Thursday, November 10, 2005

Iran Starts to Lose Faith in its Hardline President

Angus McDowall in Tehran, The Independent:
Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is facing a crisis of public confidence after his nominee for oil minister was forced to withdraw in the face of accusations of corruption. The storm over the appointment, the most important and lucrative in Iran's cabinet, is the latest in a series of controversies to engulf the President. His political inexperience, unorthodox beliefs and trust in untested religious conservatives is causing widespread concern in Iran. READ MORE

Sadeq Mahsouli was the third name the President has put forward for the oil ministry job since taking power in August. Like the others, he was forced to back down by the parliament, which now routinely challenges the President ­ despite hailing from his own political camp.

Several MPs told the Iranian media that lack of experience was the least of Mr Mahsouli's worries. One lawmaker, Ali Asgari, told the official Irna news agency that parliament wanted to question the nominee on how he had amassed a fortune to become a "billionaire general".

The oil minister has control of a sector worth a quarter of Iran's GDP, four-fifths of its exports and almost a third of government revenue. With global oil prices holding at more than $50 (£25) a barrel, his appointment also has significance for the global economy.

"This is the weakest president we have had since the revolution," said Saeed Laylaz, an Iranian political and economic analyst. "The gap between him and the parliament is getting bigger."

Mr Ahmadinejad is thought to be a religious literalist, believing in the imminent return of the 12th Imam who Shia believers say went into hiding in the 9th century. In Shia theology, the Imam continues to be the sole source of legitimate power on earth. Until the last century that meant Shias regarded all political leaders as usurping the Imam's sovereignty.

Newer thinking gave religious jurists the right to rule in the Imam's place, allowing the creation of Iran's Islamic republic, where a cleric holds ultimate power.

Mr Ahmadinejad's ill-judged remarks about Israel in late October were one of the first signals the international community had that this President was not from the conventional stable of pragmatic conservatives who normally call the shots in Iran. Domestically, he is increasingly seen as maverick and out of his depth.

Older, traditionalist conservatives, like those who rejected his proposed oil minister, are worried that Mr Ahmadinejad is trying to instigate a new Iranian revolution ­ this time within the existing structure of the state. They fear he wants to bring younger extremists from the Revolutionary Guard into top positions of power, ousting the older clerics who have previously held sway and embarking on a new cultural revolution that could unsettle their rule.

Beside his choice of virtual unknowns for top government jobs, Mr Ahmadinejad is rumoured to have surrounded himself with religious advisers, without whom he will not start meetings. He is also thought to follow the extremist Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi as his spiritual guide ­ a rival of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr Ahmadinejad won a landslide June election vowing to eradicate corruption and inequality. Iran's economy is in fragile shape. Although it has registered strong growth in recent years, it remains heavily dependent on high oil prices. Unemployment and inflation are both over 10 per cent and public patience is wearing thin.