The Call

Has Ahmadinejad finally been defanged?

Has Ahmadinejad finally been defanged?

By Cliff Kupchan

Has Mahmoud Ahmadinejad finally pushed too hard? For over a week, the perennially prickly Iranian president refused to go to work, openly defying Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom he’d been at a standoff. Ahmadinejad has since returned to the office and professed loyalty to the leader, but not before drawing criticism from the conservative establishment and even his own radical conservative base. Associates of Ahmadinejad and his chief of staff have been accused of sorcery and arrested, and, according to insiders, many traditional conservatives dismiss Ahmadinejad’s faction as a "gang." The president is no stranger to controversy, but this latest furor will likely cost his radical conservatives in the next elections.

The dispute began on April 17, when Ahmadinejad dismissed Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi after the minister sacked a deputy close to the president’s influential chief of staff, Rahim Esfandiar Mashaei  The power struggle grew more circular a few days later, when Khameni issued a public letter overruling Ahmadinejad and declaring that Moslehi would keep his job.

The rift was more about religion and politics than personnel. Mashaei has a nationalist, somewhat secular vision of Iranian politics, as well as an Iranian view of Islam that reduces the role of the clergy and so offends Iran’s political establishment. Insiders say that Ahmadinejad shares this view. Plus, parliamentary elections are due in 2012 and the presidential election in 2013, and both Ahmadinejad’s faction (the radical conservatives) and their opponents (the traditional conservatives) are jockeying for position. Both camps were likely seeking control over the intelligence ministry, and the sensitive information it possesses, for the election season.

But Ahmadinejad’s gambit turned out to be a significant and consequential overreach. Already, allies are distancing themselves from him. Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbah Yazdi, one of Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentors, implicitly chastised the president for not following the leader’s orders and directly attacked the "seditionist" line espoused by Mashaei. Lay preachers, most of who tend to support Ahmadinejad, railed against both Mashaei and the president.

Impeachment is a long shot (Khamenei has backed Ahmadinejad for too long to turn against him wholeheartedly now), but the vitriol of the affair will scar the president’s relationship with the leader and debilitate his government. As a result, policy execution will likely become increasingly contentious and ineffective, meaning that even if they wanted to, Iranian elites probably couldn’t agree to or implement any deal with the West for the next few years. And Ahmadinejad’s cronies will likely pay the price in the 2012 parliamentary elections. The chance that an Ahmadinejad surrogate will win the 2013 presidential election is even more remote: Khamenei will likely tolerate the president until his term is up, but then ease him and his associates from power in favor of more pliant figures. Though the new leaders also would hold anti-Western views, bureaucratic infighting in the coming years will cause Iran’s institutions to degenerate, likely making the country a less dangerous foe for the US.

Cliff Kupchan is director of Eurasia Group’s Eurasia practice.