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Iran: The president who woke up at the eleventh hour | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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“What is he trying to do?” This was the question the daily Kayhan posed the other day in a comment about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s abortive attempt at visiting the Evin prison where some of Iran’s political prisoners are held.

If the daily, published by the office of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, had assumed that Ahmadinejad would simply walk back with his tail between his legs, it was disappointed. An angry president lashed backed by publishing the texts of two letters. One was addressed to him by the Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani; the other was his own reply.

Larijani, a mid-ranking mullah, had written that the president would not be allowed to visit Evin and that Ahmadinejad’s move was politically motivated. Earlier, the Islamic Prosecutor General Mohseni Ejehi, another mid-ranking mullah, had publicly criticized Ahmadinejad for wanting to visit the dreaded prison. It was obvious that the two mullahs had acted on orders from Khamenei, another mid-ranking mullah, who had appointed them.

In his letter, Ahmadinejad recalls several articles of the Constitution under which the president is described as head of the executive branch with the task of “protecting the fundamental rights of the Iranian nation.”

That Larijani and Ejehi have little regard for the law, except perhaps the law of the jungle, is clear from their intervention in a matter that, legally speaking, does not concern them. Running the prisons is part of the remit of the Ministry of Interior. Also, Evin, like other prisons, has a procedure for visits not only by families of prisoners but of medical personnel, researchers and lawyers.

It is interesting that two un-elected mullahs could exclude the elected president from part of the nation’s territory. If the two mullahs could decide where Ahmadindjad could or could not go, what is there to prevent them from denying him the right to step out of his home?

Since Larijani and Ejehi are small fries, it is clear that the duel is between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.

Such duels have been a feature of the Khomeinist system from the start. Mehdi Bazargan, who headed the first Khomeinist government, was forced to resign once he realized he was “like a knife without a blade.” The first elected President Abol-Hassan Banisadr had to flee for his life after Khomeini threatened to have him assassinated. The second president, Muhammad-Ali Raja’i, was blown up in a bomb attack whose perpetrators, to this day, have not been identified.

Some presidents decided to temporize. Ali Khamenei agreed to eat humble pie after Khomeini publicly ordered him to focus on theological studies. His successor Hashemi Rafsanjani surfed along by avoiding political issues and focusing on his family’s business interests. Muhammad Khatami temporized by travelling round the world to talk about Hobbes and Hobsbawm.

Ahmadinejad is the first of the seven “chief executives” of the Islamic Republic to decide to hang on and fight. Unlike Bazargan, he does not intend to resign. Unlike Banisadir, he does not plan to escape. Unlike Khamenei (when he was president) he has no intention of eating humble pie. Unlike Rafsanjani he is not prepared to trade political power for business interests. And unlike Khatami, he does not intend to grin and bear it.

This is not the first time that the cocky president is looking for a fight. Nor is the prison issue the only one he has brought up.

Lately, his most daring sortie came during his recent visit to New York when he declared on no fewer than five occasions, that he was ready to negotiate with the United States in defiance of Khamenei’s edict forbidding talks with the “Great Satan”. Ignoring his previous anti-Israel diatribes, Ahmadinejad also claimed that the Islamic Republic was “no country’s enemy” and sought good relations with all.

Needless to say, Khamenei’s faction thrashed Ahmadinejad’s statements even before he had returned home. Muhammad-Ali Sa’idi, a mullah and Khamenei’s liaison man with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, told reporters that the military had made “a grave mistake” by helping Ahmadinejad become president. “We didn’t know that he would become a menace for the system and for Islam,” he said.

With seven months left of his presidency, why has Ahmadinejad decided to pick a fight?

Some suggest he is seeking to distance himself from a system that he knows is heading nowhere, thus trying to improve his historic image. Others claim that he has an eye on the next presidential campaign. Under the constitution, he cannot seek a third successive term. But he could field an associate as candidate, remaining a player in this deadly game.

Neither explanation is satisfactory.

Ahmadinejad’s historic image was set in 2009 when Khamenei declared him the winner of the presidential election even before the results had been officially announced. The episode ended the regime’s republican pretensions, revealing it as a witch’s brew of medieval superstitions and fascist and communist shibboleths. As for Ahmadinejad’s hope that his faction could have a candidate and, perhaps, even win, his latest act of defiance makes that prospect less likely. Khamenei could veto the candidacy of anyone associated with Ahmadinejad.

The only way that Ahmadinejad’s defiance might make sense is if he has the courage to include the people. That means mobilizing popular support for constitutional change to get rid of “Walayat al-Faqih” [Guardianship of the Jurists], the source of many of Iran’s miseries for three decades.

Ahmadinejad hints at this in his letter to Larijani.

“Based on my oath of office,” he writes, “I am determined to ensure the full application of the Constitution and the fundamental reform of the nation’s affairs.” He adds that he plans to visit prisons, and some courts, to assess “the application of the Constitution in accordance with the fundamental rights of the people”, promising to report his findings not only to Khamenei but also to “our great nation”.

Well, we shall see.