The message from Iran’s most powerful man was clear: the post of president could be removed sometime in the future. If this happened, the parliamentary system could instead be used to elect officials holding executive power. ‘There would be no problem in altering the current structure,’ stated Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a speech in the city of Kermanshah on Sunday.
What we have here is a tussle between Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over their respective legacies. And Khamenei is taking this matter so seriously that he’s threatening to remove the very position of the presidency altogether. For now, this is only a threat. But it’s one that can’t be ignored, especially by Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad isn’t eligible to run for president again when his term expires in June 2013, as Iran’s Constitution is clear a president can run for only two consecutive terms. To ensure his legacy, then, Ahmadinejad seems to be backing his right hand man Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as a presidential candidate. Ahmadinejad likely hopes that with Mashaei as president, he will be able to retain a powerful cabinet position – think an Iranian twist on what Vladimir Putin has done in Dmitry Medvedev’s government. When Mashaei finishes his four year term, Ahmadinejad would then be able to use his likely high profile in Meshai’s government as a platform to develop a renewed bid for the presidency.
This concerns Khamenei, and rightly so.
Mashaei is an extremely divisive figure. Many conservatives despise him. For some, it is because of reports that he married a former member of the opposition Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which he was interrogating in the early 1980s, as well as reports that his brother was also member of the same organization. Others, though, are furious that he said publicly that the people of Iran have no problem with the people of Israel.
Jealousy is another factor. Soon after Meshai’s daughter married Ahmadinejad's son, his political career started to take off. From once being a virtually unknown politician, these days Mashaei is seen as Ahmadinejad’s right hand man (some even speculate that it’s Mashaei that holds the real power in the Ahmadinejad government).
But the animosity felt toward Mashaei isn’t confined to Iranian politicians – even Ahmadinejad’s brother Davood has been attacking him publicly. Ahmadinejad’s son-in-law, Mehdi Khorshidi, meanwhile, has joined in on the attacks against Meshai. Some believe that Davood left his post as chief of the presidential inspection unit because of Meshai.
It’s clear, then, that if Mashaei runs for president, it will create ferocious pitched political battles inside Iranian politics, conflicts that could even spark violence. This is the last thing Khamenei needs for a regime that already faces sanctions and a host of economic problems, as well as opposition from the Green movement. Khamenei therefore won’t want serious conflict among conservatives, who in the political world of the Islamic Republic are his biggest supporters.
This suggests that the recent warning by Khamenei about the possible removal of the post of president is most probably a warning to Ahmadinejad. It basically says to Ahmadinejad that if at any point Khamenei feels that the next election could result in more divisions and violence because of Ahmadinejad's own political plans, then he will be prepared to do away with the post entirely. (Khamenei could also be concerned about the reaction to possible plans by Tehran Mayor Mohammed-Baqer Qalibaf to run as president, as many ultra conservatives oppose him as well).
But Khamenei is also worried about his own legacy.
After taking up the post of supreme leader in 1989, Khamenei had a difficult relationship with his first two presidents, Ali Akbar HashemiRafsanjani and Seyed MohammadKhatami. Ahmadinejad, who entered office in 2005, therefore seemed a breath a fresh air. During his first term, he was to Khamenei what Khamenei himself was as president to Ayatollah Khomeini – an enthusiastic and obedient soldier who followed his commander. These are the same qualities that endeared Khamenei to Khomeini. According to Baqer Moin, author of Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, this is why during Khomeini’s 10-year reign, he received Khamenei more than 150 times – more than any other official in his entire government. However, this quickly ended during Ahmadinejad's second term, when the president was seen as challenging as Khamenei.
It’s unclear how long Khamenei has left as supreme leader. For the sake of the remainder of his term in office, he may have decided that he doesn’t want to work with a president anymore – that he has had enough. This isn’t the first time. When serving as president between 1981 and 1989, he had severe problems working with then-Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. So bad was the relationship that it has been reported that Mousavi tried to resign, only staying on because of Khomeini’s insistence.
Back then, as president, Khamenei couldn’t do much. But when he became supreme leader, he didn’t object to the position of prime minister being eliminated by a change in the Constitution. Now he could do the same with the post of the president. With stability a concern, why not rip out the co-pilot seat and captain the plane of the Islamic Republic alone? After all, quarrelling with the co-pilot can be distracting, and could ultimately cause the plane to crash. And with the new set up, the parliament would be too weak to pose any challenge to regime stability.
Khamenei could also be planning for his own succession, as removing the post of president would have an impact on Iran’s next supreme leader as well. It’s possible that he has already decided that his son Mojtaba should take over, or that another, weaker, figure should replace him with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) manning the political levers of the country.
With these kinds of scenarios in mind, Khamenei may have decided that having a president could create division, division that the regime’s foes might exploit. With this in mind, and to ensure a smooth transition of power to the next supreme leader – and clear lines of authority after he takes the helm – it would be better to drop the post of president.
Ali Khamenei had less legitimacy than Khomeini, which explains why he felt threatened by his presidents. And Mojtaba Khamenei would have even less legitimacy than Ali Khamenei. With this in mind, it really is tempting to ask why he should bother having a president at all.