Iran In Brief

The Iranian Power Struggle and its Implications for the Nuclear Crisis

The Iranian Power Struggle and its Implications for the Nuclear Crisis photo

June 2, 2011

Much has been made in the media about the power struggle between Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—with the backing of the Iranian parliament (Majles)—and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The struggle may make less likely the prospect that Iran will be able (if it is indeed willing at all) to negotiate a diplomatic deal over the nuclear crisis in the near future, though it may still be willing to meet with the P5+1.  Iran has thus far been unwilling to suspend its enrichment program as called for by the United Nations Security Council or answer questions about its past work on nuclear weapons.  President Ahmadinejad may want to negotiate a weakened deal while the Supreme Leader may not want a deal at all, preferring the status quo.  A weakened deal could involve Iran attempting to convince the international community to abandon its demand that Iran suspend enrichment, with the ultimate goal of legitimizing continued enrichment in Iran.  Yet, since the Supreme Leader has shown a willingness to publicly and forcefully assert his authority over Ahmadinejad, and appears unwilling to negotiate an end to the nuclear issue, any deal is unlikely.  This could make any meetings with the P5+1 simply an empty exercise on Iran’s end.

Re-asserting Authority

The Supreme Leader and parliament have recently attempted to re-assert control over perceived oversteps by Ahmadinejad into their realms of authority.  Both may seek to re-establish power they perceive has been infringed upon or usurped by Ahmadinejad.  Nevertheless, on May 30, the Ayatollah Khamenei publicly endorsed Ahmadinejad in an apparent attempt to repair their public rift. 

Some of the power tussles throughout the months of April and May have included: 

  • A spat with Iranian intelligence which evolved into a dispute with the Supreme Leader.  It involved the dismissal by intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi of a deputy who was close to presidential chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.  That same day, Ahmadinejad fired Moslehi.  Ultimately, the Supreme Leader publicly reinstated Moslehi, a blow to Ahmadinejad’s power.  In response, Ahmadinejad did not appear at work for 8 days, showing his dissatisfaction by sulking, which caused further official anger.  Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly assembled a caretaker cabinet “in case the president resigned or had to be removed.”  Ahmadinejad quickly reappeared.
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  • Multiple hard-line Iranian officials calling for the firing of Mashaei.  Mashaei is believed to be an ardent backer of Ahmadinejad’s recent attempts to decrease the power of the clerical establishment and hard-liners, even though he simultaneously encourages Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory and religious-apocalyptic public rhetoric.  Iranian officials even refer to him as “evil” and suggest he has bewitched Ahmadinejad through sorcery.  Recent arrests of several other Ahmadinejad supporters within the government and calls to fire Mashaei reduce Ahmadinejad’s presidential power and his potential plans to position Mashaei for the presidential running in 2013. (The calls are also a personal affront, as Mashaei’s son is married to Ahmadinejad’s daughter).
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  • The Iranian parliament conducting a “relentless assault” on Ahmadinejad “with the apparent approval of …Khamenei.”  Key lawmakers have renewed a threat to impeach Ahmadinejad for illegal activities and abuse of power.  Led by Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani (who Ahmadinejad fired as secretary of the supreme national security council and lead nuclear negotiator in 2007), the parliament announced an investigation into misuse of state funds by Ahmadinejad to bribe 9 million citizens for votes prior to the 2009 presidential election.
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  • The Guardian Council’s decision to block the move by Ahmadinejad to take control of the Iranian oil ministry as its temporary caretaker and merge it with the energy ministry.  The council found the action to be unconstitutional and taken without parliamentary approval.  Speaker Larijani called on Ahmadinejad to name a permanent oil minister.  These responses should prevent Ahmadinejad from chairing an upcoming meeting of OPEC as he planned.

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