Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not going down without a fight. A big one.
Set aside Sunday's rituals on the 34th Anniversary of the Revolution with the regime tag-line, "Iranians Show Support for Leader". Set aside the nuclear issue and Ahmadinejad's remark on direct talks with the US, which preoccupied almost all international media --- that is a small part of a larger story.
The important, dramatic revelation yesterday was Ahmadinejad's declaration of political war.
A week ago, after the Presidenti's ill-judged confrontation with Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani in the Majlis and the arrest of his advisor Saeed Mortazavi, I said bluntly, "Ahmadinejad is finished as a political force." That may still be true, but yesterday --- one of the last major set-pieces for the President before his term finishes in June with the election of a successor --- was not a surrender.
To the contrary, Ahmadinejad attacked. He launched another assault on Larijani; his brother, head of judiciary Sadegh; and their family. He told other rivals he would come after them.
And he defied the Supreme Leader.
The first half-hour of the speech was uneventful, even boring. The President went through pious declarations of the Islamic Revolution and as "the awakening of humanity" and a scroll of number that supposedly proved his Government's success in production, investment, industrial output, agriculture. He talked about the launch of a "living thing" into space. He lied about the state of oil exports, doubling them with a single word. He made no reference to economic problems.
Then the pace picked up. The President went through his nuclear passage, declaring that the enemy could not stop Iran's advance and offering the line, "“You pull away the gun from the face of the Iranian nation, I myself will enter the talks with you."
The thought occurred: with that reference to direct discussions with the US, had Ahmadinejad just pushed back on the Supreme Leader, who had declared Thursday that there could be no 1-on-1 negotiations?
Possibly, but this would have to wait --- the President was about to launch his main assault.
There was a curious prelude, in which Ahmadinejad finally acknowledged the "pressures and problems" that Iranians were enduring because of the economy but said he would "leave discussions" of the Government's actions "to another time". Then, having effectively said that the economic situation was not a priority on this day, he struck:
People have the right to pick the rulers. No one should that people's vote is only a paper. We need this collective opinion. No one should think they can decide rather than the people.
Ahmadinejad, the man whose re-election was disputed in 2009 by millions amid claims of electoral manipulation and intimidation, had just acknowledged that Iran's elections --- the same elections that the Supreme Leader had hailed last month as the free-est in the world --- can be rigged.
But who might manipulate this June's ballot? An earlier passage in the speech now stood out. "There is no monopoly on Revolution by a few....It belongs to people not to any tribe or party," Ahmadinejad had declared, clearly pointing at the Larijanis.
But the threat was not just the Larijanis. Ahmadinejad now said,
Some people have said they can engineer the election.
"Some people" meant the Supreme Leader's representative to the Revolutionary Guards, Ali Saeedi, who said last month that it was the "duty" of the Guards to "engineer" the election. That comment sparked some furour in the Iranian media, with the Guards trying to "clarify" that their "duty" was to ensure maximum participation in the vote.
Now Ahmadinejad was declaring that he would not let the remark. Even the Supreme Leader's men and the Guards must be under suspicion.
The President --- again, the man whose claim to victory in 2009 was only upheld by the endorsement of Ayatollah Khamenei and a show of force on the streets --- made his stand. I am the defender of the Revolution. The "others" are my enemy, and the enemy of Iranians:
I would say the great nation of the people of Iran know which path to take, and institutions and law must be abided by. Destroying others' reputation to prove yourself is not the right thing to do.
No one can impose his opinions of the people. I am confident the people will make this choice. Everyone needs to respect the vote of the people.
Some individuals should not act or speak in a way that plays into the treacherous hands of the enemies of the Iranian nation.
Ahmadnejad was declaring political war.
Indeed, the first battle was taking place, miles away in the religious city of Qom. Speaker of Parliament Larijani was giving his own speech for the anniversary of the Revolution. He never finished it: Ahmadinejad supporters --- some reports said a hundred, others said several hundreds --- shouted him down and threw prayer stones and shoes.
"Stunned" may be the appropriate word for the official reaction. Of course, no outlet referred to the President's allegation of a forthcoming rigged election --- the pro-Ahmadinejad State news agency IRNA, with its series of headline articles, framed Ahmadinejad's delclaration as "the officials should ensure they serve the Iranian people". Press TV's later, brief summary of the day seemed almost desperate with the insistence on "Iranians Show Support for Leader". The photographs, claiming "hundreds of thousands" turning out in Tehran, lacked context.
All day long I waited for a response from the Larijanis. It never came.
More importantly, I waited for the signal from the Supreme Leader's camp. I waited in vain.
For at least one day --- the day of the 34th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution --- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had seized the initiative. He had declared that he would not give way to all those "enemies", even if they might include members of the Supreme Leader's camp. He had said that it was he --- not they --- who represented Iranians.
I still think, beyond this one day, that the President is finished. He had a platform on Sunday, but he has no base beyond that. His rivals have the Government bureaucracy, the finances, and most of Parliament. Most importantly, if Ahmadinejad insists that there must be a final showdown, they will have the backing of the Supreme Leader when he finally decides that "balance" cannot be maintained.
I think those rivals will contain Ahmadinejad, as --- for all his bluster -- they generally have since spring 2011.
But I have underestimated Mahmoud before. Last week I did so again.
If Ahmadinejad is going down, he is not going down without a fight. A big one.