A Tutor for the President

Some members of the Iranian parliament are astonished to see Ahmadinejad as president at all - they claim that their government, in other words the president, is not responding to their requests, and is not initiating legislation to improve the economic situation.

Hartford University, as opposed to the University of Hartford in the United States, is a virtual college that operates on the Internet and grants academic degrees, from bachelor's to doctorates. It is the college where Ali Saeedlou, the designated oil minister of Iran, studied, and where he received his Ph.D. "Designated," because the conservative Iranian parliament, the body that is supposed to give its full backing to the new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, decided at the conclusion of a lengthy debate, which lasted more than 30 hours, to reject the appointment.

The reason was not the doctoral degree he received from the online university, which of course teaches in English - the language of the Great Satan - but his lack of experience in oil affairs and the concern that he could lead Iranian oil policy to the brink of disaster. This was the official reason, which in itself was enough to prevent the appointment. The other, non-official but no less powerful reason is the creaky relationship between the president and the parliament. In the less than three months since his election as president in June, Ahmadinejad has managed to get on the nerves of numerous members of parliament, particularly those who head important committees, such as energy and national security.

For example, these members of parliament claim that the government, in other words the president (Iran has no prime minister), is not responding to their requests, and is not initiating legislation to improve the economic situation. Similarly, they contend, his new bureaucracy is at odds with their plan to wipe out poverty. Instead, it prolongs the administrative corruption, as he attempts to appoint individuals who served with him in his previous posts as the mayor of Tehran and as an intelligence officer in the Republican Guards.

One of Ahmadinejad's associates, the conservative MP Ahmed Tawakli, was quoted by the Fars news agency as saying that "absolute support for Ahmadinejad is liable to lead to an administrative breakdown of the state." But more importantly, Iran is beginning to realize that Ahmadinejad could cause strategic damage to the state. And this does not refer to his statements about Israel. They are only the latest example of the damage, which led to the ensuing "correction speech" by Hashemi Rafsanjani and the response of the Iranian foreign ministry, in which spokesmen underscored Iran's commitment to the UN charter, and especially the positive attitude of Islam toward Judaism and Jews. For Ahmadinejad this is a no less severe slap in the face than the parliament's decision not to confirm four of his proposed cabinet appointments, or parliament's enactment of a law to reduce gasoline imports, which Ahmadinejad's government should have initiated but did not.

Oil shortage

The main criticism of Ahmadinejad stems from the fact that Iran is now under immense international pressure, from which it seeks to extricate itself in order to gain some strategic objectives: continued construction of its nuclear reactors without outside interference, and the building of an economy - especially an oil economy - that will not bring it to bankruptcy 20 years from now. Iran's economic data is at first glance impressive: Approximately 13 percent of global oil reserves lie under its territory, it earned about $30 billion this year from oil exports, and in recent years evolved from a state that owes money into a state that can pay in cash for its projects.

The bad news is that even according to official Iranian reports, at current production levels, unless Iran invests large amounts of money to develop its oil fields, within 20 years it will be unable to export oil, and will consume all its production locally. Since the Khomeini revolution, Iran has produced about 4.5 million barrels of oil a day, about 2 million barrels less than production levels prior to the revolution, due to the sanctions that led to the corrosion of equipment and the curtailment of investment in development of the oil industry. In recent years, national oil consumption has increased by some 5.2 percent annually, and Iran is already forced to import gasoline at a total outlay of $5.5 billion a year, as its refineries are unable to refine the amount required for domestic consumption. It is estimated that Iran needs an investment of about $4 billion a year in order to increase its oil production and develop its refineries.

Given the situation, a clever Iranian parliament cannot accept an oil minister who lacks a full understanding of the oil economy and whose experience amounts to having managed the finances of the Tehran municipality for Ahmadinejad. Nor can such a parliament agree to a populist policy in which the president wants to hand out approximately $1,000 to every couple that marries, and by this means prevent unrest among the younger generation. This is a generation that is less interested in revolutionary ideology and wants to hear its government say when they will be getting decent jobs. Based on the outcome of the last five-year plan, the previous regime, under Mohammed Khatami, managed to create only 2.9 million jobs, about 700,000 less than planned and about 1.5 million less than needed even to begin to wipe out unemployment, which affects mainly young people and university graduates.

With populist planning like Ahmadinejad's, it is hard to see not only how Iran will break free of its economic difficulties but also how it will create an opportunity for local and foreign investors to up their investments in the state. For example, sources in the Iranian opposition report that since Ahmadinejad's rise to power, private capital along the lines of $200 billion has fled the country, and has been invested in real estate and stock exchanges in the Gulf states, particularly in the United Arab Emirates. And if it is difficult to receive any conformation of such a report, it is sufficient to observe the Iranian stock market, which has plummeted by 20 percent since June.

The result of all this is that the spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, has decided that Ahmadinejad is still in need of a "tutoring period," and recently appointed Hashemi Rafsanjani as the tutor. He is the man that Ahmadinejad beat in the election. Rafsanjani, who is himself a past president of the state and speaker of parliament, now serves, as well, as chairman of the State Expediency Council, an appointed body that has been assigned the job of bridging the gap between government policy and parliament legislation, and is essentially the supreme arbiter when it comes to government policy. Rafsanjani, who appointed the outgoing president Khatami to a senior post on his council, is well aware of Iran's international dilemmas and its need to enlist investors, as well as the necessity of not stepping on the toes of Europe and the U.S. This also explains why it was Khamenei and not Ahmadinejad who has now issued statements on nuclear development, since Ahmadinejad's pronouncements caused the countries of Europe to join in the demand to have the Security Council vote on the Iranian question.

The fruits of pressure

Ahmadinejad is now feeling pressure from the Iranian power centers, as did his predecessor Khatami. However, this time the pressure is coming from Ahmadinejad's cohorts, and even from the group that supported him in the election. He now realizes that as president he cannot set policy on his own, that he cannot rely on parliament to support him unconditionally, and he cannot even issue pronouncements against Israel without someone in the Iranian regime intervening.

Interestingly, the counterresponse to the international condemnations of Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel statements was delivered by Rafsanjani, who in his Friday sermon in Tehran spoke about the great respect that Islam in general and Iran in particular feel for Jews and for Judaism, emphasizing, "We have a problem only with Zionist circles in Israel, which we see as being responsible for the repression of the Palestinian nation." This is the same Rafsanjani who in 2001 claimed that Israel could be destroyed with a single nuclear bomb, with minimal damage to the Muslim world. But now he is in a different position, as someone opposed to Ahmadinejad and once again close to Khamenei, and especially as someone who would like to present himself once again as a reformer in the next election.

The pressure on Ahmadinejad is already having an effect. This week, he dismissed Iran's ambassadors in Britain, Germany and France, claiming that they were not up to the task of alleviating the global pressure on Iran. But more importantly, he threatened to tell the public in Iran how Rafsanjani is thwarting his programs. And when this is the threat voiced by Ahmadinejad, it can be assumed that he is beginning to climb the wall of conflict with the conservative but pragmatic establishment, which is itself astonished to see him as the president of Iran.