Ahmainejad’s war of words: A shield against becoming a scapegoat for Iran’s problems?

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has carried out an unprecedented public attack against the chief of Iran’s judiciary Sadegh Larijani, brother of parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, with potentially dire consequences for the conflict within Iran’s ruling Principalist faction and the upcoming 2013 presidential election.

On Monday 26 Sepember 2012, Ahmadinejad’s press advisor Ali-Akbar Javanfekr was arrested on the charge of spreading content which is against Islamic principles and undermining public values. Angered by the judiciary’s decision to imprison one of his most senior aides, Ahmadinejad in part responded by saying on 22 October that he would inspect Iranian prisons.

It appears that in response to Ahmadinejad’s planned inspection of prisons, judiciary chief Larijani wrote a top secret letter to the Iranian president advising him that such action would “not be expedient”. Although Ahmadinejad did not publicize the top secret letter from Larijani, an action which would carry a heavy legal penalty in the Islamic Republic, the Iranian president wrote a harsh response which addressed all of the judiciary chief’s points and published it on his official website, thereby de facto revealing the content of the latter’s message. He justified this by saying that “because these correspondences are related to the fundamental rights of the nation, there is no necessity [for them] to be secret.”

Ahmadinejad’s response contained a number of key elements. First, he asserted that the president  was the most powerful official in the country after the supreme leader, and that as such he had a responsibility to safeguard the constitution, which included overseeing the other branches of government. Next he attacked the record of the judiciary, saying that he had secretly written to Larijani since 2009 complaining about the poor state of the judiciary, but had been ignored.

Referring to a passage in Larijani’s letter which apparently told Ahmadinejad that he needed the judiciary’s permission to inspect prisons but that doing so would not be expedient, the president dismissed the idea that he needed anyone’s permission and asked rhetorically how upholding the constitution was not expedient. He in fact accused Larijani of violating the constitution, citing the judiciary’s chief’s alleged opposition to Article 168 (which states there must be a press jury for cases involving the media) as proof.

Referring to another passage in the elder Larijani brother’s letter which apparently told the president to think of the people’s economic situation instead of inspecting prisons, Ahmadinejad retorted by saying that the judiciary should not concern itself with “political analysis”. He also attacked the judiciary’s credibility by saying that if the judiciary had no qualms about making unjust accusations against the elected representative of the people, it could do much worse to ordinary people. Ahmadinejad also threw Larijani’s criticism of the presidential administration’s economic record back at Iran’s top judge, saying that a good judiciary that confronted economic corruption is necessary for a good  economy. President Ahmadinejad then made a veiled threat to cut the Judiciary’s financial resources, asking “is it acceptable that I also find that it is not expedient to pay the Judiciary’s massive budget?”

Referring to his powers under the constitution and his oath of office, Ahmadinejad in part closed his response to the alleged Larijani letter by saying:

“I have decided with certainty that I will completely implement the constitution and fundamental and deep-rooted reforms in national affairs by inspecting some prisons and some courts. I will evaluate the way in which the constitution is carried and the respect for the basic rights of the nation, and give the report to the great nation and supreme leader.”

Editor’s note: As IranPolitik has noted for some time now, ever since the repression of the 2009-2010 Green Movement demonstrations, the differences and rivalries within the Principalist faction (which it should be noted controls every majour lever of power in the Islamic Republic) have been manifesting themselves more intensely.

Some, particularly in the Western media, have interpreted this as a conflict between supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Ahmadinejad. No doubt, the relations between two have declined significantly since the controversial Iranian president’s first term. However, Khamenei reaffirmed at least some level of support for Ahmadinejad earlier this month when he rejected criticisms of the president’s economic policies by disgruntled bazaaris. The real rivalry and conflict has been between the multiple sub-groups of the Principalist faction, including Traditional Principalists and Neo-Principalists.

It is unlikely that Ahmadinejad can back up his threats against the judiciary with actions, especially since powerful former backers like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have all but abandoned him. However, his revelations in the response he published on his website go against all decorum between senior officials in the Islamic Republic and represent a majour provocation. The public disclosure of the contents of a top-secret letter could be used to great effects by the enemies of the Iranian president. More importantly perhaps, Ahmadinejad’s actions put him up against the supreme leader in rather direct fashion. Unlike his conflict with parliament, which is only indirectly supervised by the supreme leader and is made up of individuals with differing backgrounds, the judiciary chief is a direct Khamenei appointee and the judiciary is a strongly clerical body, meaning that Ahmadinejad is placing the supreme leader in an awkward position.

Why make such provocations now? By taking up the mantle of justice and reform, Ahmadinejad may be attempting to place himself and his own supporters in a stronger position to protect his legacy and guard against becoming a scapegoat for Iran’s problems once he is no longer president.