President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran will not preside over — or even attend — next month’s OPEC meeting in Vienna as previously planned, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday. The change in plan, reported late Monday in Iran’s state-run press, appeared to signify a retreat by the president in his power struggle with the nation’s supreme leader.
Mr. Ahmadinejad had announced nine days earlier that he would assume the position of oil minister on a caretaker basis in time to attend the OPEC meeting to press for higher oil prices. Now that a lower level minister will take the podium, most energy experts say the meeting is unlikely to produce any sudden shifts in OPEC pricing or production policy.
The move by Mr. Ahmadinejad to take over the oil ministry and project himself on the world stage at the June 8 meeting in Vienna was seen as the latest skirmish in a confrontation with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that surfaced a month ago and put a sharp public focus on the widening cracks within Iran’s ruling elite. The reversal suggested that his ability to exert independent power in either domestic or foreign affairs is diminishing.
“The leader has drawn a bright red line around Ahmadinejad’s continued power grabs,” said Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official who is now an Iran expert at Eurasia Group, a consultancy. “Ahmadinejad has been severely weakened.”
A senior oil ministry official, Shojaoddin Bazargani, was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency on Monday as saying that Mr. Ahmadinejad had made “his own decision and will appoint one of his cabinet ministers to attend the meeting.” A Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed the report on Tuesday, putting to rest days of conflicting accounts on whether Mr. Ahmadinejad would be attending the OPEC conference.
Iran experts say that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s faction has been weakened as parliamentary elections approach next year, and that a more pliant figure would likely be favored by conservative religious leaders for the next presidential election in 2013.
The intrigue surrounding Mr. Ahmadinejad’s political position deepened Tuesday when a mysterious explosion jolted Iran’s largest oil refinery just as he was scheduled to arrive for the inauguration of an expansion project. At least 20 people were injured in the blast, which Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency attributed to a gas leak.
Mr. Ahmadinejad went ahead with a nationally broadcast speech from the facility.
The power struggle broke out in the open last month when Mr. Ahmadinejad dismissed Heydar Moslehi, the chief of the intelligence ministry. Ayatollah Khamenei reversed the decision, a sign that he would retain control over the powerful ministry.
Two weeks ago Mr. Ahmadinejad appeared to make another move to consolidate power by firing three ministers in a cabinet streamlining. But last weekend the Guardian Council, a powerful body of clerics and jurists responsible for upholding the constitution, ruled that the president had overstepped his authority.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s aides have insisted so far that he is retaining his additional post as oil minister, but his decision not to travel to the OPEC meeting suggests that he is no more than a caretaker of the oil ministry, which is responsible for more than three-quarters of the country’s revenue.
Iran experts say that while he is wounded politically, Mr. Ahmadinejad is still powerful and likely to challenge Ayatollah Khamenei again.
“I don’t see him as being on the ropes,” said Jamie Webster, a Middle East expert at PFC Energy, a consultancy. He noted that while Ayatollah Khamenei has the power to dismiss Mr. Ahmadinejad, the president retains support among many rural and poor Iranians. A shift in government fuel and food subsidies late last year protected the rural poor from costs that have been otherwise borne by the urban middle class.
Iran holds OPEC’s 12-nation rotating presidency, a position that normally means that the country’s oil minister delivers the opening remarks and presides over the proceedings.
With tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia already heightened by the Saudi troop deployment in Bahrain to help repress mainly Shiite demonstrators, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s presence at the meeting would have almost certainly threatened to cause verbal hostilities and disrupt meaningful policy planning, global petroleum experts said.
“Ahmadinejad’s absence leaves Saudi Arabia free to conduct the agenda as it sees fit,” Mr. Kupchan said, “without the distraction of this spotlight-grabbing leader.” Agencies