Weeks of political storms in Iran came down to this moment. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could choose to deepen his dispute with the country’s top ruler. Or here was a chance to make amends and lift the country out of an ugly power struggle.
He ended up doing a bit of both.
At a Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Ahmadinejad lavishly praised Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But he added some jabs at those who sided with Khamenei in the showdown — which began over Iran’s spy chief, but quickly expanded into a test of wills between the political machine of the presidency and the towering authority of the theocracy.
Ahmadinejad’s half-step contrition could say much about the tone of his final two years in office: humbled and diminished to some degree, but showing no intention of drifting quietly into a lame duck exit.
The main message, experts say, is that Ahmadinejad has lost his favored-son status among the ruling clerics, and now Khamenei and the hard-line theocrats are reasserting their grip with parliamentary elections next year and the vote for Ahmadinejad’s successor in mid-2013. This all means Ahmadinejad may be increasingly sidelined in shaping important policies — including the nuclear standoff with the West — and grooming a political heir.
Instead, the ruling system will likely try to keep Ahmadinejad and his allies boxed in politically and offer little change in Iran’s defiant approach to the West and its Gulf neighbors. Meanwhile, at home, the clerics may apply even more pressure on Iran’s fractured opposition to keep it in line as the rest of the region is awash in pro-reform struggles, analysts say.
“What we’re seeing is the ruling system showing its strength and Ahmadinejad displaying his weaknesses,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, who follows Iranian affairs at Syracuse University. “That’s not to say he won’t still score some victories, but his time is already fading.”
It was inevitable that attention would shift to the race to succeed Ahmadinejad as he has maxed out his time with two consecutive terms. Ahmadinejad, however, dramatically sped up the look-ahead process with a political gambit that backfired.
It started last month when he apparently forced the resignation of the influential Haidar Moslehi as intelligence minister.
Some Iranian media speculated it was part of Ahmadinejad’s efforts to boost a possible presidential run by his close friend and chief aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Control of the interior ministry is considered an important tool in Iranian politics because its sensitive files have the potential to discredit rivals.
However, Khamenei tossed it all back, reinstating Moslehi and prompting a 10-day disappearing act by Ahmadinejad, who stayed away from Cabinet meetings and other duties.
The no-shows were interpreted as his most audacious challenge to Khamenei, the pinnacle of the Islamic leadership. Clerics, lawmakers and others warned Ahmadinejad to back down and return to work — which he did last week, but at a clear price.
Now, the once ultra-confident Ahmadinejad appears off balance.
The ruling clerics — which vet all candidates for high office — have effectively killed any chance of Mashaei running for president as Ahmadinejad’s protege.
Meanwhile, critics in Iran’s parliament sense Ahmadinejad is more vulnerable and have started another petition that could — in the most extreme scenario — lead to impeachment proceedings. The chants at Friday prayers, too, have included obvious slaps at Ahmadinejad.