Stormy times ahead

13 January 2006
It has been a turbulent first few months for President Ahmadinejad. Since his inauguration in August, he has faced hostility from the Majlis (parliament) over top cabinet appointments, drawn international fire over his views on Israel and incurred the displeasure of senior ayatollahs for expressing unorthodox religious views.
'No government since the Islamic revolution has been so viciously attacked,' he complained after Majlis deputies turned down his second choice as oil minister, Sadeq Mahsouli, in November. Although his fourth choice for the post, acting minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh, was finally approved in January, the dispute was seen as symptomatic of the new president's difficulties.

From the ripples on the surface, it is clear that currents are changing in Iran's deep political waters. But a host of big political questions remain. The most acute surround his relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior regime figures and interest groups such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Expediency Council and the Judiciary.

These in turn open up questions about the seriousness of his breach with the Majlis and the extent to which he enjoys public support - something likely to hinge largely on the success of hundreds of new appointees in fulfilling Ahmadinejad's populist social and economic policies. Much will also depend on Iran's relations with the outside world, which have been strained severely by the new president's views at a time when the nuclear issue is reaching a head.

At the root of the matter is a single point - is Ahmadinejad the face of a new Iranian regime or does he represent a limited political faction that has nudged up against the pinnacles of power but will go no further?

Some analysts believe it is too soon to judge. 'The new administration is inexperienced, it has changed a lot of officials and they are only now getting acquainted with their jobs,' says Ebrahim Yazdi, a political dissident and former foreign affairs minister. 'So it is valid to ask what will change but too early.'

Khamenei was widely understood to have unofficially supported Ahmadinejad's candidacy in the election, hoping his elevation would bring close allies into most of the key positions of government. The new president obliged, giving senior positions to devotees of the leader.

'These people are drawn from the IRGC, the Basij militia and top circles in Qom,' says a Tehran-based political analyst. 'They are untainted with the wrangling and corruption of past administrations and, unlike some of the reformists, they all believe in the system of the Islamic republic and the supreme leader's place in it.'

But in the months that have passed since the election, there have been signs of a new strain between the leadership and the presidency. The increased powers given to the Expediency Council in October, giving it a wider mandate to 'oversee' the other branches of power, appeared to be an attempt to balance Iran's political factions and clip the wings of the new president.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of the Expediency Council and Ahmadinejad's unsuccessful rival in June, criticised those around the president with unusual candour in November. 'They soil the reputation of our political and economic managers with abandon in the name of fighting corruption,' said the man who has come to be seen as the second most powerful in the country.

Many of the senior managers he mentioned may be out of a job but they are not toothless. 'This is a society that is intensely political and the elites have their interest to protect,' says Ali Ansari from the UK's University of St Andrews. 'We know they're not leaving the country, so the question is: what are they going to do now they have no jobs but lots of time on their hands?'

The most telling battle fought

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