Ahmadinejad’s rivals jockeying for position

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 22/06/06):

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unexpectedly won the presidency last year, many Iranians concluded the brief era of tentative reform, symbolised by the outgoing president, Mohammad Khatami, was over. Neocon ideologues in and around the Bush administration concluded that only internal popular insurrection, encouraged from without, would topple Iran’s theocracy.Twelve months on, there is little sign of that – despite a destabilising $75m (£41m) US propaganda offensive. Liberal reform, however, is indeed in retreat.

Conservatives, spiritually and politically underpinned by the leading radical cleric Muhammad Taghi Misbah-Yazdi, control all the main levers of power, including the majlis (parliament). The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appears to have overcome initial doubts about Mr Ahmadinejad’s qualifications, having strongly backed the president in Iran’s nuclear dispute with the west. “The opposition is regrouping, but, so far, to no avail. Many people think they are a spent force,” said Shirzad Bozorgmehr, the editor of the independent newspaper Iran News.

But while – disappointingly for the White House – a people’s revolt against the mullahs is not in prospect, peaceful manifestations of discontent and open criticism of the government are commonplace. Although there are strict, sometimes oppressive, limits to how far people can go, Iranians have not surrendered their right to the rudiments of democracy. Like the obligatory scarves worn by Tehrani women, boundaries are constantly being pushed back.

Speaking for many younger Iranians, Noureddin Pirmoazzen, MP for Ardebil, did not mince his words in the majlis this week. “The slogans, promises and policies of the government for curbing numerous problems have only made conditions worse,” he said. “Such policies have also resulted in capital flight, and there is no news about giving the people their share of oil revenues.” The last point was a reference to Mr Ahmadinejad’s campaign promise to parcel out windfall profits to the most needy.

Paradoxically, the president is also under fierce establishment attack for expanding subsidies to impoverished provinces such as Khuzestan and Baluchistan. A recent report by 50 prominent economists accused the president of recklessly deterring foreign investment, running a state-dominated, over-centralised economy, and causing a national brain drain. “The government is mismanaging the economy and wasting oil revenues. It’s worse than under the shah,” said Mohammad Atrianfar, the founder of Shargh, a leading pro-reform newspaper and political ally of Mr Ahmadinejad’s main rival, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The government was also accused of being confrontational this week after police broke up a women’s rights demonstration in Tehran. Gender is a subject of growing controversy among a population predominantly aged 30 or under. “We are at a very sensitive juncture where ethnic and gender demands are issues of concern,” Nayyereh Akhaven, a female MP, reminded Mr Ahmadinejad and his ministers.

This autumn’s elections for the assembly of experts, the group that appoints and overseas the supreme leader, will prove contentious. Intense jockeying is already under way, with Mr Rafsanjani expected to stand, an informed source said. That could foreshadow a bid for the top post now held by Mr Khamenei, Mr Ahmadinejad’s protector. “Rafsanjani would like the job [of supreme leader]. But there would be huge resistance. The two camps may block each other,” the source said.

If so, the whole Khomeinist idea of having a senior religious figure at the helm of the Islamic republic might have to be reconsidered. “I don’t think that anyone in future will be allowed to have all that power,” the source said. But on one issue all agreed: if change did come, Iranians, not outsiders, would direct it.