/ 12 March 2007

A very public struggle

The bitter rivalry between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country’s leading elder statesman has erupted into a public struggle for control over economic policy.

Hashemi Rafsanjani, the president’s most influential opponent, set the scene for a power struggle by telling Iranian journalists that Ahmadinejad’s “trial period is over”. He said he would use his position as head of the expediency council, a state body empowered to set the Islamic regime’s long-term goals, to reshape the government’s economic policies.

The comments are the clearest sign yet of Rafsanjani’s revived political clout and follow widespread discontent with Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, which have resulted in rising inflation and high unemployment.

They came after Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, made a conciliatory gesture toward Ahmadinejad after appearing ready to withdraw support in the face of rising public criticism of the president. In an act that bolstered Ahmadinejad’s position, Khamenei last week appointed two of the president’s allies to the expediency council to replace two supporters of Rafsanjani.

Analysts say the appointments reflected Khamenei’s fears that his own position might be threatened by a continuing decline in Ahmadinejad’s authority. Khamenei supported Ahmadinejad when he successfully contested the 2005 presidential election against Rafsanjani.

In an apparent riposte to the latest manoeuvres, Rafsanjani said the government’s policies were contrary to a 20-year plan approved by Iran’s most senior clerics.

He said he had previously kept quiet to give Ahmadinejad time to deliver his election promises, which included reducing poverty and redistributing Iran’s oil wealth to the poor. But he had been prompted to speak out by the government’s latest budget plans that, Rafsanjani said, increase the country’s reliance on oil revenues. He also accused the government of failing to enact privatisation plans enshrined in Iran’s Constitution.

“Now the trial period is over and the supervising role of the expediency council should be enacted more seriously,” Rafsanjani said. “Under the 20-year outlook plan the country’s reliance on oil should be reduced by more than 10% each year, but during the last two years this process has been reversed. Next year’s budget depends on oil to an even greater extent than those of the past two years.”

Dismissing charges of political interference, Rafsanjani insisted it was his constitutional right to intervene. “People should hear about such issues from me as the person responsible for establishing these policies,” he said.

Eesa Saharkhiz, a Tehran-based political commentator, said Rafsan-jani had gone public to counteract Khamenei’s recent show of support for the president. “Rafsanjani has been weakened by the recent change of membership of the expediency council, so he is emphasising his ability to lead the body and turn it into a watchdog over the government. Khamenei is worried that if Ahmadinejad is weakened, it might create a domino effect and that he will be threatened.”

Rafsanjani topped last December’s poll in elections to the experts’ assembly, an influential clerical body. He had previously kept a low profile since his presidential defeat by Ahmadinejad.

MPs must vote on the government’s proposed budget before the Iranian new year on March 21. The budget, from which the president’s most prominent fundamentalist allies have withheld support, proposes a 20% rise in public spending to £129-billion.

Ahmadinejad is under fire for making an unprecedented six supplementary budget requests in the past year that economists say have drained the country’s foreign currency reserves. The criticism has come amid rising inflation and high unemployment. — Â