"Decisions on foreign policy issues -- including the contentious issue of Iran's nuclear program -- are traditionally subject to the supreme leader's approval. However, four appointments made by the president in recent weeks suggest that he intends to exert greater influence on Iranian diplomacy, and could be trying to wrest outright control from Khamenei in the sphere of foreign policy.
"Special presidential envoys for foreign policy are not without precedent -- President Mohammad Khatami, for example had two such envoys. The difference is that under Khatami, the appointment of envoys was decided by consensus and subject to approval by the president's cabinet, while Ahmadinejad appears to be making appointments unilaterally.
"On August 22, Ahmadinejad appointed his highly controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as his special envoy to the Middle East. Hamid Baghei, the head of Iran's Cultural Heritage Foundation, was appointed as special envoy for Asia affairs. Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh has been named Iran's envoy on Caspian Affairs. And Abolfazl Zohrevand, deputy head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, is now the president's envoy to Afghanistan."
This is happening amidst a shocking amount of conflict between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i described by Muhammad Sahimi:
"The behind-the-scenes confrontation continued after the nuclear deal. In a previous article, I described the June 4 ceremony at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to commemorate the 21st anniversary of his death. The aftermath of the event demonstrated the friction between the two camps. In a completely unprecedented web article, an anonymous hardliner rebuked Khamenei by name and referred to Khomeini only as the 'former leader of the Revolution.' The piece accused Khamenei of preventing the uprooting of nepotism among the clerics and mocked the Bayt-e Emam (the Khomeini family). Anyone who can post such a scathing piece with impunity must have ties with the highest levels of the military-security establishment.
"Two recent developments represent the most telling evidence of the deepening rift between the two men. One emerged when Ahmadinejad and his cabinet met with Khamenei last week. Ahmadinejad presented a list of his government's 'achievements,' but the ayatollah rebuked him, directly or indirectly, over each item, which is without precedent. The ayatollah had previously gone out of his way to exaggerate Ahmadinejad's 'successes,' but not this time.
"When Ahmadinejad claimed that his government had spread 'economic fairness,' the ayatollah responded, 'In order to assess whether fairness has been achieved, certain criteria must be set to see whether it has really happened in the various aspects of the society -- economical, social, cultural, and educational.'
"After Ahmadinejad stated that his government is 'rapidly' achieving the goals set out in the Expediency Council's 20-Year Vision Plan, the ayatollah retorted, 'The government must appoint some people to study whether the pace of progress has been good' during the period Ahmadinejad has been in office.
"Ahmadinejad then told the ayatollah that the main focus of his government is 'culture.' Khamenei pointedly responded, 'Showmanship in cultural affairs is not only not useful, but also damaging,' a reference to Ahmadinejad's constant boasting of his accomplishments."
Sahimi speculates that Ahmadinejad may have an ambitious goal more commonly associated with the most radical reformists, the end of the clerical regime:
"There are other signs that Ahmadinejad wants to do away with Khamenei and the clerics. He and his team have repeatedly visited and talked about Jamkaran, the site near Qom where people can supposedly make contact with Mahdi, the Shiites' 12th Imam who is supposed to return from hiding one day. Many people interpret this as an example of Ahmadinejad's demagogic exploitation of superstitions. I believe it his subtle way of saying, 'If we can directly contact with Imam Mahdi, we do not need the clerics to do that for us.'"
(Crossposted to American Footprints)