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Losing your Cool: the Precarious Nature of the Iranian Presidency

By CD - Posted on 14 July 2011

-By Dena S. Behi

June 24, 2011- Admittedly, I couldn’t resist the urge to chuckle when I heard that Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, refused to attend meetings of the Majlis (the Iranian parliament) in April of this year. This 10-day temper tantrum was in direct response to the Supreme Leader’s veto of the President’s dismissal of the Intelligence Minister, Heydar Moslehi, earlier that month, not to mention a few, albeit major, hiccups since the disputed presidential election in 2009. Ahmadinejad has an uncanny ability to laugh off critical attacks from the international community regarding human rights, nuclear power and oil prices. So why, now that all eyes are on the Middle East, has Ahmadinejad decided to lose his cool?

The man: One could argue that Ahmadinejad aims to take his place among our notoriously rebellious modern-day politicians—Castro’s historically long speeches to the UN General Assembly and Ghaddafi’s tent-setting in Central Park come to mind—with his shocking comments about the Holocaust and flagrant accusations against western nations. Ironically, his election as President in 2005 was considered a victory for the Iranian masses, not necessarily the choice between two evils as many analysts tend to reflect in hindsight. It was Ahmadinejad’s fearless nature that encouraged the masses before the election and made them cringe afterwards.

The presidency: The President of Iran is second to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who, as his title suggests, has the majority say in the affairs of the country and will remain Supreme Leader until his death or incapacity to rule. Presidential elections have been a means to appease the public after the fervor of the 1979 Revolution died down. The election of Mohammad Khatami as President in 1997 was a celebrated event that quickly led to disappointment following his inability to maintain the relatively liberal rule he had promised. The 2005 election between Ahmadinejad and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani reassured the people that Islamic government could support the rule of a non-clerical figure. The result of this election led to further isolation of Iran from the West and a violent rise in human rights violations in the country. Finally, the riots that ensued after the 2009 election speak for themselves.

The role of an elected president in Iran has little practical value, yet represents legitimacy of the current government in the eyes of the Iranian people and neighboring governments. The necessity of a leading elected official will remain undisputed regardless of Khamenei’s frequent interjections vis-à-vis the President’s decisions. To abate this, Khamenei has openly declared his support for the President. This, however, is coupled with strong warnings against the Ahmadinejad’s further abuse of power and his eligibility for the 2013 election.

So why now? Khamenei’s expression of support suggests that the Islamic Republic is attempting to hold itself together—a pillar, so to speak—in the crumbling structure of today’s Middle East. The Islamic government has attempted to stay clear of the domino effect that has led to regional instability by taking a strategic approach, most notably in Bahrain. The need to convey strength and coherence is what will ensure the survival of the regime as it is today: under the rule of the Supreme Leader.

Ahmadinejad’s frequent outbursts (the most recent being his dismissal of the Minister of Oil to place himself as the chairman of the upcoming OPEC meeting), rash demeanor and dubious reactions to world events keep us entertained, to say the least. These are the characteristics that got him elected, and these are, equally, the characteristics that put the image of coherency within the Islamic government at risk. Ahmadinejad will only isolate the Executive office from the rule of the Supreme Leader in continuing to nurture this internal conflict. Could this put Ahmadinejad in a position to rally support from Iranian’s looking for a change in government like their regional counterparts? In setting himself apart from the Supreme Leader and the Islamic ideals defined by the current Iranian regime, it’s possible that Ahmadinejad is seeking a new structure of power within the Islamic government.

What do you think? Is Ahmadinejad taking action or just acting out? 

-Originally published on the website of the American Graduate School in Paris