Rob L. Wagner
He is the public face of Iran, touring nuclear facilities the West suspects are being used to build a bomb, making veiled references to destroying Israel and outraging the world with comments questioning the Holocaust and denying there are any gays in Iran.
Back at home, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never quite had the power commensurate with the high profile he enjoys abroad. But now, with his loyalists trounced in elections for parliament (the Majlis), his authority in the remaining 16 months of his presidential term looks considerably diminished, analysts say.
That does not mean the world will be seeing or hearing less of the Iranian leader, but even more than in the past his views will have little impact on Iranian policy-particularly its nuclear program-as the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei exploits his electoral victory to harass the president and his allies, chip away at his power and perhaps dispense with the office of the presidency altogether.
"He'll still be out there. He'll be in front of the Majlis for questioning. He'll still be vocal, obstreperous, though probably less influential. He won't disappear, he won't make policy but he will be a force to be reckoned with," Cliff Kupchan, Iran director for the Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm, told The Media Line.
With all ballots counted, Khamenei acolytes were on their way to capture more than three-quarters of the 290 seats in the Majlis, according to figures released by the Interior Ministry on Sunday. Ahmadinejad's forces did so poorly that even his sister, Parvin, running for a seat in their hometown of Garmsar, lost.
On the other hand, some of the president's most dangerous foes scored big. Ali Larijani, the previous parliamentary speaker and a possible presidential candidate, retained his seat while Gholam Ali Hadad Adel, a Khamenei in-law, was elected and is likely to head the next parliament.
Khamenei and Ahmadinejad joined forces to ensure the latter's victory in the disputed 2009 presidential elections and eliminate reformists in a campaign of repression. But the alliance quickly unraveled and the two camps have been engaged in a bitter power struggle since then.
One way Khamenei forces have struck the president's allies is the pursuit of a massive $2.6 billion embezzlement scandal at a state-linked bank that ensnared people like Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie. In a sign of the president's growing weakness, Prosecutor-General Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehi announced two days after the elections that the second round of the trial in the affair would commence in a week.
Parliament, too, is also going to give Ahmadinejad more trouble than before. He has already been summoned to the legislature next week to face questions over his hugely unpopular cuts to state subsidies and for failing to obey Khamenei by reinstating a minister last year. The new and potentially more hostile parliament could even push for impeachment.
Things may look bad for Ahmadinejad, but Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the president is a "tactical genius" and is unlikely to exit politics quietly. Although his term ends in 2013 and he is barred from seeking re-election, analysts say Ahmadinejad wants to install an ally in the office and retain a role as elder statesman.
"Mr. Ahmadinejad is a survivor and so are the people who have benefited from having him in the presidential office for two consecutive terms. I don't see him fading into insignificance without putting up a serious fight," Alfoneh told The Media Line.
Kupchan of Eurasia Group said Ahmadinejad had done better in the vote than popularly perceived and may be strengthened by the 65 seats that will be contested in April run-offs. "The Tehran seats are a bellwether and right now only five of the 30 have been decided," he said, "He is poised to do well in those that remain."
In that respect, he may have something of a meeting of minds with Khamenei, who wants to eliminate the office of the presidency because it is a rival for power--but not just yet. In the meantime, he has an interest in keeping a lame-duck Ahmadinejad in power, according to Nikolay Kozhanov, who worked in the political and economic section of the Russian embassy in Tehran and is joining The Washington Institute for Near East Policy as a visiting fellow.
"Khamenei has clearly demonstrated that he does not want to get rid of Ahmadinejad completely," Kozhanov, wrote in a commentary on the even of the elections. "The president's disappearance from the political scene would inevitably strengthen other factions--an unwelcome scenario for Khamenei, whose main political principle is balance between rival forces."
None of this will likely have an impact on Iran's nuclear program, which has been the object of tightening international sanctions and threats of a military strike by Israel.
On Tuesday, Tehran said it would give the International Atomic Energy Agency access to the Parchin military complex, suspected as the place where Iran has conducted explosives research for nuclear weapons.
That would appear to signal a little softening in Tehran's stance, but even if it is, analysts say it does not reflect any post-election shift: Khamenei is more dedicated to the nuclear program than Ahmadinejad and distrusts the West too much to engage in talks.
"With God's help, and without paying attention to propaganda, Iran's nuclear course should continue firmly and seriously ... Pressures, sanctions and assassinations will bear no fruit. No obstacles can stop Iran's nuclear work," the supreme leader said a week before the parliamentary vote.
Nearly three years ago, Ahmadinejad hinted at a compromise involving a nuclear fuel swap as a way to allay Western concerns about Iran's intentions. Reliant on the votes of the poor, the president has the most to lose from the economic squeeze created by sanctions. But with Khamenei's backing, hardliners shot down the deal.
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