The general impression of the 6th and current president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is that he is hardline in his ideology, populist in his politics, and that he issues fiery but often illogical foreign policy statements. Indeed Ahmadinejad sometimes speaks of “messages” and “dreams” during his foreign policy statements, which is certainly something that has no place in either the world of politics or reality.
However from time to time another personality appears which is completely different than the image or impression that Ahmadinejad is keen to portray. This is something that causes one to question whether our impression of Ahmadinejad is correct or not, and whether we know everything about what truly goes on behind the scenes in Iranian politics and decision-making, particularly as this is a closed country where foreign journalists cannot work freely.
Ahmadinejad’s statements to the Washington Post, in which he announced the “unilateral pardon” and release of two jailed American hikers who claim to have accidently crossed into Iran – after a third hiker was released on bail [in 2010] – is an example of the Iranian president’s pragmatism. The issuance of this statement was timed to coincide with his trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly. However this decision to pardon the American hikers was not received favorably by Ahmadinejad’s conservative rivals who are stalling on its implementations under a number of pretexts, the latest being that the judge that must sign their release documents has not returned from holiday. In his interview with the Washington Post, Ahmadinejad did not deny the presence of a conflict between himself and the Iranian Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, answering a question to this effect with another question, namely “can you find two people who see the world the same?” Ahmadinejad therefore did not deny that this conflict, more importantly he placed himself on the same level as Khamenei.
Two months prior to this, specifically during the first week of July, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – a graduate of the Revolutionary Guards who has a PhD in transportation engineer and planning and who is known as a hardliner – surprised us by coming out to announce his strong opposition to the decision made by Iranian Higher Education Minister [Kamran Daneshjoo] to implement gender segregation at Iran’s universities. Ahmadinejad ordered him to overturn this decision, as part of his battle with the conservative camp in Iran which has undergone a number of different stages since the beginning of the year.
Ahmadinejad’s battle with the conservatives, along with that of his team, particularly his top aide and son-in-law Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has entered a more serious stage this year, and this is something that has confused the [political] classification of this Iranian president, who was originally from the conservative camp. The conservative camp strongly supported Ahmadinejad during the first presidential elections in 2005; however this battle reached the point where he was being accused of not recognizing Khamenei’s [religious] authority, whilst some of his aides were most recently accused of being devil worshippers.
The clear unifying thread in this conflict is that there is a silent battle raging over influence and power between Ahmadinejad – who as the president of Iran represents the country’s civil institutions – and the religious institution that is led by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose position is unelected and who is considered the highest and indeed final authority in Iran.
The difference is that this conflict took place following the 2009 presidential elections, whose results were called into question by the Iranian opposition. This resulted in widespread protests across the country which was strongly suppressed by the Iranian authorities, whilst protest leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi were placed under house arrest. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei intervened and took Ahmadinejad’s side, confirming that Ahmadinejad had legitimately won the presidential elections. Ahmadinejad emerged from these elections weakened, as he had only remained in power because the Iranian Supreme Leader stood by him, whereas in the previous presidential elections it was his own popularity that guaranteed his election.
Nobody knows where this clear conflict – which is ongoing – will lead. There is talk that Ahmadinejad is planning for his son-in-law [Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei] to stand at the forthcoming presidential elections. This is a conflict that reflects a development that was certain to happen, three decades after the Iranian revolution that resulted in religious scholars dominating rule in Iran. Any person holding the presidency in Iran wants to rule in reality, rather than being a subordinate to the Iranian Supreme Leader who has not left Iran since 1989. Will Ahmadinejad be the president that turns on the pillars of the regime and renews the system of governance to confirm his own authority, as Sadat did in Egypt with the so-called [Nasserite] “centres of power” in the early seventies? This is an open question that requires thinking about, even if this results in one jumping to the wrong conclusion.