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.

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."

"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."

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."

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