- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Iran’s government appears to be imploding even before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is sworn in for a second term, with three Cabinet ministers dismissed, resigning or on their way out and the opposition vowing to continue protests over disputed presidential elections.

Iran specialists say Mr. Ahmadinejad — who has alienated some hard-liners as well as reformists in Iran through poor economic management and an adventurist foreign policy — is badly weakened as he heads into a second term and may not be able to complete another four years in office.

The president is due to be inaugurated for his second term Aug. 5 and is supposed to have a 21-member Cabinet in place by the end of August.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s insistence on a high position for Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, the father of his daughter-in-law, has brought him into direct conflict with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian hard-liners, even as reformers insist that the president did not legitimately win the June 12 elections.

“He’s incredibly weak,” said Kenneth Katzman, an Iran specialist at the Congressional Research Service. “He’s going to have tremendous trouble getting a Cabinet through the majlis [parliament].”

The continuing turmoil is also hardening U.S. policy toward engagement with Iran and narrowing differences with Israel over increasing nonmilitary pressure on the Islamic republic to persuade it to suspend its nuclear program.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, visiting Israel on Monday, said President Obama “is certainly anticipating or hoping for some kind of a response this fall, perhaps by the time of the U.N. General Assembly” in late September.

Mr. Obama has already hinted that Iran may face new sanctions if it doesn’t respond to Western offers for talks by late September, when the General Assembly convenes and the Group of 20 industrial and developing nations meets in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Katzman said one positive aspect of Iran’s political infighting is that Iran may postpone a decision about seeking nuclear weapons. Iranian leaders insist that their program is only for civilian use.

Among those who have quit the Iranian government in recent weeks was Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the longtime head of Iran’s atomic energy agency. He was an ally of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister whom millions of Iranians think actually won the June 12 presidential vote.

On Sunday, Mr. Ahmadinejad dismissed Intelligence Minister Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, and the minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Mohammad-Hossein Safar-Harandi, resigned under threat of dismissal by the president.

Continuing the political meltdown, an Iranian appeals court Monday found Iran’s industry minister guilty of fraud, the Associated Press reported.

“The regime is self-destructing,” said Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Katzman said it was possible that Ayatollah Khamenei might jettison Mr. Ahmadinejad if he becomes too much of a liability. Under the Iranian Constitution, parliament can vote no confidence in a president and the supreme leader can then dismiss him.

Mr. Khalaji said it is possible that Ayatollah Khamenei himself will not survive and that the institution of supreme leader — fashioned 30 years ago by and for the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — will not endure.

“What is certain is that both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are facing a crisis of legitimacy and authority,” Mr. Khalaji said.

Meanwhile, Iranian opposition forces called for a public ceremony later this week to mourn those killed in protests since the June election, and Iran’s justice minister promised a decision soon on the fate of hundreds of people arrested since the vote.

Mr. Mousavi has refused to concede defeat.

“The more people you arrest, the more the movement will spread,” Mr. Mousavi said Monday, according to Agence France-Presse.

Two former Iranian presidents — Mohammed Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — as well as several senior Shi’ite Muslim clerics have demanded the release of political prisoners and government action to heal the breach between the regime and the Iranian people.

Iranian media said the intelligence minister was fired after he quarreled with Mr. Ahmadinejad over his desire to elevate Mr. Mashaie, currently in charge of tourism as one of a dozen vice presidents, to first vice president.

Mr. Mashaie angered Iranian hard-liners last year by saying that Iran was friends with everyone in the world, including Israelis.

Mr. Mashaie withdrew his name from consideration as first vice president Friday, but only after Ayatollah Khamenei made public a letter demanding that Mr. Ahmadinejad “annul the appointment and announce it as null and void.”

The appointment of Mr. Mashaie “is to your disadvantage and the government, and it will cause discord and frustration among your supporters,” the letter said, according to a translation by the U.S. government’s Open Source Center.

Mr. Ahmadinejad on Saturday then named his in-law as his chief of staff.

Iranian hard-line newspapers Monday were scathing in their criticism of the president.

Hezbollah, a hard-line publication, wrote in an editorial: “Unfortunately, Mr. Ahmadinejad has failed in the practical test of being faithful to the supreme leader. … Mr. Ahmadinejad: the eminent position of the supreme leader is not a shelter which you can use whenever you need and disregard when it is against your personal interests!”

If Mr. Ahmadinejad is removed, Mr. Katzman suggested another conservative, such as parliament Speaker Ali Larijani or Tehran Mayor Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf, might be encouraged to run in a new election.

However, Mr. Khalaji, the Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he doubted that Ayatollah Khamenei would push Mr. Ahmadinejad aside after declaring June 13 that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election was a gift from God.

“They may not like each other, but they have no alternative,” Mr. Khalaji said. “The political life of each is dependent on the other.”

• Barbara Slavin can be reached at .

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