TEHRAN, Iran – It was literally a command performance in Iranian political theater: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was dragged Wednesday before parliament to face unprecedented questioning over his policies, suffering another blow from hard-line opponents who now have the upper hand.
The full hour of posturing, potshots and probing -- broadcast live on Iranian radio -- was a lesson in the unforgiving realities of Iran's two-tier political system and how it shapes all critical decisions, such as Tehran's nuclear program and its standoff with the West.
The ruling Islamic clerics retain ultimate control over every key aspect of political, military and industrial affairs, including hand-picking the top posts in the government. When Ahmadinejad offered some resistance, the blowback was harsh, with one-time conservative backers breaking away and the ruling system launching political purges of his allies.
It also emboldened Ahmadinejad's critics in parliament to make him the first president hauled before the chamber for questioning since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
While an embarrassment for Ahmadinejad, the spectacle in parliament didn't carry any immediate political consequences that could push him from office before the election next year to pick his successor. There is a chance -- however small at the moment -- that lawmakers could debate whether to move toward impeachment efforts.
The questioning further reinforced the narrative that Ahmadinejad is deeply wounded politically and unlikely to have a protege on the ballot in presidential elections next year.
It also highlighted that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hard-line guardians of the ruling establishment, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard, are firmly in control before the possible renewal of talks with world powers over Iran's nuclear program. An unwillingness to make compromises to ease the standoff could bring stronger calls for military action from Israel and the U.S.
The parliamentary grilling included no questions about the nuclear program or Iran's response to Western sanctions.
"We didn't want to come," Ahmadinejad acknowledged to the 290-seat chamber.
Then he vowed to be a "good student" and answer the accusations point by point. They included alleged mismanagement of the economy and his high-profile political temper tantrum last April, when he stayed away from Cabinet meetings for 11 days after Khamenei ordered the reinstatement of the intelligence minister whom Ahmadinejad had dismissed.
"What justification did you have for your 11-day resistance to the supreme leader's decree?" asked Conservative lawmaker Ali Motahari, a prominent opponent of the president, who read the list of 10 questions.
"Work didn't stop for a single day," responded Ahmadinejad, who flatly denied any attempts to defy Khamenei.
For much of questioning, Ahmadinejad tried to tap into the populist touch that has given him a mass following despite his strained ties with clerical leaders.
Ahmadinejad pushed back with jokes, jabs and sidestepping that drew gasps and grumbles from his opponents.
Other biting questions were directed at Ahmadinejad's support for his top aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, whom hard-liners accuse of heading a "deviant current" that sought to undermine Islamic rule. Some critics have even claimed that Mashaei conjured black magic spells to befuddle Ahmadinejad's mind.
Dozens of Ahmadinejad's political backers have been arrested or hounded out of the public eye by hard-line forces in recent months. Mashaei has been effectively blocked from his apparent goal of succeeding Ahmadinejad in next year's elections.
Instead of directly replying to the questions, Ahmadinejad simply said he supports Iran's "history" and "God also loves Iran."
Ahmadinejad also repeatedly claimed he wanted to share "jokes" with the lawmakers.
"Here is not a place to share jokes. This is the parliament. The president has no right to insult the legislature," lawmaker Mohammad Reza Khabbaz told the chamber angrily.
Ahmadinejad's closing words caused the largest uproar. He equated the grilling to a school exam and said anything less than a perfect score would be "rude."
"It was not a very difficult quiz," he said of the questioners. "To me, those who designed the questions were from among those who got a master's degree by just pushing a button. If you had consulted us, better questions could have been drawn up," he said.
Many lawmakers angrily denounced Ahmadinejad's performance, saying he insulted the elected parliament instead of responding to questions politely.
"The president's language was insulting during his entire speech. He escaped answering the questions. As predicted, we didn't receive any logical answers from the president," lawmaker Mostafa Reza Hosseini said.
"The parliament is now very much against the president. He didn't respect the house," parliamentarian Ghodratollah Ali Khani said.
Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a Tehran-based political analyst, said the questioning won't resolve Iran's bigger problems.
"To respond with jokes doesn't help anything. It's not a good experience. It shows the president doesn't take his job seriously," he said.
The current parliament is evenly split between Ahmadinejad's critics and backers, but the new chamber -- which will be seated in May -- is firmly in control of his opponents. Only a handful of seats are held by reformers, marginalized since mass street demonstrations failed to overturn the disputed 2009 election in which Ahmadinejad was re-elected.
Ahmadinejad's allies stood firm in the face of the onslaught. Lawmaker Hamid Rasaei dismissed the session as political stagecraft.
"The goal of the questioners was not to defend the peoples' rights, but to simply drag the president into the chamber," he said.
In another political development, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a bitter enemy of Ahmadinejad, retained his post as the head of the Expediency Council, a body advising on key issues to Iran's supreme leader.
Khamenei appointed Rafsanjani as head of the council for the next five years, a move widely seen as another embarrassment for Ahmadinejad.