Ahmadinejad’s judgment questioned by hardliners

President Ahmadinejad is trying to put his stamp on the Iranian presidency but his outspoken approach has caused a diplomatic crisis abroad and a clamour among his own supporters at home. Strident comments about Israel in late October, the decision to purge Iranian embassies of reformist or technocrat diplomats in early November and the nomination of a man with no energy experience for the key Oil Ministry post have precipitated an early crisis in the three-month-old administration.

By mid-October, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, had already taken the unusual step of publicly asking Iranians to give his president more time to prove himself. A series of foreign policy blunders and criticism of the new administration’s style and inexperience have led some senior conservatives to question the president’s judgement.

Although his comment that Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’ falls broadly in line with long-term policy, it has long been recognised that it is more effective to address the issue in more general terms. Critics in Iran say he failed to understand how such strong words could cause a furore outside the country, weakening Iran’s diplomatic position and giving ammunition to both the US and Israel – who are seeking UN action against Iran over its nuclear programme.

In the circumstances, the decision to carry out root and branch changes to the country’s diplomatic personnel was poorly timed. Although the new government was expected to replace many officials from outside the conservative camp, it has at a stroke lost many of its most experienced diplomats. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the Majlis (parliament) in early November that by the end of the Iranian year in March 2006, almost 40 ambassadors and heads of mission would be replaced. The ambassadors to London, Paris and Berlin have already been recalled.

Much of the difficulty is understood to stem from the president’s stated belief that enthusiastic idealists are more effective in government than proven managers. As a result, a string of Basij and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps members have been appointed to top positions without extensive administrative experience. While this is a key element of Ahmadinejad’s attempt to tackle corruption by ousting the old ruling elite, it has also caused some of his supporters concern that the new men are not up to their jobs.

The issue is threatening to come to a head over the nomination of Sadeq Mahsouli as Oil Minister. After scotching the president’s first nominee for the post in August and forcing him to retract another name, he had decided to submit in late October, conservative lawmakers have reacted with derision towards the new choice. The vote on Mahsouli, expected in early November, could provide a clear indication of how far the president has managed to convince his own supporters that he is heading in the right direction.