By any measure, March has been a horrendous month for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one that has seen him suffer a humiliating political defeat at the hand of parliament. It has been the type of month that can be ruinous for a presidential candidate. But in Iran's murky political system, Ahmadinejad remains the overwhelming favorite to win reelection in June.
Ahmadinejad's troubles grew in early March when parliament, in an unprecedented move in the Islamic Republic's 30-year history, rebuffed the president's move to lift state subsidies on essential items, including electricity and bread, and offset the higher prices with straight cash handouts to needy citizens. MPs ridiculed the plan as a ticking inflationary time-bomb. As it already stands, Iran's inflation rate in January stood at 24 percent. Critics said Ahmadinejad's subsidy-reform scheme, if enacted, would have easily pushed the rate to 50 percent.
The subsidy contest occurred within a broader debate over Iran's budget. During budget negotiations, Ahmadinejad appeared to make a grievous political miscalculation by refusing to compromise. When the president insisted on an "all-or-nothing" version of his subsidy plan, parliament had little choice but to reject the project, although the legislature did end up passing a $279 billion preliminary budget.
Ahmadinejad's uncompromising stance provoked unheard of public tussling among leading conservative factions in Iranian politics. First, the president accused parliament of acting unconstitutionally. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani then shot back that it was Ahmadinejad who was overstepping his authority. "The Guardian Council is the sole authority allowed to interpret the Constitution, therefore the president's involvement in such issues is against the law," Larijani stated in an open letter address, according to a report distributed by the IRNA news agency. The Guardian Council has yet to deliver an opinion on the budget.
As if the parliamentary revolt is not a big enough problem, there are signs that the Iranian public's patience with the Ahmadinejad administration's handling of the economy is reaching a breaking point. Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005 amid promises of improving conditions for the country's most economically vulnerable sectors of the population. Instead, out-of-control spending has blown a gaping hole in the budget so that the country will face an estimated budget deficit of $46 billion. Rampant inflation is now ratcheting up the pain for the country's poor, and the government seems to be losing the ability to patch that budgetary hole, given that energy prices have fallen through the floor over the past year. Oil exports account for about two-thirds of government revenue.
Public anger was on full display in early March, when Ahmadinejad made what amounted to a presidential campaign trip to the northwestern city of Orumieh, the capital of West Azerbaijan Province, and the place where he once served as governor. Several people flung shoes at his motorcade in an evident display of anger over his economic bungling. Ahmadinejad then cut short his appearance when he was vociferously booed while attempting to address local residents. Since then, the president has not made another trip into Iran's provinces. And according to knowledgeable sources in Tehran, media outlets have been threatened with punishment if they report on the Orumieh embarrassment.
Adding to Ahmadinejad's troubles, his political opponents within the conservative establishment have seized the initiative on a key presidential campaign issue -- Iranian-US relations. Larijani on March 25 occupied the hardliner high ground from Ahmadinejad by coming out forcefully against US President Barack Obama's recent olive branch address, made in connection with the Iranian new year on March 21.
Ahmadinejad's conservative opponents have also made moves to outflank him in the theological sphere by courting the support of one of Shi'a Islam's most influential clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq. Larijani met with Ayatollah Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, on March 25. "My visit to Iraq is neither official, nor political. It is for religious purposes only," a report distributed by the Fars News Agency quoted Larijani as saying.
Earlier in March, another bitter rival of Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, met with Ayatollah Sistani and other top Iraqi Shi'a clerics. During that meeting, Rafsanjani appeared to secure Ayatollah Sistani's support for a more moderate Iranian foreign policy course than that pursued by Ahmadinejad's administration. According to the website Ayandnews, Ayatollah Sistani said radical stances staked out by Iran could "create divisions among Shi'as."
The combination of bad news for the incumbent appears to have emboldened reformists in Iran, who have largely wandered in the political wilderness since Ahmadinejad's landslide election win in 2005. The man who Ahmadinejad forcefully defeated in that election, Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, has issued a call for a united front of political forces to oppose Ahmadinejad's reelection. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
With less than three months until election day, Ahmadinejad, given the bevy of recent setbacks, would seem like a lock to be a one-term president in most countries. But in Iran, where democratic mechanisms are checked by powerful institutions that operate beyond the reach of the electorate, Ahmadinejad still has ample reason to feel confident about his reelection prospects. That is because the president retains the support of three key institutions -- the Supreme Leader's office, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij Militia. As long as that support holds, Ahmadinejad must be considered the presidential frontrunner.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.