Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Image Credit: AP

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government has suffered an unprecedentedly harsh blow to its credibility during the last few weeks. The Iranian president has witnessed the arrest of officials close to high-ranking members of his cabinet, and has engaged in an escalating war of words with senior conservatives and Iran's judiciary.

Even high-ranking members of the Revolutionary Guards, believed to be politically aligned with President Ahmadinejad, have sparred publicly with his administration, with both sides accusing each other of illegal financial dealings.

Despite this crisis, Ahmadinejad has not only maintained his clout but has also managed to break through many of the regime's traditional restrictions on executive power. His political standing has been weakened but not undermined. This has left Iranian legislators worried that Ahmadinejad can still gain long-lasting political influence through next year's parliamentary elections.

In an effort to extend his power beyond 2013, when his term ends, Ahmadinejad will continue to push the limits of Iran's government structure and pick fights to place allies in influential positions, according to Hussain Askari, who holds the Iran chair at George Washington University.

"If you are politically ambitious and Ahmadinejad certainly is, the only way you can gain power is to cause a confrontation. He's not going to stop pushing," Askari said in an interview. For much of his presidency, Ahmadinejad has treated the conservative-dominated parliament with contempt, boldly appointing loyalists in vital state organisations with the tacit approval of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During the past six years, he has appointed and replaced political allies in key institutions, such as the ministries of oil, foreign affairs and economy, as well as the central bank. At the same time, he has either weakened or removed structural bodies, such as the Management and Planning Organisation, which were responsible for supervising government finances and strategy.

Meanwhile, the supreme leader has capitalised on the divide between Ahmadinejad and his conservative rivals, quietly encouraging parliament's recent verbal assault against the president and his advisers in an effort to restore political equilibrium.

Slew of dismissals

Already, Khamenei has used his constitutional authority to make exceptions, such as allowing Iran's minister of housing, Ali Nikzad, to serve as caretaker for the transport ministry after parliament impeached its minister in February. By law, caretaker ministers may be appointed by the president for three months only, and an incumbent minister cannot simultaneously serve as caretaker of a second ministry. Nikzad remained caretaker of the transport ministry for five months and was subsequently approved by parliament.

In May, Ahmadinejad sacked the ministers of welfare, industry and oil. He had earlier been rebuked by Khamenei after unilaterally sacking intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi contrary to the established practice of consulting the supreme leader on intelligence matters. The dismissal of welfare minister Sadegh Mahsouli was deemed a private victory for the president's inner circle of advisers.

Ahmadinejad is expected to escalate his clashes with political rivals inside the traditional conservative establishment and Iran's judiciary, with the knowledge that doing so will result, at minimum, in a partial political victory for his administration.

The arrest in late June of Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh and two senior officials who are closely allied to Ahmadinejad's chief of staff was meant to serve as a warning to the president and his advisers that they have become too bold with the supreme leadership and too willing to bypass the legislature. All three officials have remained in state custody, which is significant because it means the president has not yet been able to get them out.

Even as conservatives magnify their efforts to regain political influence, Ahmadinejad will continue his own attempts to shore up his government's control over day-to-day administration. But conservatives will continue to push back against any political gains that Ahmadinejad makes, a veteran analyst and government adviser in Tehran, tells me. 

Roshanak Taghavi is a journalist specialising in the economics and politics of Iran and the Middle East.