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Ahmadi-nejad and the shifting political environment in Iran.

Three years after his landslide election in June 2005, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadi-nejad's popularity has declined markedly due to an economic malaise largely of his own making. With opposition to the president stiffening among both reformists and rival conservatives, his prospects for reelection next year are in doubt.

Ahmadi-nejad, a former mayor of Tehran, was elected to office with 62% of the vote, nearly double that of his rival, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Capitalizing on a wave of public disillusionment with the previous reformist administration of President Mohammad Khatami, and on growing hardships faced by rural and working class Iranians, Ahmadi-nejad ran on a platform that blended conservative social values, a populist economic agenda, and militant nationalism.

Although the newly elected president's wealth redistribution agenda irked those in the Iranian political system with entrenched financial interests, his initial popularity forced them to grudgingly accept it. In keeping with his campaign promise to "put oil money on the tables of the people," Ahmadi-nejad greatly increased government spending to raise public sector salaries, expand commodity subsidies, and fund a range of projects and services for the poor. He forced banks to lower interest rates, while spending billions of dollars on debt forgiveness for poor farmers and credit for newlyweds and first time homeowners. He introduced a plan to offer shares in state-owned companies ("justice shares") to low income Iranians.

However, as 57 prominent Iranian economists warned in a June 2006 open letter, Ahmadi-nejad's policies "ignor[ed] the basic principles" of economics. His vast increases in government spending (by 27% in 2006 alone) and slashing of interest rates caused inflation to surge from 11% in 2005 to 25% in May 2008. This resulted in steady price increases for housing, food, and other necessities, bringing greater hardship to most Iranians. By 2007, public disaffection with Ahmadi-nejad was palpable, especially in urban areas. Refusing to raise the heavily subsidized price of gasoline, Ahmadi-nejad instituted rationing, leading irate citizens to torch 19 gas stations.

The president repeatedly blamed Iran's worsening economic crisis on corruption, but he has been mostly ineffective in tackling this issue. A recent parliamentary audit of the state treasury revealed that $35 billion in oil revenue was spent without the knowledge of parliament. Shortly thereafter, a mid-level government official supportive of Ahmadi-nejad made detailed accusations of corruption by more than forty high-ranking government officials, but this was more an act of political revenge than reform (the president denied involvement in the leak, but was widely suspected of encouraging it).

Notwithstanding his frequent denunciations of rampant cronyism in Iran, the president's own appointments often aimed at rewarding his allies, at times irrespective of their qualifications. Former officers of the IRGC were especially favored, particularly as provincial administrators. His cabinet was regarded as so unqualified that the conservative-dominated parliament refused to grant it a full vote of confidence, rejecting four of his nominees. Notoriously unwilling to tolerate criticism, Ahmadinejad replaced nine members of the cabinet during his first three years. Most recently, the president dismissed Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi (allegedly for reporting electoral irregularities to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenehi without the president's knowledge) and Finance Minister Davoud Danesh Jaafari (for publicly stating that the government had failed to control rising inflation).

As dismal economic conditions eroded public support for the president, Ahmadi-nejad came under mounting criticism from some of his fellow conservatives. Even the president's spiritual advisor, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, said that the government had failed to deal with rising poverty.

There has also been a growing consensus that Ahmadi-nejad's anti-Western rhetoric and confrontational diplomatic approach to the nuclear crisis plays into the hands of Iran's enemies. Iran's head nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, resigned over irreconcilable differences with the president.

Two strong indications of Ahmadi-nejad's diminished political clout can be found in the December 2006 defeat of his "Scent of Service" (Boo-ye Khosh-e Khedmat) coalition in elections for municipal councils and the Assembly of Experts (the latter paving the way for the ascension of Rafsanjani as head of the body in September 2007).

In the lead-up to Iran's March-April 2008 parliamentary elections, Ahmadi-nejad's United Front of Principlists was opposed by the Broad Principlists Coalition, an ad hoc alliance of his conservative opponents, including popular mayor of Tehran Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former head of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezaie, and Larijani. Ahmadi-nejad wisely decided at the last minute to participate in a broad alliance

with his conservative opponents, which netted his coalition 117 of 290 seats, while giving his conservative rivals 53. The reformist bloc obtained 46 seats.

After the new parliament convened in May, the pragmatists obtained an important victory with the election of Larijani as parliament speaker, replacing Qolamali Haddad Adel. Larijani, a very close political ally of Ayatollah Khamenehi and a former member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, has used his position to create strategic alliances with the different legislative blocs, with the ultimate objective of boosting the parliament's efficiency and independence from the executive.

While strengthening their role within the Majlis, Ahmadi-nejad's conservative rivals also appear to have their eyes on winning the 2009 presidential election. The Broad Principlists Coalition's potential candidates include Larijani, whose conservative ideology and background have ensured him the trust of a large part of the conservative bloc. Another potential presidential challenger is Qalibaf, who beat the electoral machine of Ahmadi-nejad (his predecessor as mayor of Tehran) in the capital's municipal elections.

The political strength of this rival conservative bloc may not be sufficient at present to defeat Ahmadi-nejad, who still commands significant support from the rural poor. However, their influence could grow exponentially if they ally with other anti-Ahmadi-nejad forces within the Parliament, such as the reformist bloc.

Larijani's commitment to the independence of the Majlis could provide a bridge for them to reach out to the reformists, although it is at this point still unclear whether this ad hoc cooperation within the Majlis could ever translate into a broader electoral agreement or into the joint support of a presidential candidate.

In sum, growing popular disaffection toward the president and shifting political alignments indicate that the reelection of Ahmadi-nejad is not to be taken for granted and that an important part of the next electoral race will be disputed internally within the conservative forces.

A significant wild card in determining whether Iran's "man of the people" becomes its first one-term president in over a quarter century is Supreme Leader Khamenehi. Ahmadi-nejad's support from the Iranian clergy is waning, and Khamenehi may shift his support to a rival candidate if public disaffection with the president continues to grow.

A second factor that will impact the 2009 election is the evolution of international dynamics and the unfolding of the nuclear crisis. Any significant progress in the those realms will likely strengthen the president's political credibility, while a diplomatic setback could play into the hands of those who have argued that he has mishandled both the nuclear negotiations and relations with the West. On the other hand, a military action against Iran before the next elections could strengthen Ahmadi-nejad by triggering a rise in anti-Western and nationalistic feelings.

Benedetta Berti is the Earhart Doctoral fellow in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, specializing in international security and the Middle East. She is also a researcher at the Jebsen Center for Counter Terrorism Studies. This article was reprinted with permission from the Mideast Monitor.
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Author:Berti, Benedetta
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Article Type:Reprint
Date:Aug 29, 2008
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