Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei instructed the ruling elite to end their public bickering after a similar request three months ago was ignored.
“Officials must preserve the country’s interests and put aside these shows of bad character,” Khamenei, the country’s top cleric, said today during a meeting with air force commanders, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. “I will speak with the Iranian people in the future about these disputes.”
It’s the third time since October that Khamenei has had to call his officials to heel as they squabble ahead of the June presidential elections. The political infighting threatens to further undermine public confidence at a time when the economy is already reeling from international sanctions and ahead of fresh talks scheduled this month with world powers over Iran’s nuclear program.
The latest row began when lawmakers, including staunch critics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tried to impeach one of his ministers this week, spurring the president to retaliate by airing a video that allegedly links a brother of the parliamentary speaker to corruption. Lawmakers shouted and speaker Ali Larijani said Ahmadinejad was acting like a mafia boss. Another of Larijani’s brothers, Sadegh, who heads the judiciary, later said he’ll respond at a time of his choosing.
Khamenei has previously said that political bickering would play in the hands of western powers, which have increased sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
The confrontations are “rising sharply” in “Iran’s Kabuki theater,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. The continuing public exchanges are “significant because it does show that the supreme leader only has a certain reach and will have to interfere again.”
The president, who has been involved in disagreements with Khamenei since his second term started in 2009, is constitutionally unable to run again in the June 14 race and his efforts to groom an ally have been hindered with several of his close aides arrested or marginalized.
The Iranian leader may have difficulties keeping Ahmadinejad under check until the election, said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of contemporary Middle East politics at Qatar University.
“Ahmadinejad has already crossed the red line” by challenging Khamenei’s authority and is unlikely to obey him now, Zweiri said. Ahmadinejad “has nothing to lose. He wants to complicate things as he knows he will have no political gains in these elections.”
Iran, one of the main producers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is targeted by a series of U.S. and European Union sanctions over its nuclear program, which it maintains is civilian even as Western powers say it may be military. The country is grappling with accelerating inflation that reached 28.7 percent in January, a weakening national currency and oil output that in 2012 fell to its lowest in more than two decades.
Iran’s escalating conflict with the U.S. and its allies have benefited the president, as Khamenei seeks to project the image of a united front at home. The supreme leader intervened in November to prevent lawmakers from summoning the president to parliament for questioning on his economic policies.
“If there was no confrontation between Iran and the international community around the nuclear issue, the supreme leader would have dismissed Ahmadinejad long ago,” Zweiri said.