August 07, 2008

The End of Ahmadinejad?

Originally published in National Review Online

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is running out of time, friends, and luck. Presidential elections will be held in June 2009, but Ahmadinejad has still not delivered on his 2005 election promises of "bringing the oil money to the tables of the people." In a recent televised interview, the Iranian president assured the public that he would distribute the oil wealth of the country before the next presidential elections, "even if I have to do it at my last day in office," hardly an assuring message to the impoverished Iranians whose' cause Ahmadinejad claims to advance. 

Apart from betraying the trust of the "downtrodden," Ahmadinejad has also alienated the Islamic Republic's religious and political elites. Unable to resolve the problems arising from Iran's command economy, Ahmadinejad attacks the clerical and bureaucratic establishment of the Islamic Republic. Not a week passes without the president or his proxies disclosing secrets about economic and morally corrupt celebrities. But, apart from naming and shaming, the Ahmadinejad government does little to prosecute the alleged criminals who all seem to be among the ranks of his critics. The Ahmadinejad government has also not shown interest in fighting the root causes of corruption: Lack of transparency and the patronage system permeating all levels of political life in the Islamic Republic. In reality, Ahmadinejad's blame game has no other purpose than deflecting responsibility for mismanagement of the economy. His strategy has neither resolved the inflation problem, provided bread for the poor or affordable rent for the middle class, nor gained the president friends.

In the last week, fortune seems to have finally turned her back to Ahmadinejad. As the head of the executive branch, the Iranian president enjoys the prerogative of appointing ministers. But, as in most other things in the Islamic Republic, the president must share his prerogative with various centers of power. Unofficially, the Supreme Leader appoints the intelligence minister and interior minister. Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, still among the Islamic Republic's most powerful politicians with special interest in the economy and trade, exerts influence over the appointment of oil minister. Ahmadinejad's original cabinet in 2005 reflected the influence exerted by various centers of power.

But as he grew confident--perhaps overconfident--in power, Ahmadinejad has cleansed his government of ministers who had been imposed on him by others, giving him the Islamic Republic record as the president presiding over the most government shuffles. The fact that the Iranian parliament must give a vote of confidence to each new minister adds to the complexity of this process. 

Herein, August 5, 2008, may be a date which Ahmadinejad comes to rue. On that day, Ahmadinejad presented for parliamentary ratification three candidates for ministerial portfolios: Seyyed Shams al-Din Hosseini to be minister of economy and finance, Hamid Behbahani to be minister of roads and transportation and, finally, Revolutionary Guards founding father Ali Kordan to be interior minister. The parliament showed real opposition to the candidates and, especially, to Kordan. The night before the debate in parliament, opponents allegedly distributed a pamphlet in parliament attacking Kordan's credentials. Then, the parliamentary speaker had to intervene to prevent parliamentarians Eliyas Naderan and Ali Tavakoli raising concerns about Kordan's "moral issues and bad reputation." Ali Mottahari, ironically a member of Ahmadinejad's parliamentary bloc, harangued Kordan for alleged nepotism, while a fourth parliamentarian, Rouhollah Hosseinian, questioned the authenticity of Kordan's self-proclaimed doctoral degree from Oxford University.

Ahmadinejad himself had to intervene to rescue his nominees, which he did by implying that they already had the endorsement of the Supreme Leader: "It did not even take him two minutes . . . then he said go get the confidence of the parliament." Most parliamentarians then voted for the candidates not because of inclination, but for of fear of opposing the will of the Supreme Leader. The consequences of Ahmadinejad's "nuclear option," may be grave. Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari, an appointee of the Supreme Leader who acts as his unofficial spokesman, accused the president of forging the Supreme Leader's words, and the Supreme Leader's Office clarified that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei only said he did not "oppose," but refrained from saying that he had endorsed them. Then, Alef News Agency published a letter from Oxford University denying all knowledge of Kordan and refuting the claim that he had received a degree.

The affair may be amusing to Iran watchers, but it has the potential to grow larger. First, there may now be a parliamentary investigation into how Ahmadinejad won the vote of confidence of the parliament for his nominees, a process which can weaken Ahmadinejad in his last year as president. In theory, the parliament could also impeach Ahmadinejad or, at the very least, the interior minister who had presented false credentials. This scenario would not only destroy Ali Kordan the individual, but also bring about the collapse of the entire cabinet. According to Iranian legislation, if more than half of a government presented by a president has been changed during his presidency, the entire cabinet needs to gain a vote of confidence from the parliament. Kordan would be the critical eleventh minister to go and so tip the balance. In other words, Ahmadinejad's successful cleansing of his government during the past three years could be his end. Short of time, friend and luckless Ahmadinejad's prospects of winning next year's presidential elections have evaporated into the polluted air of Tehran.

Ali Alfoneh is a research fellow at AEI.