Iran’s supreme leader on Monday reversed a decision by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and ordered him to implement a law supplying natural gas to remote villages amid rising dissatisfaction with the president’s performance.
The move by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was a major rebuke to the hardline president, whose popularity has been plummeting amid rising food prices and deaths due to gas cuts in the midst of a particularly harsh winter.
In response to a request by the conservative-dominated parliament, Khamenei ordered the president to implement a law spending US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) from the Currency Reserve Fund to supply gas to villages after he balked for budgetary reasons.
“All legal legislation that has gone through [the required] procedures stipulated in the constitution is binding for all branches of power,” Parliamentary Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel quoted the supreme leader’s written response as saying.
Khamenei’s decision is a heavy blow to Ahmadinejad whose popularity has been shrinking in recent months over sharp increases in the price of vegetables and housing and the reported death of 64 Iranians from cold winter due to gas cuts.
Haddad Adel called Ahmadinejad’s refusal “surprising” and said his appeal to Khamenei was aimed at “defending the dignity of the legislature”. His comments, which were broadcast live on state-run radio, prompted chants of “well done” from the chamber.
Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 on a populist agenda promising to bring oil revenues to every family, eradicate poverty and tackle unemployment. Now he is facing increasingly fierce criticism for his failure to meet those promises.
“We don’t want [you] to bring oil money to our table ... just restore heating gas immediately,” lawmaker Valiollah Raeyat said in an open session of the parliament last week.
Iran has the second largest natural gas reservoir of the world but its supply network has been overwhelmed by high demand. Both reformists and conservatives are increasingly asking the president why Iranians are dying from the cold while sitting on the massive gas fields.
As much as 22 inches (550mm) of snow fell in areas of northern and central Iran early January, the heaviest snowfall in more than a decade. The cold weather has caused problems for many residents with a dozen towns suffering from gas cuts partly due to a surge in demand and a drop in gas exports from Turkmenistan.
Former president Hashemi Rafsanjani said mismanagement was also to be blamed for the shortages.
“I hope this incident will serve a lesson... Given the investments made, only appropriate planning and management is needed to avoid such shocks,” Rafsanjani said in his Friday prayer sermons.
State Inspection Organisation chief, Mohammad Niazi, said on Monday that Ahmadinejad’s administration ignored suggestions to set aside gas supplies in case of an emergency, the official IRNA news agency reported.
“Earlier, [we] had warned executive officials about saving fuel but unfortunately warnings were not heeded... there is no strategy for gas supply in the country,” he said.
Ahmadinejad, who portrayed himself as a champion of the poor when he swept to power, is being challenged not only by reformers but by the same conservatives who paved the way for his victory in 2005.
Even conservatives say Ahmadinejad has concentrated too much on fiery, anti-US speeches and not enough on the economy, and they have become more aggressive in calling him to account.
Ahmadinejad loses battle over gas budget legislation amid growing discontent