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Iran: Signs Political Elite Moving To Restrain President

By Breffni O'Rourke

January 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Hints are emerging in Tehran that Iranians of various political persuasions are trying to put the brakes on firebrand President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Iran was recently placed under limited United Nations sanctions because of its refusal to stop uranium enrichment, and the president has responded with a barrage of criticism of the UN and the West.

Some analysts think Iranian politicians might rein in Ahmadinejad, and distance him from the country's controversial nuclear program, in case the UN imposes broader sanctions that could devastate Iran's economy. 

It is too early to say whether populist President Ahmadinejad is losing the confidence of Iran's political classes. But there are several concrete developments that could indicate a desire to restrain excesses and perceived policy errors since he came into office in 2005.

Shrugging Off UN

One clue is contained in the daily newspaper "Jomhuri-yi Islami," which has rejected Ahmadinejad's jeering comment that the UN sanctions resolution is merely "a scrap of paper." In remarks to parliament on January 21, the president continued his defiant tone.

"The [UN] resolution was born dead, and even if they issue 10 more of such resolutions, it will not affect Iran's economy and policies," Ahmadinejad said. "They want to say, through a psychological war, that the resolution has been very effective."

He returned to the same theme on January 23, telling state television that sanctions "belong to the past."

"Jomhuri-yi Islami" took the contrary line, saying that the sanctions will certainly hurt Iran, and that it is a mistake to take them lightly.

"Jomhuri-yi Islami" is generally held to reflect the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most senior political and religious authority under Iran's constitution.

Supreme Rebuke?

Ali Ansari, an Iran analyst with the London-based think tank Chatham House, says Khamenei is the key figure in the question of what to do about Ahmadinejad.

"The issue is what the supreme leader will do," Ansari says. "I think [that] in the first instance, they will just try to contain and control him. If they can't contain and control [Ahmadinejad], and he keeps shooting his mouth off, I'm not sure what will happen; but clearly there will be a lot of pressure on the supreme leader to take some more decisive action."

Another sign of discontent with Ahmadinejad comes from within the parliament. Legislators are collecting signatures on a demand that the president be called before parliament to answer questions about the country's nuclear program, which some in the West suspect is aimed at producing atomic weapons.

Also, the president has come under sharp criticism for his handling of the economy. Some 150 legislators have signed a letter condemning his policies, which are seen as having caused rapid inflation. Ansari says that comes as no surprise.

"Right from the beginning, people were warning that this man had no concept of an economic policy or plan; he had a lot of rhetoric, a lot of wishful thinking, [and] he made a lot of promises," Ansari says.

Economic Squeeze

One member of the reformist National Trust Party, Hadi Baluki, said recently that Ahmadinejad had promised to "bring oil money onto people's plates" but that instead the people have no bread.

Food prices have risen sharply, and critics blame Ahmadinejad's actions in pumping cash directly into the economy, in part through handouts.

The UN sanctions imposed so far on Iran are limited to preventing other countries supplying Tehran with the means to expand its nuclear program.

Iran seems set on ignoring the UN demands. But some Iranians fear that Ahmadinejad's fiery defiance could be laying the groundwork for an expansion of sanctions into the economic arena.

Analyst Laurent Zecchin, writing in the French daily "Le Monde," says Iran would be particularly vulnerable to a ban on oil imports. That may seem odd in a country with some of the biggest oil and gas reserves in the world. But the fact is that Iran refines just 60 percent of its own needs; the other 40 percent of refined oil products must be imported.

Zecchin notes that with domestic demand for oil products rising by 10 percent per year, Iran would be hard hit by any form of UN energy sanctions.

He writes that "Le Monde" has information that the Foreign Affairs and Defense committees of the Iranian parliament late in 2006 compiled a 100-page report that concluded that national economic stability would be at risk from UN economic sanctions.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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