A Leader Gone Lame

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is facing growing opposition in parliament, and if this weren't enough, the Iranian president is also being taken to task for embellishing recent job figures.


A person who buys his son a wrist watch for $28,000 and a Mercedes for $135,000 has no business serving as a deputy cabinet minister, according to Ahmad Tavakoli, who heads the research department of the Iranian parliament. This was his reaction to last week's appointment of Muhammad Sharif Malekzadeh as deputy foreign minister for economic affairs by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akhbar Salehi. Salehi hastened to deny the charges, but Tavakoli retorted: "Go and ask the intelligence service and the Justice Ministry if you are not familiar with the details."

Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad - AP - June 29 2011

There wasn't anything personal here. The real target of Tavakoli's attack was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who approved the appointment. The problem is not merely personal corruption - the deputy foreign minister is now under investigation, after being forced to resign and put under arrest - but rather Ahmadinejad's attempts to maneuver government operations in order to guarantee that his legacy continues even after he steps down as president in two years.

The dismissal of Malekzadeh is the lastest in a series of clashes between Ahmadinejad and his opponents in parliament. The appointment of Hamid Sajadi, the president's candidate for minister of sport and youth, has been rejected by the parliament, as has his proposal to unify the ministries of oil and industry. At the same time, two of Ahmadinejad's associates, Ali Asghar Parhizkaar and Ali Reza Moqimi, both of whom administer Free Trade Zones in Iran, have been arrested on charges of corruption.

Ahmadinejad's troubles do not end with this. In April, he suffered a big blow when Iran's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered him to reinstate the minister of intelligence, Heidar Moslehi, whom Ahmadinejad had dismissed. Last week, 90 members of parliament signed a request that the president make himself available for questioning as part of a preliminary inquiry "meant to clarify differences of opinion," as the senior parliamentarian behind this initiative, Ali Motahari, explained.

The Iranian constitution permits parliament to conduct a personal inquiry of the president, but it is rare that this happens. If one-third of the members sign a petition demanding answers to their questions, the president must respond within a month. If two-thirds decide that the president is no longer fit to serve in his position, the supreme spiritual leader must then weigh in. At this point, Ahmadinejad is not in danger of being fired, but his political strength is waning, particularly in light of his attempts to pave the way for his son-in-law and personal adviser (as well as his former deputy ) Esfandiar Mashaei to succeed him.

Fazil Musavi, a member of parliament, said last week that "all Ahmadinejad needs to lose his position is two more yellow cards," but Iraninan analysts believe that rather than fire Ahmadinejad, Khamenei will prefer to keep him on a short leash, thereby avoiding political chaos during this sensitive period.

Ahmadinejad is under mounting pressure not only when it comes to political appointments. The parliament has also begun investigating Ministry of Labor reports that 1.6 million jobs were created last year after it emerged that these reports were inaccurate and that other optimistic forecasts announced by Ahmadinejad, according to which an additional 1.25 million jobs would be created next year, are unfounded. "Between 2000 and 2004, when the growth rate in Iran was 6.3 percent, the government created merely 600,000 jobs, whereas now, when the rate has gone down to 3 percent, it is inconceivable that the government will be able to create 1.1 million jobs," a senior parliamentarian maintained.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund has revised its forecasts for economic growth in Iran from zero percent to 3 percent. In a report published this month, the organization praised Iran's economic stability and the drop in inflation from 25.4 percent to 12.4 percent. It also noted that the government had succeeded in closing gaps between rich and poor. Ahmadinejad could not have hoped for a bigger compliment. And no less significant was the slap in the face the IMP delivered to those advocating sanctions against Tehran.

What do these figures mean for the green protest movement? It is still active but no longer able to bring the masses out the streets as it was following the elections in 2009. On June 12, the second anniversary of the elections, its leaders tried to bring one million demonstrators out into the streets but only several thousand showed up. Taking into account the growing opposition to Ahmadinejad in parliament, and at the same time, the fact that the movement's two leaders - Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi - are under house arrest, the best it can hope for at this stage is that the parliament will lead the way to reform. The paradox is that this reformist movement is now forced to rely on the conservative elements in the parliament - and on the president's mistakes - to achieve its own objectives.

Still, the recent political turmoil and Ahmadinejad's economic failings will not cause a rethinking of Iranian nuclear policy. There is an overwhelming consensus in the country, even among members of the green protest movement, that Iran has the right to develop its nuclear capabilities and should not succumb to sanctions from the West.