave him a chance to repent, but Bani-Sadr rejected it. Mr. Khomeini then used his constitutional right to dismiss the president, who fled to France.

Ahmadinejad's relationship with the parliament is troubled as well. Legislators rejected four of his initial 21 cabinet nominees in August, and in early November the nominee for petroleum minister withdrew when faced with intense criticism of his inexperience and his wealth. The legislature rejected the third nominee later in the month, and is now considering a fourth one. The sharp decline in the Tehran stock exchange index is attributed to uncertainty over Ahmadinejad's populist economic policies, and his replacement of experienced officials in the banking sector has not inspired confidence.

Yet that is where the similarities between Ahmadinejad and Bani-Sadr end. Most important, Ahmadinejad continues to have the support of Supreme Leader Khamenei, who said in a Nov. 14 meeting with the country's Friday prayer leaders that criticism of the president must stop. "Everyone must support this government," Khamenei said, according to state television. "The extent of my support for this government and this president is the same as my support for the previous presidents."

Indeed, Ahmadinejad's most notorious actions are backed by the regime. His controversial October speech - in which he advocated the elimination of Israel - was praised by Khamenei and defended by the Foreign Ministry, while the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps declared that he speaks for the nation. Even his former opponent Mr. Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who has criticized some of Ahmadinejad's actions, defended the president's remarks by referring to the "illegitimate Israeli government" in an Oct. 28 sermon.

It is extremely unlikely that the regime will replace an elected president today. The vetting of presidential candidates by the Guardians Council, an unelected and clerically dominated body, precludes the election of anybody who might challenge the system excessively. The constitutional system of checks and balances, furthermore, ensures that unelected entities can always control elected ones. Finally, the regime touts its holding of regular and frequent elections - although they are flawed by normal standards of fairness - as an indicator of the success of its so-called democracy.

Abbas William Samii is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Inc.'s regional analyst on Iran. Views in this piece are his own.

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