First it was Ali Larijani, who resigned as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator in October 2007. Now it’s Manouchehr Mottaki, who was dismissed from his post as foreign minister this month in humiliating fashion, fired while out of the country on a diplomatic mission.
Both had something in common: they were Ahmadinejad antagonists.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never wanted either of them in their positions in the first place, but had to put up with it because they were Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's picks. So he worked to undermine them using a two-pronged strategy.
First, there appears to have been some straightforward lobbying over their appointments with the Supreme Leader. But Ahmadinejad also looks to have gone further—creating as many obstacles and problems for the two as possible in the hope that they’d either tire of working with him or else be made to look so incompetent that Khamenei himself would seek their removal.
It seems to have worked. In Larijani's case, it took six resignation letters before his resignation was finally accepted, the first five having been submitted after Larijani was reported to have found it impossible to work with Ahmadinejad.
In Mottaki's case, it seems Khamenei simply tired of the constant conflict between the president and his foreign minister. On the surface, it may have looked like the dismissal was down to Mottaki being unable to resolve the mounting list of foreign policy challenges that Iran faces. But although Khamenei likely realizes that many of these problems have in fact been created by Ahmadinejad, the president is still a more important ally than the former foreign minister.
These two are only the most high profile victims of Ahmadinejad, whose appetite for firing subordinates is reminiscent of US businessman Donald Trump in his reality TV show The Apprentice—he has previously fired numerous officials, ministers and the head of the country’s central bank.
So who’s next in Ahmadinejad's crosshairs? There’s one politician who must be starting to worry.
According to a December 6 article in the Tehran-based Farda News, the number of hostile articles written by Ahmadinejad's supporters against one particular politician has almost doubled compared with this time last year. His opponents have described him as ‘anti religion,’ accused him of disregarding Islamic and revolutionary values, and stated bluntly that he has ‘no place amongst the religious and revolutionary people of Iran.’
The target of these attacks? Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran.
If it were up to Ahmadinejad, there’s little doubt Ghalibaf would have been removed long ago.
But even though it’s not up to the president to remove the mayor of Tehran, this doesn’t mean he hasn’t tried. In what was seen as a highly controversial move last June, 50 members of the Majlis (parliament) tried to introduce a bill whose goal was to transfer responsibility for the election of mayors to the Interior Ministry. It’s rumoured that Ahmadinejad’s government was behind this move, but with its failure the president is left trying to do to Ghalibaf what he did to Larijani and Mottaki, namely creating as many problems for him as possible.
His best tool for undermining the mayor is the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for distributing funds to the municipality. One way Ahmadinejad can make Ghalibaf look incompetent is to withhold funds from the Tehran municipality for important projects in the hope that the people of Tehran will hold Ghalibaf responsible for any discontent they feel. Indeed, this already seems to have been happening. So far this year, the central government is supposed to have provided $120 million in subsidies for bus and metro tickets to be allocated to the city of Tehran. However, to date, only $3 million of that has reportedly been provided to the Tehran municipality. (This is only the clearest example of the Interior Ministry’s withholding of funds for the expansion of the Metro and Bus Rapid Transit system, which Ghalibaf has backed).
The people of Tehran already seem to be feeling the pinch of a lack of investment in public transport. Just this month, much of Tehran was shut down because of heavy air pollution, with schools and government offices closed for three days and universities for almost a week.
The disillusionment is becoming evident in day-to-day jokes shared between Tehranis. ‘What’s a bus stop? It’s the place you go to curse at the mother, father, aunt and the entire family of the bus driver for failing to stop,’ is one running joke between locals. Of course, the reality is that the bus driver doesn't stop because of overcrowding on his bus. But that’s little consolation for an increasingly frustrated populace. It’s hard not to see Ghalibaf being held at least partly responsible as frustration grows.
For now, Ghalibaf seems to be holding back, and has avoided locking horns with Ahmadinejad despite the clear provocations—a restraint that has already earned him praise amongst politicians such as Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, head of the clerics’ faction in the Majlis.
But the support of a parliament that’s growing weaker by the day is likely to offer scant comfort to Ghalibaf, especially with Ahmadinejad apparently becoming stronger, not just at the top, but also at the grassroots level.
The fact is that Ahmadinejad is heading in Ghalibaf’s direction. And, much like a Tehran bus, he’s unlikely to stop.