Ahmadinejad grilled by hostile Iran parliament
DUBAI (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was summoned to parliament on Wednesday for an unprecedented grilling by lawmakers who accused him of economic mismanagement and making "illegal" appointments.
Less than two weeks after a drubbing in parliamentary elections, Ahmadinejad became the first president in the Islamic Republic's history to be called before the legislature which has the power to impeach him if unsatisfied with his answers.
Factions who express complete loyalty to Iran's most powerful figure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been trying to summon the president for months over what they say are repeated challenges to the supreme leader's authority.
Emboldened by their success over Ahmadinejad supporters at parliamentary elections this month, they finally had the chance to interrogate him about the near-stagnant, high-inflation economy and concerns over his allegiance to Khamenei.
Asking the questions, lawmaker Ali Motahari asked why Ahmadinejad had stayed at home for several days last April after Khamenei overturned the president's decision to sack his intelligence minister - an absence seen by some as a protest against the supreme leader's decision.
Belying his weakened standing, Ahmadinejad responded in a confident and, at times, flippant tone that did little to calm the excitement of the hearing, broadcast live on state radio.
He denied challenging the supreme leader, saying: "This is one of those things - Ahmadinejad staying home and resting. Some of my friends have repeatedly told me to rest. In this government, work has never been stopped for even a day."
He played down the historic significance of the summons, saying it was parliament's right and not out of the ordinary.
"I was ready to answer questions before the election," he said. "But I thought it might have an impact on election results and then I would be blamed for it. I am the easiest to blame."
After an hour-long grilling that included questions on the botched financing of the Tehran metro and the veracity of government figures showing the creation of 1.6 million jobs in 2009 and 2010, many parliamentarians remained unimpressed.
"Ahmadinejad's answers to lawmakers' questions were illogical, illegal and an attempt to avoid answering them. With an insulting tone, Ahmadinejad made fun of lawmakers' questions and insulted parliament," Mohammad Taqi Rahbar was quoted as saying by parliament's news agency.
Having made several ministerial appointments that were unpopular with parliament - including briefly taking charge of the oil ministry, in charge of Iran's biggest economic sector - Ahmadinejad was questioned about how he picked people for key posts.
Outgoing reformist lawmaker Mostafa Kavakebian said: "The president did not give any logical answers and took everything as a joke."
"Is this a place to joke?" another parliamentarian, Mohammad Reza Khabbaz asked the assembly.
Iran's English-language television channel, Press TV, reported that some deputies had been riled by Ahmadinejad's mocking language and, after the session, made threats to impeach him after the Iranian new year holiday later this month.
But analysts said that was unlikely.
Ali Ansari of St Andrews University in Scotland characterized the hearing as a "not serious bit of bloodletting".
"Khamenei is clearly in charge and regards Ahmadinejad as too useful and divisive a figure to get rid of. Heaven forbid that a competent and well liked president take office who might pose a serious challenge to Khamenei," he added.
Tehran-based Professor Sadeq Zibakalam said Ahmadinejad's tone showed he was not a spent force.
"Some conservatives want to get rid of him before his term is over," he said. "Ahmadinejad showed today that it won't be easy to do. By being firm and not taking conservatives seriously, he's become stronger."
Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran said Ahmadinejad's failure to adequately answer questions about his differences with the supreme leader showed "a weak spot" but that he remained popular among ordinary Iranians.
"I don't think he'll be impeached," Marandi said. "This parliament doesn't have the motive at this stage. They are critics and want to keep him in check."
Analysts are now eyeing the make-up of the new parliament to assess the extent of the damage inflicted on the pro-Ahmadinejad faction during the parliamentary elections.
Zibakalam said it was still unclear whether the more than 70 newly-elected independent members would stand with or against Ahmadinejad during his remaining time in office which expires mid-2013.
Initially lauded by conservatives for his radical views on Israel and the West, attacks on Ahmadinejad by rival hardliners in parliament increased after last year's spat over the intelligence minister with his critics saying any challenge to Khamenei threatens the foundations of the Islamic Republic.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)
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