Iran Prez Hold Shaky in Latest Challenge

Will the embattled president of Iran stay in power?

July 8, 2009, 10:38 AM

July 28, 2009— -- More than a month after a presidential election that some called a "political earthquake," the ground is still shifting under disputed Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

His political moves have angered some conservatives, forcing a crack in the hard-line camp in that could threaten his hold on power. Tensions between conservatives siding with Ahmadinejad and others with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have raised the likelihood of a vote of confidence by Iran's parliament, which could cost Ahmadinejad his job.

This week Ahmadinejad dismissed his Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei, perceived to be close to Khamenei, after a week of tension with the supreme leader over his choice of vice president. Ahmadinejad had appointed his relative, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to the post, a move that angered some conservatives and led Khamenei to order the vice president's dismissal. When Ahmadinejad insisted on keeping him in place a letter from 200 parliament members, more than two-thirds of the body called on him to "correct his behavior [and] follow the leader's opinion seriously," according to local press reports.

Other conservatives expressed similar disapproval.

"Unfortunately, Mr. Ahmadinejad has failed in the practical test of being faithful to the supreme leader," wrote Iran's hardline newspaper Hizbollah on Monday.

"The eminent position of the supreme leader is not like a shelter which you can use whenever you need and disregard when it is against your personal interests! You have to know that Iranian Hizbollah will not easily forgive your disobedience to the supreme leader," the paper added.

Professor Mohammad Sahimi, an engineering professor and a political commentator at the University of Southern California, says the row may not have weakened Ahmadinejad immediately.

"In the power struggle I don't think this past week has weakened him. He has demonstrated that he can defy the supreme leader and fire people who are trusted by the supreme leader," said Sahimi.

"But in the public eye, his second term is illegitimate, or at the very least questionable. And it's very significant that there are conservative ayatollahs, loyal to the leadership in the past, who are expressing their disapproval of what's going on."

On Sunday, news emerged that Ahmadinejad had dismissed three other ministers. Labor Minister Mohammad Jahromi, Health Minister Kamran Baqeri-Lankarani, and Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad-Hassan Saffar-Harandi had reportedly objected to Ahmadinejad's disagreement with the supreme leader over his vice president. Their resignations put Ahmadinejad over a critical threshold – having changed more than half of his ministers since he took office in 2005, he would trigger an automatic vote of confidence by the parliament.

"Following the dismissal of two members of the cabinet and the possible sacking of two more, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government would lose legitimacy. In fact, the country would be placed in a situation of not having a government," wrote reformist newspaper E'temad.

After the initial announcements Ahmadinejad backtracked, saying the men had not been dismissed. They were still officially cabinet members, his government insisted, thereby avoiding the constitutional crisis. But questions remain over the firings and whether they will hold, making the less than two weeks before his inauguration a critical and potentially unstable period.

If the vote of confidence did go to Iran's parliament, known as the Majles, it could either vote Ahmadinejad out of office or choose to have him keep his seat. Analysts say it's unclear which way the heavily conservative body would go.

"If I were him I would not sit comfortably," said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.

The parliament could also impeach Ahmadinejad for performance, a move that has been raised by a narrow set of voices since before the June 12 election. In that case, says Sahimi, the Majles would vote on whether to remove him from office, then the decision would have to be approved by the supreme leader.

While conservative political dynamics have been in the forefront at the start of this week, opposition supporters are looking Thursday to stage another broad statement of solidarity. The movement's figurehead, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has called for a memorial service at Tehran's Mosalla Mosque, honoring the protesters killed in the state's violent crackdown.

The memorial marks the traditional Shiite cycle of mourning, marking 40 days since the death of Neda Agha Soltan, a 27-year-old woman who became emblematic of the slain protesters. Roughly two dozen have been killed, according to official figures, though members of the opposition place the death toll as high as 200.

Yesterday protestors in Tehran's Vanak Square met riot police and plain clothes forces, who beat them back with electrified batons, one eyewitness told ABC News. Far fewer people brave the streets than in the early days of the unrest, those who do say the movement is now an endurance race.

"The tides are changing for sure. Civil rights will win at end of the day…but it will be slow and lethargic and painful," said Farzaneh, a 26-year-old woman protester.

Opposition supporters tell ABC News they have begun organizing by locally, encouraging green graffiti of political slogans on walls and phone booths and publishing neighborhood newsletters. The nightly cries of "Allahu Akbar" continue, though some Tehran residents now shout it out of their windows, avoiding the exposure of their rooftops.

ABC News has confirmed that at least two people have been shot dead by snipers while shouting their protest.

Protesters say they are lining up with Mousavi, in support of the movement rather than of the man. Shirin, a protester who says she is fighting for a "free Iran," says the promise to make Thursday's protest a quiet, religious event rather than a political rally was too deep a concession.

"But right now we need a leader," she said. "That's why I think Mousavi is good. Now there is a leader. That's why this is going somewhere."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events