|Picture shows Ahmadinejad kissing Ayatollah Khamenei's hand at the swearing-in ceremony for his first term|
The recent intervention by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei to veto President Ahmadinejad’s dismissal of his intelligence minister and his subsequent lukewarm reaction to Khamenei’s intervention have given rise to a variety of analyses and speculations about the causes of this incident and its implications for Iran’s domestic politics as well as its foreign policy in the months and years to come. Some analysts have gone as far as interpreting the recent developments as a full-scale power struggle between Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad and alarming the West of the ominous implications of a possible victory of Ahmadinejad over Khamenei. Such analyses clearly do not reflect an in-depth understanding of the nature of the political system and domestic politics in post-revolutionary Iran.
The recent political developments in Iran are obviously not devoid of any political significance. Indeed, by his recent intervention to veto Ahmadinejad’s decision to sack his intelligence minister Khamenei scored several points. First, his act had the effect of further consolidating his own position as the ultimate power and a supra-constitutional figure in Iran. Second, even if not originally intended, his measure was also viewed as an appeasement and a conciliatory signal to the political opponents of Ahmadinejad including the former president Rafsanjani, moderate reformist political figures as well as Ahmadinejad’s conservative critics in the Iranian parliament, many of whom were disenchanted with Khamenei’s strong support for Ahmadinejad in the last disputed presidential election in Iran. Third, Khamenei also demonstrated to the public that he does not reserve an unconditional and perpetual support for Ahmadinejad. Such a public gesture makes it more convenient for Khamenei to disavow Ahmadinejad in the future in the event public and elite opposition to Ahmadinejad threatens the very foundations of the political system in Iran.
There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad’s power has been undermined. His recent statement in the cabinet meting that a strong president bolsters the position of the supreme leader was an implicit admission to the fact that the recent developments have undermined his position. Notwithstanding this, Ahmadinejad is not expected to openly challenge the person of the supreme leader on both ideological and pragmatic grounds. On the pragmatic ground, he is well aware that any overt challenge to the person of the supreme leader would amount to political suicide for him. Some members of the Iranian parliament have already threatened Ahmadinejad with impeachment should he not show humble respect for Khamenei’s recent intervention. Ahmadinejad knows well that upon Khamenei’s green light , his opponents at the parliament can well muster enough votes to effectively impeach him. Presidential impeachment has a precedent in the history of the Islamic republic, a fact which makes such a threat more credible.
In addition to pragmatic considerations, Ahmadinejad is also averse to openly challenging the person of the supreme leader for ideological reasons. He holds deep respect for the person of the supreme leader and is in principle against disputing his position. However this does not mean to preclude the possibility of a passive-aggressive reaction by Ahmadinejad, as in the recent case, to show his discontent at any infringement upon his constitutional powers. Rather than directly challenging Khamenei, he is likely to publicly challenge those conservative political circles which capitalized on the recent occasion to undermine his power, should they persist in their political offensive.
All in all, caution should be taken not to read too much into the recent political dispute in Iran . While some conservative political circles would like to exploit the existing political situation in order to score more political points against Ahmadinejad, such as by pressuring him to sack his controversial aide Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would prefer to prevent any further political wrangling in the country. For clear reasons, Khamenei is extremely sensitive to giving any public impression of serious divisions among the top political leaders of the country and would thus like to keep a tap on the political situation. While showing his respect for Khamenei, Ahmadinejad is also unlikely to buckle down under political pressure to dismiss his close aide and chief of staff Mashaei. In the past, Ahmadinejad has shown his resilience in the face of political pressures when important issues for him were at stake . While respecting Khamenei’s instruction not to appoint Mashaei as vice-president in a similar intervention at the opening of his second presidential term, Ahmadinejad also demonstrated his independence by appointing Mashaei as his chief of staff instead. In light of these considerations, the current political situation in Iran is not expected to unravel much further and the political actors would most likely content with the existing gains distribution.