Iran's Political Infighting Continues, Despite Calls To Maintain Calm

Iran's raucous political infighting shows no sign of calming down, despite the best efforts of the political leadership. With presidential elections slated for June, new competitors are applying to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while the president continues to lash out at the powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps and, indirectly, at supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Meanwhile, a riot among farmers in Isfahan recently suggests that public unhappiness with the economy will be an important issue in the campaign.

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In Iran, a presidential election is three months away, and there are verbal fireworks as well as some violent protests. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to hold onto his job, and he's feuding with one of Iran's most powerful political clans. His targets include leading businessmen and the Revolutionary Guards. And now, economic protests by some farmers are adding to the fray.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is monitoring events from neighboring Turkey.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It was a minor show of unrest compared with the massive street protests that followed President Ahmadinejad's controversial re-election in 2009. But farmers in Isfahan Province served notice that they won't keep quiet about what they see as economic mismanagement. The protests were over plans to divert water supplies from the area. And when security forces were bused in to restore order, videos posted to the Internet showed the buses being burned and pelted with rocks by the angry farmers.

As Iranians prepare for Nowruz, the Persian New Year holiday, the media is full of stories about soaring consumer prices which some blame on international sanctions and others put down to poor management. Meanwhile, despite the personal intervention of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's political leaders continue to accuse each other of corruption, deceit and incompetence.

After taking on the powerful Larijani brothers, President Ahmadinejad lashed out at one of Iran's wealthiest families, as well as Khamenei's allies in the Revolutionary Guards. Iranian journalist Hamid Mafi, living in exile in Turkey, says Ahmadinejad has no incentive to obey the supreme leader's call for calm because he's on his way out and has no reason to pretend the political elite is unified.

HAMID MAFI: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: After two terms as the president backed by the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards, Ahmadinejad is now fighting against them, says Mafi. He adds that Ahmadinejad knows he doesn't have the arsenal to launch a direct face-off against Khamenei, but he's trying to make as much trouble as he can.

The supreme leader's allies have struck back, accusing Ahmadinejad of further ruining the economy with his latest proposed budget. Iranian media reports say the budget slashes funding for the parliament and the guardian council, which must pass judgment on all presidential candidates, while proposing a startling 82 percent increase in funding for the executive branch.

Afshin Shahi, a lecturer in Mid East politics at the University of Exeter, says Iranians can't help but notice that public accusations of corruption continue to fly in spite of Khamenei's urgent calls for calm.

AFSHIN SHAHI: What has been happening over the last past few months has been absolutely fascinating because more than ever we saw that the supreme leader is no longer 100 percent in control to unify various segments or various factions of the Islamic republic.

KENYON: One sign that the election may not be as tightly managed as expected is the flurry of new candidates attempting to get into the race even after Khamenei's office formed a three-man committee to come up with a unity candidate. Ex-foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki is one of several new hopefuls, and Ahmadinejad has issued veiled warnings to the guardian council not to disqualify his former chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, from running.

Professor Scott Lucas, who edits the news website EA WorldView that tracks events in Iran, says the guardian council will likely keep the supreme leader's adversaries out of the race, as well as any serious reformers. But he says there's a larger concern for Khamenei on the horizon: the loss of Ahmadinejad, who, for all the trouble he's caused recently, serves as a firewall against public discontent.

SCOTT LUCAS: While Ahmadinejad is there, he can be blamed for the economic difficulties. He can be blamed for escalating inflation. He can be blamed for the 70 percent drop in the value of the currency. Now, Ahmadinejad's going to be gone in June. Who is the supreme leader's firewall then? Who does he blame if there is no improvement in the economy?

KENYON: At the moment, the regime appears to be blaming what the head of the armed forces recently called enemies from within, and conservative websites are warning of a spring surprise from Iran's unpredictable outgoing president. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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