As was to be expected, Iran's president received another hour of grace. Once again, during the second round of the parliamentary elections held on Saturday, the representatives of the extremist stream that support him won a majority. But this success does not diminish the criticism that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who himself will come up for re-election next year - is facing.
We are not referring, in this instance, to the regular criticism on the part of political rivals but rather to that which comes from the extremist conservative camp of which the president is a member. First there was last month's dismissal of the Finance Minister Davoud Danesh Jafari. Instead of acting according to the rules of etiquette and thanking the president for the opportunity he had granted him to serve in the government, the outgoing minister took a swipe at Ahmadinejad's economic policy which, according to him, has left Iran with a cash deficit and 18% inflation.
"During my term of office, they did not view favorably the experience of the past or people with experience and there was no plan for the future," Jafari said in a speech quoted by the Fars news agency.
This is the ninth minister that Ahmadinejad has dismissed since he was sworn in as president in 2005, and as the presidential elections approach, it appears that he will not be the last. Ahmadinejad now has Mostafa Pour Mohmmadi, the minister of the interior, in his sights. Mohmmadi has denied that he has been requested to leave his post even though the government spokesman announced that a replacement has been found for him.
In response to the former finance minister's strong criticism, Ahmadinejad began with a series of verbal attacks on those who "sow evil" in the country by joining the government critics and in this way "serve the enemy." In a speech in the Muslim holy city of Qom, he promised "to cut off the hands of the corrupt" and to break up "the economic mafia" which is supported by enemies of the government. Nevertheless, the president was asked, what is the solution to the economic woes? "We have to adopt a culture of self-sacrifice," he responded, but it does not appear the public understood to what he was referring.
These statements annoyed the head of the country's judiciary, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. Shahroudi, who was appointed to his post by the Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, and who is not subject to election, has a great deal of influence of his own. "A war against economic corruption is the basis for society's recovery, but if instead of using legitimate moves, one employs exaggerations and gives labels to things, then the original issue is likely to be forgotten and to turn into a tool for pushing political rivals into a corner," Shahroudi said in a direct and public attack, unprecedented during Ahmadinejad's three years in office.
A constitutional paradox
The president also finds himself in serious confrontation with the chairman of the parliament, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel. The overt reason for the confrontation is a difference of opinion over authority and control, but it seems that its real basis can be found in the deep disrespect in which the head of the legislature holds the president. Haddad-Adel, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and also studied physics, is one of the strongest figures in the country and not only because of his position as the parliament's chairman. In Iran's ruling elite, where personal connections are more important than formal positions, he holds a winning card: His daughter is married to the son of the all-powerful Khamenei.
In January, Haddad-Adel exploited this relationship to the full when a seemingly minor argument arose about subsidizing the price of gas in poor areas. It was expressly Ahmadinejad, who grew up in a family of laborers in Tehran and likes to present himself as the representative of the poor, who refused to approve the subsidies on the grounds that the parliament had not decided where the money would come from. Haddad-Adel took the opportunity to shoot an arrow into the heart of this sensitive socio-economic issue: Instead of turning to a formal legislative path, he sent a letter to his in-law Khamenei, who hastened to reply that the government had to carry out the instructions of the parliament.
The constitutional paradox - according to which a spiritual leader, who is not elected, forces the president, who is elected, to act according to the rules of the parliament, that is elected, whose laws are subject to the criticism of appointed bodies - is a separate matter. What is more important is that in this round, the chairman of the parliament was victorious.
Last month's second round of voting was held in a state of conflict. Haddad-Adel accused Ahmadinejad of ignoring parliament's economic legislation and not instructing the relevant government bodies to apply these laws. Last week, the president replied, in a strongly worded letter to Haddad-Adel, that had he taken the trouble to telephone his bureau, the parliament chairman would have found that his accusations were not correct. Ahmadinejad's letter was of course published in the media so as to show to what extent parliament is prepared to harm the institution of the presidency.
Warming up the engines
It is interesting that in the exchange of letters between the two leaders who belong to the same ideological stream, the tone is not merely sharp and sarcastic but that they also use, as excuses, the importance of preserving democracy and the rule of law. Among other things, they quote the relevant paragraphs of the constitution and the processes for applying these paragraphs.
Thus, for example, the president is obliged to publish the instructions for applying the laws of parliament within five days of their being legislated. At the same time, the laws have to be published in the official newspaper within 72 hours of legislation even if the president does not approve them or if he delays publishing the instructions. "Even if the laws are not to the president's liking, he has to carry out the instructions of the constitution and to implement them," Haddad-Adel wrote to Ahmadinejad.
These violent arguments raise the question: Is this an ideological or a political rebellion? Is the ground burning under Ahmadinejad's feet? Iranian analysts are of the opinion that this is a case of "warming up the engines" in anticipation of next year's presidential elections in which Haddad-Adel is likely to present his candidacy against that of Ahmadinejad. Thus one can expect that the verbal scuffling between the president and his potential rival and other political rivals, will merely pick up steam.
Would Haddad-Adel be a better president than Ahmadinejad? Both of them are associated with the extremist stream and neither is a cleric but they both have academic degrees and a large public of supporters. The analysts are of the opinion that from Iran's point of view, Haddad-Adel is preferable because he has a wide and statesmanlike approach and understands the importance of the rule of law. But it seems that this question is not relevant to the West, and in particular to the United States, so long as the administration in Washington is not prepared to hold a civilian dialogue with Tehran.
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