Iran and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Second Term

August 3, 2009

Two months after a landslide election that was widely viewed as fraudulent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be inaugurated this week for a second term as president. The ceremony follows a series of events that have revived bitter tensions within the regime and reignited passions on the streets. Today, Ahmadinejad’s ability to fashion an administration capable of governing Iran through his full four-year term appears more uncertain than ever.

Among the Islamic regime’s loyalists, the bitter differences that have always lurked beneath the surface between Ahmadinejad’s firebrand supporters and its more seasoned, traditionalist personalities resurfaced in recent days. The catalyst was Ahmadinejad’s attempt to elevate a close crony, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, to a vice presidential slot over the objections of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mashaie, who is related to Ahmadinejad by marriage, provoked outrage among Iranian conservatives last year when he publicly suggested that Iran bore no enmity against Israelis.

The uproar forced Mashaie to quickly resign, but not before several powerful ministers bolted from Ahmadinejad’s cabinet and an influential newspaper warned that hard-liners were reconsidering their support for the president’s re-election. As a result of the Mashaie controversy and a range of other provocations, including the death of a conservative politician’s son who had been detained during the protests, long-standing tensions over both style and substance have resurfaced between Ahmadinejad and the regime’s orthodox defenders.

Just as Iranian conservatives began to turn on Ahmadinejad, the opposition reemerged in force last week, with massive turnout for a mourning ritual in honor of the young woman whose death during the initial post-election protests had made her a worldwide symbol of the regime’s senseless violence. In the Shia tradition of marking the 40th day anniversary of a death, thousands gathered at Behesht-e Zahra, the vast cemetery on the outskirts of Tehran, to commemorate Neda Agha Soltan. When Mir Hoseyn Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, the two reformist presidential candidates who have taken up the mantle of opposition leadership, tried to join the mourners, government security forces turned them away and violently dispersed this event and a parallel protest at a Tehran mosque.

The regime’s predictable turn toward repression at Behesht-e Zahra only amplified the symbolic force of the occasion and the inevitable parallels with the 1979 revolution, as the Islamic Republic’s leaders know all too well. Still, the regime’s coercive capabilities remain potent, as Saturday’s opening of a Stalinist show trial of more than 100 opposition politicians and protestors was intended to demonstrate.

Together these episodes raise new questions about the stability of the Islamic Republic in a second Ahmadinejad term. The firebrand president’s allies among the political elite distrust him profoundly, his cabinet is in shambles, and conservative rivals in the parliament have threatened a no-confidence vote. Though battered and detained, the opposition remains energized and appears to be prepared to wage a long-term mutiny against the regime’s effort to stifle any dissent. These issues compound the existing challenges facing Tehran, including epic inflation and international tensions. Although he has the advantages of a committed base of popular support and considerable skill as a political demagogue, it is difficult to envision Ahmadinejad navigating this litany of liabilities successfully. Looming above it all remains his primary patron, Khamenei, whose foremost talent for political survival will face its ultimate test in the days and months to come.