Natural Gas Sparks Power Struggle in Iran

For the first time, Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rebukes President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over getting gas to remote areas. A fuel shortage, in an especially cold winter, has killed about 64 people.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

So the title of president does not mean the same thing for leaders around the world. Not all presidents are the decider. This became clear in Iran this week, when the country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was publicly told to get in line by the real man in charge, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

You see, an especially cold winter in Iran has killed about 64 people, and the Iranian parliament told Ahmadinejad to get some natural gas to the remote areas, but he refused. The supreme leader overruled him, ordered him to comply.

That was the first time Khamenei publicly rebuffed the Iranian president.

Barbara Slavin, senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today and author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation," is going to help us understand this power structure.

Hi, Barbara.

Ms. BARBARA SLAVIN (Senior Diplomatic Reporter, USA Today; Author) Good morning.

STEWART: First of all, okay, Ahmadinejad is the president of Iran. But being president there isn't the same thing as being president here. Can you explain the relationship between him and the supreme leader, and the way the Iranian government is structured?

Ms. SLAVIN: Sure. I mean, the supreme leader is the supreme leader.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: It's a good title.

Ms. SLAVIN: That's why he's called the supreme leader. This is a cleric who, in this case, Ali Khamenei, has been there since 1989, since the leader of the Iranian Revolution died, and he has the last word on all key issues, whether they are domestic or foreign. And I think he's just reminding us of that.

You said in your intro that this was the first time he had overruled Ahmadinejad. That's actually not true.

STEWART: Is it the first time publicly?

Ms. SLAVIN: That's not true, either.

STEWART: Okay. Sorry.

Ms. SLAVIN: Back in 2005…

STEWART: Thanks for the correction.

Ms. SLAVIN: …you might remember that Ahmadinejad had a few things to say about wiping Israel off the map. Do you remember that?

STEWART: Yeah. Yeah. That - some people paid attention to that. Yeah.

TOURE, host:

I think so.

Ms. SLAVIN: Yeah. Well, about a week later, actually the supreme leader gave a speech, where he said Iran is not interested in destroying any nation. But guess what? The American press, in its great wisdom, did not pick up on that statement. They only kept referring to Ahmadinejad's comment about Israel.

So this has happened before. Although this time, of course, the timing is very important because it's just before Iranian parliamentary elections. So it could have a real political effect there.

STEWART: So describe for me what is Ahmadinejad's realm of power, then, if you can have the supreme leader come in and say, hmm, not so much.

Ms. SLAVIN: He's got a lot of power, and he's exerted it. I mean, he has replaced all the provincial governors throughout Iran. A lot of the top bureaucrats have been removed. He's put his cronies in. You know, he's got a lot of power in that way, and he's also been using the country's oil revenues as a kind of political slush fund, going around the country, handing out money to the poor, to people that he wants to hand out money to.

So I think what's interesting about this, this was a real sort of constitutional clash, where, basically, the supreme leaders came down on the side of the parliament and said that the parliament has to appropriate money for various things. And if it does, Ahmadinejad has to spend it.

TOURE: So when the American press and the American people focus on Ahmadinejad and his rhetoric, are we focusing on the wrong Iranian leader?

Ms. SLAVIN: To some extent, we are. I mean, Ahmadinejad's been very clever, you know, by using rhetoric, by saying things like wiping Israel off the map or denying the Holocaust. He's gotten everybody's attention. And this is a man who loves attention, as we have seen. So he's been - he's used the sort of bully pulpit of the presidency to draw attention to himself, to try strengthen himself, particularly in the wider Muslim world, you know, as a supporter of the Palestinians, that sort of thing.

But he is not the commander-in-chief. He doesn't name the heads of the various branches of the armed forces. He doesn't set Iran's policy on the nuclear issue, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine. That is the purview of the supreme leader, who consults with a group of people. In my book, I compared it to sort of a square dance, where you've got the supreme leader in the middle of a circle, and then all these leaders, maybe two dozen people, ranged around him. And he'll pull one or the other into the center of the circle in a kind of a do-si-do, and then send them back out again when he's decided to change his view.

So Ahmadinejad's in the circle, but he's not the supreme leader.

TOURE: So should Israel be not worried because the supreme leader has said we're not going to eradicate Israel?

Ms. SLAVIN: Oh, I think Israel should be worried. I don't think we want Iran to get the capacity to build nuclear weapons. I don't think that would be a great thing for Israel or the rest of the region.

STEWART: And we should point out that the supreme leader - and correct me if I'm wrong - he has made statements about Iran's nuclear intentions.

Ms. SLAVIN: The supreme leader says Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons. But, you know, Ahmadinejad had said the same thing. And nobody really seems to believe them.

STEWART: We're talking to Barbara Slavin. She's a senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today and the author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation."

I do want to ask you a question about this current dispute, this - over the gas shortage. It was interesting to read in The New York Times that Iran has a natural gas shortage.

Ms. SLAVIN: Yeah. It's got the world's second largest reserves of natural gas, after Russia. But it hasn't been able to really go in and exploit these reserves, in part because of economic sanctions that have been imposed over its nuclear program. So it has to import gas for some of the northern part of the country from Turkmenistan and other countries, and it apparently was not importing enough, was not paying a high enough price. And so people got cut off, and there has been this terrible situation where people are freezing to death in Iran.

STEWART: Now, Ahmadinejad's answer was, basically - from the reporting I read -you're going to have to deal with it. And that's why the parliament said, no. We're going to - we need to get gas to these people. Why would Ahmadinejad politically tell people just to deal with it?

Ms. SLAVIN: That is a very good question. You know, he has spent gobs and gobs of money from their oil revenues, and perhaps he had earmarked this money in his own mind for something else.

STEWART: Hmm.

Ms. SLAVIN: Not really clear. Maybe he doesn't see that he has supporters in that part of Iran. That's a kind of an area where there are a lot of ethnic minorities, people who are Azeris and Kurds, and maybe he just didn't care about them. Not clear at all.

TOURE: Is the supreme leader elected in any way? Is he replaceable? Or is he just there till death, and that's what we really have to deal with?

Ms. SLAVIN: Well, typically, he's there till death. There is a body called the Assembly of Experts. It's got 86 clerics on it. And this body is elected by Iranians, and it gets to choose the next supreme leader. It's possible it could remove this one, but it's unlikely. I mean, the pattern is that the supreme leader stays there until he dies.

STEWART: And looking forward, Barbara, this rebuke of the Iranian president, what does this hold for him? His elections aren't until next year, but there are parliamentary elections in March.

Ms. SLAVIN: Well, it should have an effect. People who've been associated with him may have a harder time getting elected to parliament. But there's yet another body called the Council of Guardians. So you can see…

STEWART: Oh, my goodness.

Ms. SLAVIN: This vets candidates for parliament. And there's something like 7,000 people who want to run for parliament. And now everybody is waiting to see who gets to run, who passes through the vetting process. So even though Ahmadinejad is pretty unpopular right now in Iran, it's still possible that the next parliament may not entirely reflect that. We have to wait and see who is going to be allowed to run against him. But I would say this incident doesn't bode well for him.

STEWART: Barbara Slavin, a senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today. I think I'm going to need to read her book, "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation," so I can make a flowchart and figure this out. Hey, Barbara, thank you so much for all the information.

Ms. SLAVIN: You are quite welcome. You should add, by the way, I'm on leave this year at the U.S. Institute of Peace. So let me give my current employer a little bit of publicity, if I may.

STEWART: There you go. Nicely done. Thanks, Barbara.

Ms. SLAVIN: All right. Thank you.

WOLFF: It's THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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