Iran's New President Stirs Political Turmoil

There are signs of a possible power struggle emerging in Iran following the election of conservative President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The president is believed to have a close relationship with a right-wing cleric who analysts suspect may have ambitions to replace Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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Some people who track the latest news out of Iran say they see signs of a power struggle. Iran's new hard-line conservative president has been in office for about three months and already his actions have provoked a good deal of political turmoil. NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

At first glance, it's not clear what recent developments signify. Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently recalled 40 of Iran's ambassadors around the world. The conservative parliament rejected several of his nominees for Cabinet posts, including the strategic oil ministry because they were unknown figures. In the midst of this, Ahmadinejad made a speech two weeks ago in which he called for Israel to be wiped off the map, leading to a wave of criticism from Europe and the US. Some analysts say these are missteps, the result of Ahmadinejad's inexperience, but Abbas Milani, co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford University, says there's more to it than that.

Mr. ABBAS MILANI (Co-Director, Iran Democracy Project): Some people would argue that they are very consciously, in a very calculated Machiavellian way, fomenting a crisis in order to use that crisis as an opportunity to seize completely the reins of power.

SHUSTER: Some of Iran's clerical leaders have been critical of Ahmadinejad's words and actions, and in response, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei bolstered the standing and power of what is known as the expediency council, a body controlled by clerics that has mediated conflicts in the past between the parliament and the clerical leadership. Karim Sadjapour, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, says Khamenei's action put more power in the hands of Iran's former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, whom Ahmadinejad defeated in last June's election.

Mr. KARIM SADJAPOUR (Analyst, International Crisis Group): They granted supervisory powers to the expediency council. So all government macropolicy needs to be first discussed with the expediency council before it's carried out. This was wildly interpreted as a sign at these times of potential crisis and, you know, potential conflict with the West, we need someone with experience at the helm.

SHUSTER: When Ahmadinejad was elected, analysts reason that this would strengthen the position of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who for the previous eight years had been at odds with former President Mohammad Khatemi, a dedicated liberal, but it appears that the new president favors one of Iran's most conservative clerics, Ayatollah Mohammed Mezbiazdi(ph). This man is known in Iran as Ayatollah Taliban, says Karim Sadjapour.

Mr. SADJAPOUR: He's perceived as Ahmadinejad's--What they call?--Majak Takaled(ph), his spiritual adviser. He is a very close political adviser to Ahmadinejad and Ahmadinejad's camp and there's a lot of concern now among the Iranian reformists and even, you know, some of the pragmatists that now that this Iranian right has won the presidency, they have even greater ambitions.

SHUSTER: Farsi-language Web sites are full of talk that Ayatollah Mezbiazdi has placed a key aide in the president's office in order to provide the Ayatollah's input on a whole series of governmental appointees. There's also much speculation that Ayatollah Mezbiazdi may have his eye on unseating the current supreme leader. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the supreme leader is chosen by a group called the Assembly of Experts, clerics who are elected every eight years. That election takes place next year. Stanford University's Abbas Milani believes that so far the moves to shift power to the pragmatists away from President Ahmadinejad have not been successful, especially in connection with the ongoing negotiations over Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Mr. MILANI: There was an attempt to give more power, but actually in practice, it has done very little to control and curtail the power and rather erratic behavior of Mr. Ahmadinejad. Mr. Ahmadinejad, as a de facto spokesman, has declared very definitely that we are not going to turn over the nuclear negotiations to Mr. Rafsanjani.

SHUSTER: When Ahmadinejad took office, he swept the entire nuclear negotiating team out, replacing them with much more hard-line figures. Heading the team is Ali Larijani, a conservative who has no experience in the nuclear realm. In August, Iran restarted a process known as uranium conversion at a facility in Isfahan. That lead to a breakdown in ongoing talks with the Europeans and a preliminary vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency to send the issue to the UN Security Council. The IAEA meets again next week, but Ali Larijani recently said on Iranian TV that Iran will not back down in the face of European and American pressure. The translation is from the BBC.

(Soundbite from Iranian TV)

Mr. ALI LARIJANI: (Through Translator) Our strategy is that we have to achieve nuclear technology and the resumption of activities at the uranium conversation site in Isfahan is a sign that Iran is determined to master nuclear technology. Through the language of force and threats, you cannot persuade Iran to give up this right.

SHUSTER: The Europeans and the US appear ready to accept Iran's uranium conversion activities, but they are insisting that the final steps to uranium enrichment, which could result in the material for a nuclear bomb, be done outside of Iran in Russia. Last week, Larijani rejected that offer. The jockeying in Iran over this issue may also be part of a broader struggle over relations with the United States. Iran experts say there were hints earlier this fall that pragmatists in Iran were sending feelers to the Bush administration. President Ahmadinejad's hostile remarks toward Israel and his team's intransigence on the nuclear issue may have had the goal of undermining any opening to the US. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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