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At home, Iran's president faces political battle over efforts to widen his powers

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 8:36 PM

TEHRAN - As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepares to address the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, he faces a defining political battle at home that is paralyzing the decision-making process in the Islamic republic.

The dispute centers on attempts by Ahmadinejad to widen his presidential powers, and the tension goes well beyond the opposition he faced in last year's disputed election from the grass-roots Green Movement, which is less visible but still widely supported in larger cities. Instead, the current challenge comes from competing power centers, such as parliament and the judiciary, and includes some who supported Ahmadinejad in the past. The roots of this conflict run deep, and the rift among top leaders appears to be widening, analysts say.

Ahmadinejad's domestic problems worsened Wednesday, when a bomb exploded at an annual army parade in the predominantly Kurdish city of Mahabad, in northwestern Iran. Officials said 11 people were killed and at least 93 were wounded in the blast, which highlighted tensions in the border areas near Iraq and Turkey. The episode could also trigger further unrest in Iran's Kurdish region, where unemployment is higher than in other parts of the country.

For now, however, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues to support Ahmadinejad's government, and his position appears to be safe.

But as a result of the infighting, several laws passed by parliament have not been ratified by the president. In addition, a sweeping plan to change the system of state subsidies, which is expected to increase the prices paid by many in the country for gasoline, bread and several other essential goods, was postponed without explanation Monday, only days before it was scheduled to take effect.

A debate has been raging in Iran about Ahmadinejad's recent assertion that, after the supreme leader, it is his government, and not parliament, that is the highest authority in the country.

He touched on a particularly sensitive area when he added that an edict by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic, stating that parliament comes before the government, was outdated.

"Such sentences belonged to a time when our system was a parliamentary system," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by the government newspaper Iran. In 1989, after Khomeini's death, Iran's constitution was changed and the post of prime minister was abolished.

Warring political factions in Iran all say they rule by the late leader's edicts and represent his line of thinking, and saying that some of his words are no longer valid is one of the biggest political taboos in the Islamic republic.

Parliament speaker Ali Larijani responded by saying the edict was made by Khomeini in order to prevent "dictatorship," echoing similar warnings made by other officials.

Ahmadinejad's government faces growing opposition from influential clerics and politicians, including many old revolutionaries with long careers in Iran's political system. They have complained publicly about what they see as his failure to take economic sanctions seriously, foreign policy moves that are alienating potentially friendly nations, and his unwillingness to work with other power centers within the country.

In return, Ahmadinejad has accused some of having enriched themselves since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Both he and Khamenei have deplored "moaners" who "exaggerate" and refuse to see the giant leaps that they say Iran has made under the current administration.

Khamenei, speaking last Thursday in front of a council of clerics that theoretically has the power to remove him from office, defended the government and deplored those who make people lose "hope" in Iran's system of theological rule mixed with direct elections.

"Great efforts are being made - devoted and sincere efforts," Khamenei said, praising the government's ambitions to make Iran one of the most powerful nations in the world.

He warned that outside forces, with support of some in the country, are trying to seed distrust of the government.

Still, in a recent meeting with members of the government, Khamenei publicly called on Ahmadinejad to accept more criticism and cooperate more with parliament.

Despite the growing criticism of Ahmadinejad, his position does not seem to be under serious threat.

Unless the ruling faction feels that the system is in real danger, "Ahmadinejad's position is safe," said Abbas Abdi, an analyst critical of the government.

Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a former member of parliament who used to support Ahmadinejad, said he fears that economic problems and other challenges facing the country are not being dealt with while politicians squabble over the division of power.

"The danger is that this will certainly result in bitter political infighting in the mid-level and intensified social unrest," he said. "If things continue as they are, this scenario seems certain."

Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie contributed to this report.

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