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President vs. Parliament: The Tehran Political Game Heats Up

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

10 Feb 2011 19:11Comments
majleschatting.jpgBehbahani impeachment highlights most recent round. Next: Who will score big with the budget?

[ analysis ] While the world is captivated by the events in Egypt, developments in Iran are illuminating an ongoing power struggle between factions of the political establishment. Last week, a parliamentary tradition was broken and a new precedent was set when the Majles impeached Minister of Transportation Hamid Behbahani, a close associate of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's, in the absence of both president and minister. Their failure to fulfill their legal obligations to attend did not stop the proceedings. The Majles deputies heard the arguments of the impeachment bill's signatories and declared their lack of confidence in the minister. According to the law of land, Behbahani was immediately stripped of his office. But that was hardly the end of the matter.

Ahmadinejad called the proceedings illegal and praised Behbahani as his best minister. He argued that since the roster of deputies calling for Behbahani's impeachment changed until the very last day, the impeachment debate was premature. In Ahmadinejad's interpretation of the law, his minister should have been granted another ten days to prepare his counterargument. The president also complained that the Majles did not respect the anniversary of the Revolution, celebrated across a ten-day period known as Fajr. He sarcastically referred to the impeachment as "compensation for the services of true servants of the people." Having thus played the victim of a politicking Majles, he was quick to turn the tables and deliver an implicit threat: "If the issues underlying the impeachment should apply to the minister, they would apply to the impeachers more by 100-fold."

Few politicians anywhere can appear as both victim and defiant avenger in the same breath, but this is a skill that Ahmadinejad has mastered. Reacting to the Majles's dismissal of his minister, he announced that he would appoint the disgraced Behbahani as caretaker of the Ministry of Transportation until a new chief was introduced. He also told reporters that since the Islamic Republic's fifth five-year development plan calls for a reduction in the size of the central government, he would merge the Ministry of Transportation with that of Housing. Legislators were quick to remind him that appointing a dismissed minister as caretaker is unconstitutional. Members of the Majles Transportation Committee and Housing Committee reacted in the strongest terms possible. A few days later, Ahmadinejad retreated by appointing Minister of Housing Ali Nikzad as caretaker of the Transportation Ministry. At the same time that he gave in to the Majles's demands, he effectively made good on his promise to merge the two ministries.

Many speculate that these exchanges are only for public consumption. Some even argue that the impeachment itself was no more than a show to entertain the people and convince them that the organs of the political establishment are functioning. That interpretation, if not naive, is too simplistic to capture the realities of daily politics in Iran. For one thing, last week's events found the president in his element.

Ahmadinejad showed once again that he excels in the political game in Tehran. When the impeachment request was submitted, he mobilized the executive apparatus to convince its signatories to withdraw their support for the move. The president's representatives tried flattery and promises of new public projects for the members' constituencies. When that failed, they tried intimidation. Now several members were threatened with the cancellation of public projects already planned. In some cases these efforts succeeded, hence the ever-changing number of signatories to the bill of impeachment. When Ahmadinejad complained that Behbahani was entitled to ten more days of preparation, he sounded more like a coach disappointed at not having enough time to crush the opposing team than a president concerned about constitutional formalities. As a coach, he certainly knows how to deploy his team and get the most out of his resources.

Ahmadinejad's ambition is something many still do not take into account. They remain unconvinced that a man whose standing in the political establishment was long so humble before his elevation to the presidency could really matter; consequently, they ignore him as a political actor. But time and again he has shown that he has his own agenda and is determined to achieve it. Where he lacks a political following, he makes liberal use of government resources to create one. The arsenal at his disposal includes government permits and business licenses, low-interest loans and credit lines, as well as public projects and multimillion-dollar contracts. Now in his sixth year in office, he seems strong enough to call the shots in Tehran. He has just appointed a new minister of foreign affairs who, soon after he was confirmed in the post, defied the Supreme Leader by approving of the president's plan to name special diplomatic envoys.

For all his shrewdness, the president clearly does face resistance. Conservative legislators such as Ali Motahari and Ahmad Tavakoli now routinely speak of Ahmadinejad and his policies in critical tones. The fact that they were able to collect 25 signatures for the impeachment bill and win a majority vote for it shows that they are not alone in their sentiments. Of course, they would not have been successful without the support of Majles Speaker Ali Larijani. Ahmadinejad's carrot-and-stick strategy might well have worked had not Larijani permitted the impeachment debate to move forward. In addition, some of the president's adversaries have become familiar with his tactics and conjured a few of their own to counter them. Tavakoli mentioned to reporters that he had received a letter from veterans working in the Ministry of Transportation thanking the Majles deputies for dismissing Behbahani. It is not only Ahmadinejad who can appear as the defender of the oppressed and pious.

The fight is far from over. The Majles has been asking the president to submit next year's budget for some time now -- requests to which Ahmadinejad has turned a deaf ear. Only a month is left in the Iranian year and, still, no budget. Ahmadinejad's excuse? "The government has only recently received the fifth five-year development plan. This plan has certain requirements and we are working to meet them." While the Majles is afraid that the budget might not be approved on schedule, it seems the president is hoping to deny his opponents the time to scrutinize it closely. After all, while legislators might regard it as just a budget, for Ahmadinejad it is the backbone of his political support.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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