REPORTING FROM TEHRAN AND BEIRUT-- Iran's embattled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared in parliament Wednesday for a rare grilling by lawmakers on a range of domestic policy issues, including soaring prices and inflation and an 11-day absence from his office last year.
Wednesday's session marked the first time in the 33-year history of the Islamic Republic that a president was summoned for questioning. Parliament has the authority to impeach the president if it is not convinced by his answers.
Local media reports suggest that some lawmakers were not entirely impressed with Ahmadinejad's performance. Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency reported that several of the lawmakers who had signed the motion to call the president for grilling were not satisfied with his responses during the hourlong session. Some lawmakers, Mehr said, found his answers "insulting" and would issue a statement in answer to his remarks.
Ahmadinejad reportedly was posed questions by conservative lawmaker Ali Motahari, his staunch opponent, in the open parliament session, which was broadcast on Iranian state radio.
Among the questions, Ahmadinejad was asked to provide clarification on why he had stayed home for 11 days last spring after Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, overturned his decision to fire the country's intelligence minister. Ahmadinejad's absence was viewed by some as an act of rebellion against Khamenei, who has the last say on all important state matters.
Ahmadinejad said he had been told by friends to take a "bit of rest" because his position entails nonstop work. His advisors refer to his 11-day absence from his office as "distance working."
During Wednesday's session, Ahmadinejad appeared confident and defiant while giving some answers. He was asked about the failure of the government to provide a timely budget for the Tehran subway and the reliability of government figures showing the creation of 1.6 million jobs in 2009 and 2010.
"Why is that not possible?" he snapped back at his questioner. "If you and everyone help out, it is possible -- we can even create more jobs."
He denied that recent price hikes were connected to the slashing of government cash subsidies. "Soon, I will explain the roots of the inflation to the people," he said.
When Motahari asked why he was not taking a firmer stance against women wearing improper hijab, or Islamic veils, Ahmadinejad spent time talking about the need to "understand" the young generation.
"Why on Earth are people with improper hijabs welcomed in the revolution anniversary and ballot boxes during election time ... but the same people are arrested on other days by the moral police?" he asked. "Iranian people are devout Muslims and we should understand young people. Only if the people with the improper hijabs are part of organized crime groups should they be confronted."
Ahmadinejad has come under increasing criticism in recent months from conservative hard-liners who accuse of him of being surrounded by a "deviant current" that seeks to undermine the clergy's role in government. Seventy-nine Iranian lawmakers reportedly moved in February to summon Ahmadinejad for questioning.
According to Iran's state-run Press TV, the Iranian Constitution stipulates that the president must appear before the legislature within a month's time of being summoned unless lawmakers pull back their request to question the president.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran
Photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the parliament in Tehran on Wednesday. Credit: Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA