By Robert F. Worth
The New York Times, Washington, 26 Oct 2011 — An unusual proposal by Iran’s supreme leader to eliminate the position of president has highlighted an increasingly bitter struggle within the country’s political elite, as the leader and his allies continue to try to undercut the powers of Iran’s ambitious president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told an academic gathering last week that “changing Iran into a parliamentary system” in which voters no longer elected a president would not be a problem. His words were widely seen as the latest blow in a battle that began in April when Mr. Ahmadinejad crossed a line by openly feuding with Ayatollah Khamenei — who has the final word in affairs of state — over cabinet appointments.
Some analysts see the power struggle as a legacy of the disputed 2009 presidential election, when accusations of rigging — and months of street protests — deepened rifts and reduced the supreme leader’s support among the public and the political elite. Although Mr. Ahmadinejad had the supreme leader’s support in both the 2009 and 2005 elections and the two men were long seen as ideological soul mates, the president has tried to build an independent power base, and many conservatives feel threatened by his vision of an Iran less dominated by clerics.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s veiled attack on the presidency has drawn sharply polarized responses. Ali Larijani, the speaker of Parliament and a rival to Mr. Ahmadinejad, endorsed the comments and called for a parliamentary system. A former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has at times sparred with the supreme leader, warned on Tuesday that eliminating the presidency would “be contrary to the Constitution and would weaken the people’s power of choice,” according to the centrist newspaper Aftab News. Other partisans have gone further, with one pro-Ahmadinejad daily newspaper, Iran, seeming to mock the supreme leader’s comments. (That article was soon taken off the paper’s Web site.)
“The fighting in Iran is very serious now,” said Seyed Mojtaba Vahedi, a former editor of Aftab-e Yazd, an influential reformist newspaper. “The supreme leader has wanted more control over the presidency for a long time, but he never expected to have such problems with Ahmadinejad.”
Eliminating the presidency would enhance the power of Ayatollah Khamenei, who was installed for life in 1989, by leaving him with one institution to control instead of two, Mr. Vahedi said. Under the parliamentary system that Ayatollah Khamenei sketched out, legislators would elect a prime minister from their ranks.
The supreme leader might not want to risk more tumult and confrontation by eliminating the presidency while Mr. Ahmadinejad is in office, some analysts said, and it is even possible that his comments were more of a rhetorical slap, aimed at taming the president, than a serious proposal.
But other analysts said they viewed the elimination of the presidency as a possibility by 2013, when the next presidential election is to take place, or soon thereafter.
“One of the reasons why they may decide to eliminate the presidential system is precisely to avoid another presidential election and all of the political uncertainty and opportunities for popular unrest that come with it,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Either way, Mr. Sadjadpour said, it seems clear that Ayatollah Khamenei will try to ensure that the next president or prime minister is a weak and trusted subordinate he can easily control. All three of Iran’s elected presidents since 1989 — Mr. Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and Mr. Ahmadinejad — have had their own agendas and ambitions, and all became thorns in the supreme leader’s side to varying degrees.
In a sense, the current tensions can be traced to 1989, when Iran’s Constitution was modified to create a powerful presidency as a counterweight to the supreme leader. The last president before those changes was Ayatollah Khamenei himself, and the prime minister whose position was abolished at the same time was Mir Hussein Moussavi — the opposition leader who claimed the presidency had been stolen from him in 2009.
One measure of the struggle between Mr. Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei is the banking scandal unfolding in Iran. The authorities have arrested dozens of people in what they call a wide-ranging $2.6 billion embezzlement scheme, and opponents of Mr. Ahmadinejad have repeatedly accused his close associates — including his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei — of being linked to the lead suspect.
Corruption is rampant in Iran, and analysts say the supreme leader and his team must have long known of (and possibly profited from) such a large movement of money. “They are unveiling this now simply to attack Ahmadinejad and his allies,” said Mr. Vahedi, the former editor.
The bank scandal appears to be at least partly an effort to undermine the campaign war chest of Mr. Ahmadinejad and his allies, who hope to maintain their power by electing candidates in the 2012 parliamentary elections and the 2013 presidential race, analysts said. The broader conflict is mostly about power, but it also has an ideological component. Although intensely devout, Mr. Ahmadinejad is dismissive of Iran’s traditional clergy, and has said Muslims do not need the intercession of clerics to contact the Hidden Imam, a messianic figure in Shiite Islam. Conservatives have lambasted the president’s circle — often singling out Mr. Mashaei — as a “deviant current.”
The constant friction has polarized the political elite, and appears to be undermining the supreme leader’s traditional role as a broker, analysts say. Although Ayatollah Khamenei crushed the reformists and the opposition movement that led massive street protests in 2009, that crisis ruptured his relationship with members of the Islamic Republic’s old guard of founders, notably Mr. Rafsanjani.
“The machinery of government is increasingly breaking down,” said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Khamenei has lost the old guard, the economy is collapsing, and now he is more and more isolated internationally. Can he survive? It remains to be seen.”