In the Arena

Ahmadinejad (Almost) Impeached

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The most interesting political struggle in Iran isn’t between the Green movement reformers and the conservative establishment. It’s between conservative “principalists” like Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Majlis (the Iranian parliament), and hyper-conservatives like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Wall Street Journal has a report today from the excellent Farnaz Fassihi that the Majlis wanted to impeach Ahmadinejad, but was thwarted by the Supreme Leader. [I'd link to it, but that function seems to have vanished from my computer today]

What’s this all about? Three things: a clash of personalities, economic policy and foreign posture. The economic dispute is the most important: the hyper-conservatives, led by Ahmadinejad have been spending most of the oil revenues to bolster Iran’s poor, which is the source of Ahmadinejad’s popularity (I still believe he might have won the election, if the votes had actually been counted). The principalists want to invest the oil revenues in building a stronger infrastructure and a more diverse, advanced economy. With Iran’s economy weakening even before the latest round of U.N. sanctions, and really suffering now, there will have to be restrictions on the vast system of government subsidies–on everything from bread to gasoline–that has kept the working poor afloat.

In foreign policy, the principalists favor a less obnoxious international posture–they’re embarrassed by Ahmadinejad’s holocaust denial and asssorted antics–although it’s not clear that they would be more amenable to negotiations with the world over Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, Larijani and most of the other principalists opposed the nuclear fuel transfer deal that Iran negotiated in Vienna a year ago (and which Ahmadinejad supported). But it’s possible that Larijani et al opposed the deal only because Ahmadi supported it…which brings us back to the clash of personalities in the highest reaches of Iran’s government. The Supreme Leader, who is the ultimate arbiter in all this, swings back and forth between favoring Larijani and Ahmadinejad.

Confused yet? Welcome to the wonderful world of Iranian domestic politics. The one conclusion that can be drawn is this: the economic sanctions are putting enormous pressure on the government, deepening the fissures that have been developing for the past five years. There is absolutely no way to know how this is going to shake out–especially if there are protests when the subsidies are cut back, as there have been in the past–but it seems the Supreme Leader’s prime activity right now is a struggle to hold his government together.