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Iran’s Two Executives Play a Lose-Lose Game

Analysis by Farideh Farhi

HONOLULU, Hawaii, U.S., May 8 2011 (IPS) - The very public disagreement between Iran’s Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the sacking of the intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, is turning out to be a losing game for both sides.

On the one hand, Khamenei’s decision to re-instate Moslehi threatens to make Ahmadinejad a lame duck until Iran’s next presidential election in 2013. Publicly humiliated and his allies accused of “deviating “from principles of the 1979 revolution, Ahmadeinejad’s political future seems uncertain at best. And the chances of one of his protégés succeeding him appear to have been significantly diminished.

On the other hand, Khamenei’s action has further exposed him as a meddlesome and imperious leader who is encouraging almost daily outlandish statements by a coterie of supportive officials celebrating his apparently absolute powers to do whatever he wants.

The chief of the judiciary, Sadeq Javadi Amoli, went so far as to suggest last week that “disobedience and rebellion against the Leader’s orders is against the constitution and sharia.” And Tehran’s Friday Prayer leader, Hojjatoleslam Kazem Sadighi, declared Khamenei’s role as the religious guide to be “above the constitution” in his latest homily.

The current controversy was sparked April 17 when, in response to Ahmadinejad’s sacking of Moslehi, Khamenei publicly released a letter in which he asked the just-dismissed spy chief to continue performing his duties. Thus overruled and publicly humiliated, Ahmadinejad expressed his displeasure by boycotting cabinet meetings for 11 days.

Under the Iranian Constitution, the president clearly has the right to dismiss his chosen ministers. Khamenei, however, justified his intervention by referring to the principle of maslehat, or the greater interest of the country, without bothering to explain how this interest had been violated by Moslehi’s dismissal.

A cleric has held the position of intelligence minister since the outset of the revolution and, during the presidencies of both Mohammad Khatami and Ahmadinejad, always upon Khamenei’s approval. Moslehi was the second intelligence minister to be sacked by Ahmadinejad in the last two years, and Khamenei was in all likelihood concerned about the office of the president asserting direct control over this critical ministry in the three-month period that an interim minister can serve without Parliament’s approval of a successor.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Moslehi’s dismissal was occasioned by the discovery that the intelligence ministry was tapping the office of Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close ally and reputed presidential aspirant. But Ahmadinejad’s request to appear live on television and explain his reasons for dismissal and absence from work was rejected by Iranian national television, whose director is a Khamenei appointee.

In the first cabinet meeting he attended after the conflict, however, Ahmadinejad warned that the Leader will not be able to get anything done without “the capable arms of a strong and powerful president.”

Contending executives have always been a problem for the Islamic Republic. This is not the first time a chief executive has refused to show up to work in reaction to the intervention of other institutions.

In September 1988, then-Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mussavi sent a letter of resignation to then-President Khamenei over problems with his cabinet appointments. He stayed away from work, for a day, but his resignation was not only rejected, but the then-Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a public rebuke for his attitude, insisting that, “When the . . . people sacrifice their sons for the sake of Islam it is no time for bickering and resigning.”

Mussavi did indeed return to work, but, if the just-released daily recordings by the then-speaker of the Parliament (and future two-term president), Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are to be believed, a resignation that was intended to acquire more powers “resulted in the loss of even more authority.”

A similar fate may now befall Ahmadinejad. One difference, however, is that Mussavi at the time was only a few months away from the end of his tenure, while Ahmadinejad has two more years left in his term.

Another difference is that the rebuke Mussavi received was from Khomeini, who at the time was part of a tripartite executive structure in which his institutional and political role as final arbiter between the president, a conservative, and the prime minister, a leftist, was undisputed.

Today that tripartite structure no longer exists, and Khamenei and his rather opaque office – which is estimated to have close to 4,000 people on its payroll — is one side of a dual governance structure. Any disagreement between him and the president is thus perceived as a political challenge to his authority.

This is a situation that Khomeini never faced not merely because he was the charismatic founder of the Islamic Republic whose authority was accepted by all wings of Iran’s politically fractured elite, but also because Iran’s institutional structure was different.

Khamenei is fond of reminding everyone that he is behaving very much as Khomeini did. This is partly true. Like his predecessor, he is either acting extra-constitutionally or interpreting the Iranian constitution in a way that gives him unlimited and unchecked powers.

But, to maintain the status of his office as the final arbiter in the current dual-executive structure, Khamenei, who also lacks Khomeini’s historical standing and charisma, must either constantly elicit declarations of public allegiance to his office, as he has been doing in the latest crisis, or promote conflicts between other individuals or institutions to the point that the various contenders are forced to go to him to mediate their differences.

The latter is what Khamenei has been doing in the institutional conflict between Ahmadinejad and Parliament in which, typically, Ahmadinejad has refused to implement laws passed either directly by the Parliament or via the longer process of gaining their approval through the Expediency Council.

Instead of resolving the conflict in a decisive fashion that gives the power to one or the other institution, Khamenei has intervened only on a case-by-case basis. His refusal to establish clear precedents has effectively weakened the Parliament by forcing it to make repeated appeals to the Leader’s office to intervene and rein in the presidency.

Khameini’s failure to clarify the division of powers by setting precedents has also resulted in the degradation of two other key institutions, the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council. And, while it has enhanced the power of Khameini’s office, it has also emboldened Ahmadinejad to think that he can push back against any institution that he considers an obstacle to the day-to-day running of the country.

The end result, however, has been a losing game for both executives. In this latest confrontation, it appears that Ahmadinejad has now been effectively reduced to a lame duck, as Khamenei has signaled his intentions to intervene further in what has been considered the presidency’s domain by directly asking Parliament to increase the yearly budget for the judiciary and military.

But if Ahmadinejad is to be a lame duck, he appears determined to be an unhappy and sulking one, and that pose could well further undercut Khamenei’s legitimacy and even his effectiveness, as it exposes the Leader as someone who even his handpicked president considers as exercising too many uncontrolled powers.

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