08.05.09

A Coup in Iran?

As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is sworn in for another term as president, his parliament is publicly rebuking and investigating him. The Daily Beast’s Reza Aslan on how long he can survive.

Plus, Reza Aslan on the 50 Iranian journalists jailed in the post-election crackdown.

Today, the mess that is post-election Iran becomes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s problem, and bets are already being placed in Iran on just how long his second term as president will last.

Ahmadinejad’s most immediate challenge will be to name 21 cabinet ministers, the three most important of which are the minister of defense, the minister of the interior (who also oversees the elections), and the minister of foreign affairs. He can also nominate up to 10 vice presidents, one of which, the first vice president, will be charged with taking over the presidency should some horrible fate befall Ahmadinejad (God forbid). According to Iran's constitution, the president has two weeks from the day of his inauguration to present his cabinet to the parliament for approval. This will not be an easy task.

If Ahmadinejad continues to lose Khamenei’s protection and support, then there is little that will keep his opponents in parliament from frustrating his every move as president.

Ahmadinejad has always had a turbulent relationship with Iran’s parliament, the Majlis. During his first tenure as president, the parliament rejected half a dozen of his cabinet appointments on the grounds that they were either unqualified or too ideological (read: former members of the Revolutionary Guard) for their positions. The row with the MPs lasted so long that Ahmadinejad was forced to convene his first cabinet meeting with four ministries still to be filled.

In the last year, Ahmadinejad’s relationship with the parliament has gotten worse. His interior minister, Ali Kordan, was impeached for lying about his credentials (Kordan falsely claimed to hold a doctorate from Oxford University). His minister of industry, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, was arrested and convicted of fraud. Just last week, he fired his intelligence minister, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, after a heated argument broke out between the two men in the middle of a cabinet meeting. His culture minister, Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi, angrily resigned in protest. In fact, Ahmadinejad has lost so many ministers in his first cabinet that the parliament threatened him with a vote of no confidence.

The controversy over the elections has brought tension between the president and parliament to the surface. Out of 300 MPs, 180 skipped his election celebration. Last week, more than 200 of them signed an open letter demanding that Ahmadinejad “correct his behavior.” This was in response to Ahmadinejad’s deliberately ignoring a directive from Iran's supreme leader to sack his nominee for first vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie. After four days of refusing to budge, Ahmadinejad fired Mashaie then immediately rehired him as chief of staff, arguably a more important position, and one that does not need parliamentary approval.

The current speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, is a conservative and ally of the supreme leader who has not hidden his utter contempt for Ahmadinejad (it should be noted that Ahmadinejad beat Larijani in the 2005 presidential elections, despite the fact that Khamenei had endorsed Larijani). That might explain why Larijani has decided to form an investigative committee to look into accusations of prisoner abuse carried out by Ahmadinejad’s cronies in the Revolutionary Guard during the post-election crackdown. That means that the parliament will be investigating Ahmadinejad at the same time that it is supposed to be approving his cabinet.

Ahmadinejad’s foes in the parliament—of which he has many—will likely try to use their confirmation powers to frustrate his attempts to put his administration together in a timely fashion, in hopes that gridlock will force the supreme leader to institute a state of emergency and remove Ahmadinejad from office.

Ahmadinejad’s relationship with the religious establishment is not much better than his relationship with the parliament. His election has been questioned or openly rejected by all but one of the country’s handful of grand ayatollahs. Iran’s most respected cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, has issued a fatwa calling Ahmadinejad’s administration illegitimate. The influential Assembly of Scholars and Researchers at Qom Seminary released a joint statement demanding new elections. Even one of Ahmadinejad’s most vocal supporters, the hardline conservative Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council (the electoral body that certified his election victory) has made public comments critical of Ahmadinejad in the last few days.

The news site Tehran Bureau reports that some of the most prominent members of the powerful Assembly of Experts (the generally conservative religious body that chooses the supreme leader) boycotted Ahmadinejad’s swearing-in ceremony on Monday. Perhaps far more damaging to Ahmadinejad’s credibility among the religious classes is that not a single family member of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic republic’s founder, showed up to the ceremony. Considering that Ahmadinejad has talked of being visited by Khomeini in his dreams, this was an embarrassing slight that most pious Iranians will not be able to ignore.

Now it appears that even the supreme leader is having his troubles with Ahmadinejad. Although both men insist that the rift over Ahmadinejad’s choice for vice president has been healed, close observers of Iranian politics could not help but notice the awkward distance between the two during the president’s swearing-in ceremony (which, by the way, was not broadcast on state-run television for the first time in more than 12 years). When Ahmadinejad leaned forward to kiss the supreme leader’s cheeks and hand, as he did he first time he was sworn in, Ali Khamenei paused and instead offered only his robes.

There’s little chance that Khamenei will turn his back on Ahmadinejad. After his unconditional endorsement of his presidency, their fates are now sealed together. If Ahmadinejad falls, Khamenei is next. Nevertheless, if Ahmadinejad continues to lose Khamenei’s protection and support, then there is little that will keep his opponents in parliament from frustrating his every move as president.

And then there’s the economy. Under Ahmadinejad’s stewardship, Iran’s economy is teetering on the brink of collapse. The annual inflation rate hovers at around 26 percent. Official unemployment is almost 20 percent, though Iranians will tell you that the number is likely closer to 40 percent. Iran’s deteriorating oil infrastructure is in such shambles that despite sitting on the world’s second-largest supply of oil, the country is forced to import 40 percent of its gasoline.

Iran is desperate for international investment, which is what Ahmadinejad promised to deliver while campaigning for president (seriously). But it is difficult to imagine the leaders of Europe and North America sitting across the table from a president whose own people believe to be illegitimate. If Ahmadinejad cannot figure out a way to fix Iran’s economic woes, the uprising will become a riot.

Day One of Ahmadinejad’s second term as president is over. Bets anyone?

Reza Aslan, a contributor to The Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.