Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got out-populisted by his masters yesterday in a rare public display of disagreement between the Iranian president and the real power, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Khameini ordered his president to obey the legislature and fund subsidies for natural gas in a cold winter. Ahmadinejad had previously refused, claiming that the move would not be fiscally responsible:
The political authority of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, suffered a serious blow today after the country’s most powerful figure sided with MPs by ordering him to supply cheap gas to villages undergoing power cuts amid an unexpectedly harsh winter.
In a humiliating rebuff, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader who has the final say over all state matters, ordered the enactment of a law requiring the government to provide £500m of gas supplies from emergency reserve funds.
Ahmadinejad had refused to implement the measure, accusing parliament of exceeding its powers in passing the bill in response to plummeting temperatures and gas cuts, which have left many areas without heating during the country’s coldest winter in years.
At least 64 people are reported to have died after gas supplies were turned off in sub-zero temperatures. The cuts, belying Iran’s status as possessor of the world’s second biggest natural gas reserves, have provoked public outrage and threaten to turn a mood of rumbling unhappiness into a winter of discontent for Ahmadinejad.
Everyone knows that Khameini wields the actual power in Iran, but such a public chastisement is rare. Why did Khameini do it? The “rumbling” against Ahmadinejad may have gotten to a level where the mullahcracy might worry about damage to their own grip on power. After all, they control who can run for the office, and most suspect they control who wins it as well. Ahmadinejad is their man in Teheran, and widespread anger against him means trouble for the mullahs.
The wonder is that they had to intercede at all. Ahmadinejad has worked his populist approach to great effect until now, supporting all kinds of subsidies that have amplified the damage done to the Iranian economy by global sanctions. Why stand on fiscal discipline on the issue of natural gas, when dozens of his previous supporters in the poorer economic strata are literally freezing to death?
The Guardian points out that the relaxation of military pressure on Iran may have allowed Khameini to act against Ahmadinejad. Since the release of the NIE, Khameini has stopped scolding Ahmadinejad’s critics and has essentially become one himself. On the other hand, Khameini is not likely to get another president who so completely personifies the original revolution, both at home and abroad. He would not likely undermine his own creation, and such a public devotee of the 1979 revolution, unless he saw danger in the association.