Sunday, May 28, 2006

Iran Chief Eclipses Clerics as He Consolidates Power

Michael Slackman, The New York Times:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to consolidate power in the office of the presidency in a way never before seen in the 27-year history of the Islamic Republic, apparently with the tacit approval of Iran's supreme leader, according to government officials and political analysts here. READ MORE

That rare unity of elected and religious leadership at the highest levels offers the United States an opportunity to talk to a government, however combative, that has often spoken with multiple voices. But if Washington, which severed relations with Iran after the 1979 revolution, opened such a dialogue, it could lift the prestige of the Iranian president, who has pushed toward confrontation with the West.

Political analysts and people close to the government here say Mr. Ahmadinejad and his allies are trying to buttress a system of conservative clerical rule that has lost credibility with the public.

Their strategy hinges on trying to win concessions from the West on Iran's nuclear program and opening direct, high-level talks with the United States, while easing social restrictions, cracking down on political dissent and building a new political class from outside the clergy.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is pressing far beyond the boundaries set by other presidents. For the first time since the revolution, a president has overshadowed the nation's chief cleric, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on both domestic and international affairs.

He has evicted the former president, Mohammad Khatami, from his offices, taken control of a crucial research organization away from another former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, challenged high-ranking clerics on the treatment of women and forced prominent academics out of the university system.

"Parliament and government should fight against wealthy officials," Mr. Ahmadinejad said in a speech before Parliament on Saturday that again appeared aimed at upending pillars of the status quo. "Wealthy people should not have influence over senior officials because of their wealth. They should not impose their demands on the needs of the poor people."

In this theocratic system, where appointed religious leaders hold ultimate power, the presidency is a relatively weak position. In the multiple layers of power that obscure the governance of Iran, no one knows for certain where the ultimate decisions are being made. But many of those watching in near disbelief at the speed and aggression with which the president is seeking to accumulate power assume that he is operating with the full support of Ayatollah Khamenei.

"Usually the supreme leader would be the front-runner in all internal and external issues," said Hamidreza Taraghi, the political director of the strongly conservative Islamic Coalition Party. "Here we have the president out front on all these issues and the supreme leader is supporting him."

Mr. Ahmadinejad is pursuing a risky strategy that could offer him a shot at long-term influence over the direction of the country — or ruin. He appears motivated at least in part by a recognition that relying on clerics to serve as the public face of the government has undermined the credibility of both, analysts here said.

The changing nature of Iran's domestic political landscape has potentially far-reaching implications for the United States. While Iran has adopted a confrontational approach toward the West, it has also signaled — however clumsily — a desire to mend relations. Though the content of Mr. Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush was widely mocked here and in Washington for its religious focus and preachy tone, it played well to Iran's most conservative religious leaders. Analysts here said it represented both Mr. Ahmadinejad's independence and his position as a messenger for the system, and that the very act of reaching out was significant.

"If the U.S. had relations with Iran under the reform government, it would not have been a complete relationship," said Alireza Akhari, a retired general with the Revolutionary Guard and former deputy defense minister, referring to Mr. Khatami's administration. "But if there can be a détente now, that means the whole country is behind relations with the West."

Mr. Ahmadinejad is trying to outpace the challenges buffeting Iran, ones that could undermine his presidency and conservative control. The economy is in shambles, unemployment is soaring, and the new president has failed to deliver on his promise of economic relief for the poor. Ethnic tensions are rising around the country, with protests and terrorist strikes in the north and the south, and students have been staging protests at universities around the country.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's critics — and there are many — say that the public will turn on him if he does not improve their lives, and soon. It may ultimately prove impossible to surmount these problems while building a new political elite, many people here said.

"The real issue here is we now have a government with no experience running a country and dealing with foreign policy," said Nasser Hadian, a political science professor at Tehran University and childhood friend of the president.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who was elected last June, has adopted an ideologically flexible strategy. He has called for restoring the conservative values of the Islamic Revolution, yet at the same time has relaxed enforcement of strict Islamic social codes on the street. During the spring, when the warm weather sets in, young women are often harassed by the volunteer vigilantes known as the Basiji for their dress, but not this year. More music seems to be available in stores than in the past — small but telling changes, people here say.

If there is one consistent theme to his actions, it is the concept of seeking justice, reflecting a central characteristic of Shiite Islam. In more temporal terms, his strategy appears to be two-pronged: to reinforce his support among hard-liners with sharp attacks on Israel and the West, for example, while moving to appease a society weary of the social and economic challenges of life in the Islamic republic.

"He is reshaping the identity of the elite," said a political science professor in Tehran who asked not to be identified so as not to affect his relations with government officials. "Being against Jews and Zionists is an essential part of this new identity."

Mr. Ahmadinejad has been far freer to maneuver than his predecessor, Mr. Khatami, whose movement for change frightened religious leaders. Instead of having to prove his fealty to the system, Mr. Ahmadinejad has been given — or has taken — the opportunity to try to calm the streets. Perhaps most surprising, the man who was rumored to want to segregate men and women on elevators and even sidewalks has emerged as a proponent of women's rights, challenging some of the nation's most powerful religious leaders.

"I believe Ahmadinejad's government will be the most secular we have had since the start of the revolution," said Mahmoud Shamsolvaezin, a journalist and political analyst. "The government is not a secular one with secular thought. Ahmadinejad is a very religious man. But the government recognizes it has no choice, this is what the public demands."

Mr. Ahmadinejad called for allowing women into stadiums, in an attempt to reverse a post-revolution ban when religious leaders decreed that sports arenas were not the proper environment for women. Four grand ayatollahs objected to his decision, but he backed down only when the supreme leader stepped in. Even then, Mr. Ahmadinejad said he was suspending the decision, not canceling it.

Most significant, during the discussion of the stadium issue, the president defended women in a way that put him outside the mainstream of conservative Islamic discourse, even beyond Iran's borders.

"Unfortunately, whenever there is talk of social corruption, fingers are pointed at women," Mr. Ahmadinejad said, in comments that for a leader in this society were groundbreaking. "Shouldn't men be blamed for the problems, too?"

The president's strategy is also aimed at limiting political challenges to the system. While political arrests are down, and the government has not moved to close privately held newspapers, it has staged a few crucial arrests — sending a chill through intellectual and academic circles — and it has pressured newspapers to be silent on certain topics, like opposition to the nuclear program.

He also has struck back at those who would undermine or mock him. The local press reported that the president became so incensed with jokes about his personal hygiene that were being exchanged via text messages on cellphones, that he had the messages stopped and people at the top of the cellphone system punished.

Mr. Ahmadinejad offered voters change and promises to improve the lives of the poor, who make up the majority of this country. But he has been unable to push through economic changes by personal fiat, as he has done in the political realm. He ordered the banks, for example, to lower interest rates, and was rebuffed by the head of the central bank. He offered to give inexpensive housing loans to the poor — but with only 300,000 available, more than 2 million people applied. The program will cost the government more than $3 billion.

He has traveled around the country, promising to dole out development projects the government can hardly afford. In the last year, the cost of construction materials has jumped 30 to 50 percent and prices of dairy products have increased by more than 15 percent. Many people are asking how this can happen when the price of oil is so high.

Without a strong grasp of economics, and an economy that is almost entirely in the hands of the government, Mr. Ahmadinejad has grappled with ways to inject oil revenue into the system without causing inflation to soar. At the same time, the volatile political situation has caused capital flight and limited foreign investment as the needs of the public continue to grow alongside the president's promises.

In politics, the president by turns ignores and confronts those who have opposed him from the start, whether conservative or liberal, all the while playing to the masses.

"Ahmadinejad knows there is a big gap between the intellectual elite and the masses, and he knows how it serves his interest," said Emadedin Baghi, director of a prisoners' rights group. "He is playing to the masses and trying to widen this gap."

He has managed to sideline opponents like Mr. Rafsanjani, either through his own initiative or with the back-channel support of Mr. Khamenei, the supreme leader. Mr. Rafsanjani, a midlevel cleric whom Mr. Ahmadinejad defeated in a runoff for the presidency, "has been undermined, he's not a powerful person anymore," said Muhammad Atrianfar, a close ally of Mr. Rafsanjani and publisher of the daily newspaper Shargh. He said Mr. Rafsanjani had tried to get the supreme leader to rein the president in, but was unable to convince him.

Mr. Rafsanjani is representative of the class of people — wealthy and influential from the first generation of the revolution — that the president is trying to displace, said the retired general, Mr. Akhari.

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting for this article.