As the Iranian election approaches, a power struggle is escalating. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former favorite of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, is starting to confront the nation's conservatives.
February 2 this year was an unusual day in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as an unprecedented scene unfolded in parliament and was broadcast live on the radio. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attempting to prevent his Labor Minister Reza Sheikholeslam from being sacked, accused the representatives of torpedoing his government.
As evidence, the president showed a video which, he claimed, uncovered the secret machinations of parliamentary chairman Ali Larijani and his brothers. He charged the Larijani siblings with corruption and abuse of power.
Several members of parliament protested against the president's declaration, and Larijani defended himself, accusing Ahmadinejad of trying to blackmail him with the video, of using "mafia tactics," and of behaving "beneath the dignity of a president." This heated exchange was considered unique in Iranian politics, where politeness usually goes above all else. The Iranian media spoke of a "Black Sunday" for the country's politics.
Under the shadow of elections
The scandal is closely connected to the upcoming elections - Ahmadinejad's tenure ends in mid-June, and there is a tough power struggle going on over his succession. Observers say Ahmadinejad's parliamentary rant shows that the president is determined to keep his regime in power well after his reign has ended.
At the same time, the consequences of the tumultuous scenes in parliament illustrate the role that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is playing in the fight. Iran's religious leader initially prevented further escalation by publicly censuring both men, and, for good measure, declaring that Ahmadinejad had violated religious laws by making the secretly-filmed video.
Relations between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have been frosty for months, if not years. The decisive break between the pair occurred in April 2011, when the president forced the resignation of Heydar Moslehi, head of the Iranian secret service, only for the Ayatollah to intervene to ensure that Moslehi returned to office. The humiliated president reacted by refusing to leave his home for several days.
But although Ahmadinejad is often forced to suffer such setbacks in the power machinations, he has begun to defy his former mentor more and more often. Even Khamenei's allies among the Revolutionary Guards are not spared the president's attacks, despite the fact that they made decisive interventions to ensure his election and re-election in 2005 and 2009.
The 57-year-old president is not allowed to run for election again, but he is pulling strings for his close friend, advisor, and former deputy Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. If Ahmadinejad has his way, Mashaei will succeed him, but the Guardian Council, the authority in charge of the election, has barred him from taking part, a decision that the president is contesting.
One reason why Khamenei did not oust Ahmadinejad before the election was the opposition, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Both stood as candidates in the 2009 presidential election, and both were placed under house arrest after they questioned Ahmadinejad's victory and claimed irregularities. To them and their supporters, Ahmadinejad's early dismissal from the presidential office would mean nothing less than a moral victory over Khamenei.
As a result, Ahmadinejad is now exploiting the Ayatollah's difficult position by polarizing political opinion and trying to win popularity among the people. This increasing influence could turn out to be very helpful for his preferred candidate. Iran is facing turbulent times.