Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tricky state of health five months before Iran's presidential election is not the only burning subject of national discourse in the Islamic Republic. His glaring economic, social, domestic and external policy failures give his opponents grist for intensive discussions on how to take him out of the running and replace him with a more able candidate.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian experts believe the die is cast.
Ahmadinejad is certain to be re-elected president on June 12 for another four years and continue to drive the world crazy up until 2014.
The math is simple: Iran's Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and its fellow-religious extremists which aspire to continue to rule every facet of life in Iran have not hit on a better candidate to keep them in power than the incumbent president.
Iran's armed forces chief Brig. Gen. Hassan Firouz Abadi spoke for all the country's military – as well as supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – when he commended his re-election Wednesday, Jan. 28:
“The Ahmadinejad government has demonstrated that the president has a very high work capacity, demands a lot of mobility and [the office] is not suited for retired and very old individuals [a reference to Khatami, Mehdi Karrubi and former prime minister Mousavi]…”
The general added: “After the coming of Ahmadinejad [the people saw] someone who echoes the words of the Imam [Khomeini] and those very words resonated with the people.”
First hiccup in Tehran's funding for Hamas
Whether or not Ahmadinejad resonates with the people, all these power groups are willing to overlook his manifest mental illness and rundown health (see separate item in this issue), even though the Iranian economy is as sick as its manager.
Plunging oil prices in the last four months, from $147 to $45 a barrel, have hit the country hard.
Tuesday, the Iranian president submitted to parliament an 89-billion-dollar government budget for the year to March 2010 based on a global oil price of $37.5 a barrel. But if prices sink to $35 Iran's economic woes will intensify. A year ago, Iran earned $120 billion a year from its oil sales; the figure is expected to drop this year to $55-45 billion at most.
The bill, furthermore, does not address the country's root problems, especially inflation which has peaked at 29 percent, although economic experts believe it is a lot higher, closer to 35-40 percent.
The Islamic Republic's regime may have to stop awarding free consignments of fuel to its friends and allies – Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Syria. The last item to go under the present regime in Tehran would be operational funding for its two surrogates, Hizballah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas, which provide the Islamic Republic with revolutionary forward bases on the Mediterranean.
Iranian funding keeps Hamas in power in the Gaza Strip and able to fight off military pressure from Israel and Egypt's diplomatic demands to make peace with its rival, the pro-US Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.
But first hiccups are apparent.
Notoriously corrupt government
Emulating Hizballah in 2006, Hamas promised payouts to victims of the 2008-9 war with Israel – 1,000 euros for every Palestinian killed and 4.000 euros for every destroyed home. But when they applied to Tehran to cover these pledges, Hamas leaders received no reply.
The Palestinian Islamists find themselves stranded with Saudi Arabia as their only potential source of revenue – provided they toe Riyadh's line, which means renouncing its rule of the Gaza Strip or at least sharing power with America's man in Ramallah.
This would be a bitter pill for Ahmadinejad to swallow. It would mean that on his watch Iran is failing to fulfill its dreams of expanded revolutionary influence through the Middle East and the Muslim world.
That is not his only failure: He may also have to slash the budgets for Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
He is also facing an increasingly impatient people, more and more of whom dare to ask out loud what happened to the many billions of oil revenues pouring into the republic's coffers in bygone years.
Inflation may soar further if the government goes through with its plan to abolish subsidies on basic products – albeit compensating the poor to avert riots in the big cities. But this plan is in abeyance for fear that the get-rich-quick speculators, many of whom are pals of Ahmadinejad, will jump in and soak up the government benefits before they reach the impoverished classes.
Accusing of pointlessly antagonizing the West
Tehran can no longer avoid abolishing government subsidies for fuel, the pride and joy of the regime. Last year it shelled out $25 billion to keep fuel prices down. But to continue the system amid falling world prices would bring the country to insolvency.
The president is widely accused by Iranian economists of shooting from the hip to damp down crises without understanding the economic consequences of his actions. They say he has made every mistake possible in managing the economy.
On the domestic front, Ahmadinejad is hated for his widespread repressive measures and the favors he hands out to his cronies. Tehran is notoriously mired in runaway corruption.
His critics find extreme fault in his international policies too.
They accuse him of pointlessly antagonizing the West by hurling injudicious invective at Israel, denying the Holocaust and bigheaded bragging about Iran's nuclear capabilities. What has Iran gained, they ask, by being forced into a defensive posture against the world?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iran observers report that the name of ex-president Muhammad Khatami, head of the reformist camp, is being bandied about enthusiastically as Ahmadinejad's replacement.
If elections took place today, he would have a good chance of getting in. But he will not run because he and his following know very well that the Revolutionary Guards would not let them return to power.
No opposition leader has the backing or cunning to displace Ahmadinejad
In 15 years of opposition to the religious extremists who rule Iran, the reformists have never had the strength or shown the cunning for pushing out the forces who control most of the country's key posts and power centers. Khatami is well aware that the reformists lack the clout to return him to the presidency and is therefore biding time for broader support.
He recently held talks with Mir Hossein Moussavi, who was a popular prime minister during the 1979-1987 Iran-Iraq war years and managed to navigate the economy into safe waters amid the shoals of crisis and war. But Moussavi followers see no profit in a pact with Khatami, certain that their favorite would do better to run on his own merits if he decided to run.
Moussavi himself thinks he would do better on his own because Khatami's following is not substantial enough to make up for alienating the IRGC on his behalf.
Even former Majlis Speaker Mahdi Karrubi, once a loyal reformist, stays aloof from Khatami.
Six months ago, he decided to throw his hat in the ring, to which end he established a new party and newspaper complete with Internet website. Now he says he is closer to Moussavi in his views than Khatami.
A more formidable challenge would be posed by Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, who stepped into Ahmadinejad's shoes as mayor of Tehran and was responsible for suppressing pro-Khatami, pro-reformist student riots in 1999.
Ghalibaf almost made it in 2004.
He started out with the backing of the supreme ruler, but at the eleventh hour, Khamenei switched his support to Ahmadinejad.
The political situation in Iran is still fluid. Khatami is hesitating, Moussavi is in no hurry to jump back into the political arena, Karrubi wants a solo run, and Ghalibaf is a non-starter.
For now, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stands unchallenged.