Political setbacks suggest vulnerability of Iran president

Parliament rejects budget, ally is defeated

Tehran University students held posters in support of former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who announced he would run for the presidency to restore faith in public policy. Tehran University students held posters in support of former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who announced he would run for the presidency to restore faith in public policy. (Vahid Salemi/associated press)
By Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim
Los Angeles Times / March 11, 2009
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TEHRAN - Bad news hammered Iran's hard-line president yesterday as a restless parliament rejected major elements of his proposed budget, a powerful cleric defeated his ally for a key post, and a former prime minister announced that he was gunning for his job in upcoming elections.

Taken together, the setbacks suggest the multiple vulnerabilities of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as an emboldening of his rivals, ahead of crucial June 12 elections that could heavily influence the country's relations with the West and its domestic political climate.

Iran's election season has gotten off to an unusually early and contentious start, underscoring the critical nature of the June vote. Analysts say the election will hinge on bread-and-butter economic issues and might be more hotly contested and unpredictable than any in Iranian history, in part because Ahmadinejad's populism has changed Iran's political landscape.

"Ahmadinejad has normalized politics," said a Western diplomat in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Before Ahmadinejad, the politicians talked opaquely. Now they have to go on the ground and make their case to the people."

Ahmadinejad has struggled to pass a budget before the Persian New Year on March 21, when the nation all but shuts down for two weeks. But he has been repeatedly thwarted by the conservative-dominated parliament on a number of economic items on his agenda.

Over the last two days, lawmakers have passed the major outline of his budget while refusing to OK his proposal to cut fuel subsidies while increasing cash giveaways that might win him some votes but further exacerbate inflation and hurt the poor by raising prices for basic goods.

Dozens of economists have spoken against the plan, which they fear would hurt Iranians already facing a combination of inflation and unemployment.

"In this condition, giving cash subsidies would add up to galloping inflation, in the current fragile economy that will lead to" political unrest, said Bizhan Bidabad, a former Central Bank official and economic analyst. "The whole ruling establishment is wise enough not to endanger the system."

Specialists predicted Ahmadinejad would continue to try to counter parliament in coming weeks.

"It is not over," said Ahmad Bakshayeshi, a political scientist in Tehran. "The war between parliament and Ahmadinejad will continue."

An Ahmadinejad ally, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, lost his bid to unseat the powerful Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as chair of the Council of Experts. Ahmadinejad's style, which some describe as arrogant and bombastic, has alienated significant segments of the Iranian establishment, including clerics who don't necessarily disagree with his political views.

Ahmadinejad also faced a new challenge yesterday from the left when former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi announced he would run for the presidency on a platform of restoring faith in public policy.

"The country has become poor in terms of efficient workforce and experienced managers," said a statement attributed to Mousavi on the website of Iran's English-language Press TV channel. "Poor human resources are worse than poverty."

Iran eliminated the post of prime minister in 1989.

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