11.25.10

So Long, Ahmadinejad

With a rapidly eroding power base and a close brush with impeachment this week, the Iranian president is in trouble—and the ayatollah may not prop him up much longer.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in trouble. Recently, the Iranian president faced an insurrection among lawmakers, who are seeking his impeachment for various law violations. Pro-democracy politicians, reformists, moderate conservatives and even Ahmadinejad’s former allies are still calling for reform. Key religious leaders have repeatedly shown their dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad, who has had to travel to the holy city of Quom several times during the past few months to heal the divide. And observers within Iran believe that, due to multilateral sanctions and the government’s economic policies, the president’s powerbase is eroding.

Ahmadinejad's "domestic political aggression might lead the country into social and political instability—similar to or even worse than what the country went through after the 2009 Presidential elections," Ali-Akbar Mousavi Khoeini, a former Iranian lawmaker told The Daily Beast in an interview Thursday. "The move by the Iranian parliament to question and to [try to] eventually impeach Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicates a serious divide amongst the conservatives in power."

Iranian politicians complain that Ahmadinejad oversteps his bounds by ignoring the supervisory role of parliament. Yet few lawmakers dare to speak up.

“All the behind-the-scenes…powers support him,” Akbar Alami, a former Iranian lawmaker, told The Daily Beast in a telephone interview. “It is through the support of these individuals…that Ahmadinejad is emboldened to bully the parliament, and to break the law.”

It was only the direct intervention of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, that spared Ahmadinejad when the Iranian parliament moved to impeach him earlier this week.

Since last year’s disputed presidential elections, Iranian politics have become extremely polarized, and many conservatives worry that Ahmadinejad, who has already sidelined the reformists, will also eliminate moderate conservatives in the coming elections, in a bid to monopolize his power.

“It is through the support of these individuals… that Ahmadinejad is emboldened to bully the parliament, and to break the law.”

But observers say that any attempt to dislodge Ahmadinejad is extremely difficult, given his support offered by the supreme leader, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Guardian Council – the religious council that is the most influential political body in Iran.

“We attempted to call President Ahmadinejad to the parliament several times, but members did not cooperate,” Alami said. “The parliament members have an unfortunate practice to take back their signatures from something they have previously supported.”

Alami, who publically criticized Ahmadinejad during the previous parliamentary term, was disqualified by the Guardian Council to enter the parliament in 2008. (The Guardian Council is in charge of approving candidates and the results of elections in Iran.)

Inside Iran, people speculate about Ahmadinejad’s declining popularity even among his traditional supporters within the parliament. But Dr. Sadeq Zibakalam, a prominent political analyst in Tehran, told The Daily Beast that the level of discontent is difficult to gauge.

Reza Aslan: Ahmadinejad’s Days Are Numbered“It’s not clear [whether] his supporters would be willing to stand behind him, should an impeachment materialize,” he said. But he added that other factors could bring the president down. “If the oil prices go down…or if Iran’s oil revenue is reduced, the Ahmadinejad government is not well-positioned to endure.” The country's reliance on oil revenue makes it vulnerable, he said. “The only reason Mr. Ahmadinejad has been able to keep the country’s economy alive has been the $70 to $80 per barrel oil prices, and exports of over 2.5 million oil barrels per day. If anything should happen to this easily gained revenue, the Iranian economy would for sure become paralyzed and crash.”

The Iranian government is planning to cut massive subsidies this year, although the details have not been announced yet. Elimination of subsidies could make things even tougher for the poor and the lower-middleclass, which comprise a large part of Ahmadinejad’s powerbase.

Ali Mazrooei a former member of the Iranian parliament, told The Daily Beast that at the end of the day, questioning or impeaching the president cannot be achieved without Khamenei’s permission.

“Ahmadinejad has remained in power so far only through the support of the [supreme] leader,” he said. “When the [supreme] leader realizes that Ahmadinejad’s incumbency is no longer in his best interest, he will cut off his support. And I think that day will come. Mr. Khamenei is astute.”

Omid Memarian is columnist whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. He was a World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2007-2009 and the 2005 recipient of the ‘Human Rights Defender Award’, the highest honor bestowed by Human Rights Watch.