Iranian President Under Fire from Within

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is beset by economic problems and mounting conservative opposition.

How stable is Iran’s regime? Wikistrat’s Middle East Monitor for May ranks it as high because government paralysis seems unlikely in the short run. Certainly there is no hint of imminent mass protests as happened in 2009 following the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. But there are a number of structural weaknesses that could undermine his position.

Wikistrat acknowledges that the Iranian government has to worry less about challenges from the populace and more about splits within its own ranks. “The parliament is becoming increasingly hostile to President Ahmadinejad,” it points out, “with a growing number of members desiring his impeachment.” The power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Iran’s supreme religious leader continues to be more heated. Most recently, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei forced the president to reinstate his intelligence minister after firing him from his cabinet. While the details of the incident were unclear, the episode highlighted Iran’s internal power struggle between Ahmadinejad and his powerful Revolutionary Guard who are moving the country toward military dictatorship on the one hand and the clergy and their conservative allies in parliament on the other.

Religious leaders and politicians from the older generation, who were part of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, fear that their president is squandering religious principles in favor of a messianic cult that rejects the intermediary role of the clergy. Ahmadinejad has referred to the divide among conservatives, warning that “the regime has only one party” while his supporters refer to the opposition as a “conspiracy” — the same rhetoric that was deployed against protesters in 2009.

While Ali Khamenei was known as an ally of Ahmadinejad’s, the president’s troubles in parliament pose a dilemma: “If he intervenes to stop impeachment proceedings, he will be more closely identified with Ahmadinejad,” according to Wikistrat. “If he does not, the internal divisions will deepen as next year’s parliamentary elections become closer.”

The Iranian economy meanwhile is in shambles as a result of Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement. Oil production, which provides some 85 percent of government revenue, has dropped in recent years, from six million barrels a day in 1978 to 4.5 million in 2000 to just 3.5 million last year. One out of five Iranians is probably unemployed. The inflation rate could be as high as 30 percent although the government maintains that it’s 9 percent. Prices have doubled on average during the last four to five years yet the government plans to reduce subsidies for food and energy and replace them with a complicated scheme of price compensation for Iran’s poor. If parliament enacts the plans, it won’t improve the president’s popularity.