A Brazen Ahmadinejad Tests His Boundaries

By Meir Javedanfar

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made headlines again this week after the sacking of Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie, who had served as Iran's Intelligence Minister, along with the resignation of Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Mohammad-Hossein Saffar-Harandi.

Although Ahmadinejad has every reason to feel secure because of Supreme Leader Khamenei's backing of him in the recent elections, his recent actions show that he faces mounting challenges -- challenges he hopes to overcome by stamping his authority as president. Although he did receive overwhelming support from Khamenei, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to be seen as more than just the Supreme Leader's lackey, and he is not scared of taking on his own allies to prove it.

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According to one report, Intelligence Minister Ejehi was sacked after a shouting match between the two men at a cabinet meeting over the appointment of Esfandiar Rahim Meshai as first vice president. The source of animosity against Meshai stems from comments made last year, when he stated that Iran is not the enemy of the people of Israel.

However, there are other reasons behind the current tensions. Ejehi, despite being messianic and ultra-conservative, opposed calls for airing the confessions of detained demonstrators. It is believed that Ahmadinejad backs this policy, and this created the now public friction between the two.

At another meeting with ministers, Ahmadinejad got into yet another argument with Hossein Saffar-Harandi, again over Meshai's appointment. Things got so bad that Ahmadinejad stormed out of the meeting, leaving Meshai in charge. This angered a number of ministers, who saw Ahmadinejad's act as an insult. In protest, these ministers also stormed out. At the next meeting, Saffar-Harandi was told that he is not allowed to attend government committee meetings with Ahmadinejad. He subsequently resigned. Ahmadinejad resisted the Supreme Leader over the appointment of Meshai as first vice president until the very last minute. At the end, he was left with no other choice but to yield.

But Khamenei didn't force Ahmadinejad to dismiss Meshai's from his current post simply due to Meshai's statement regarding Israel. There is another reason which is far more important.

Along with government ministers, the clergy in Iran are also up in arms over Meshai. Although Khamenei has tried to reduce the power of the clergy, he is still careful to pick his battles wisely. He does not want to provoke the clergy on every issue. Some issues take priority, and Khamenei has now decided that antagonizing the clergy over Meshai's appointment does not serve his interests. The Supreme Leader is also aware of how much Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and the West are eager to see as many cracks in Khamenei's administration as possible, and this is one opportunity that he was unwilling to present them with.

What the West now must look out for is Ahmadinejad's choice for Foreign Minister. This will be the biggest indicator of the impact of Ahmadinejad's muscle flexing on Iran's relations with the outside world. Should current Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki stay, it would show that Ahmadinejad's focus has turned domestic, and that he does not feel challenged on foreign policy. Mottaki's presence in the foreign ministry would be a salute to the status quo in Iran.

However, if Mottaki is removed, and in his place someone like Saeed Jalili - a messianic politician currently in charge of Iran's nuclear file at the Supreme National Security Council - is elected, then the West should expect even more rocky times ahead. The same applies if Mojtaba Hashemi Samare is appointed. He is another messianic politician who is also serving as Ahmadinejad's first assistant. Both of the aforementioned politicians are strongly against Iran making any compromises with the West.

But it's not only the West that has to be worried about Ahmadinejad's appointments. Ayatollah Khamenei has reason to be concerned as well. Ahmadinejad's decision to fire his Intelligence Minister shows that he has started to become even more erratic than before. With less than six days to go before the end of his cabinet's term, Ahmadinejad could have simply waited for his term to be end before sacking Ejeie. His dismissal in such a manner will tarnish Ahmadinejad's image. If anything, it makes him look more and more like a dictator. This could damage his relations further with the public and the Majles.

And President Ahmadinejad should not take the role of the Majles lightly. Tired of Ahmadinejad's dismissals (this being the 11th Minister out of 21), it may decide to bring him into line by rejecting some of his nominations for the next cabinet.

The most important matter for Iran's President is that he not take the Supreme Leader's support for granted. He may have received Khamenei's backing in the election; however, he does not have absolute power. Should he continue with his divisive and unilateralist politics, then the Supreme Leader could still allow for his removal. The Iranian President should realize that nothing in this world is certain, and all of his good fortune could quickly change.

Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst and a regular contributor to RealClearWorld. He is co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.

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