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A World Without Ahmadinejad?
The Iranian president's defiant stance is putting the existence of the regime at risk
Ludwig De Braeckeleer (ludwig)     Print Article 
Published 2007-01-24 12:52 (KST)   
In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprised most political analysts when he won the Iranian presidential race. Running on a populist platform, he vowed to combat poverty and corruption, to tackle unemployment and promised a fair redistribution of oil revenues.

"Ahmadinejad and his aides have pledged to deliver and improve the quality of life of the millions who voted them to office. With oil revenue at its highest in almost three decades the nation hopes the economy will turn around without delay," wrote the Iran Daily in the aftermath of the election.

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But so far, Ahmadinejad has spent most of his time in office delivering inflammatory speeches about the United States and Israel. Even his voters and political allies have come to understand that his rhetoric has badly hurt Iran's national interests.

The holocaust denial conference organized in Tehran last month, together with his repeated threats "to wipe Israel off the map," have finally convinced traditional allies such as China and Russia to vote in favor of the sanctions against Iran's nuclear program.

"The future of the nation has never been this dark, both economically and politically," observed Sa'id Leylaz, a leading Iranian economist. In the street, people could not agree more.

"Ahmadinejad promised to do all sorts of things. But he hasn't done anything. He promised to share out the oil revenue. Look at the price of oil now! Where's all that money going? There's no economic management in this country. It's inefficient. It's corrupt," said Ali, a graduate student.

"Ahmadinejad loves all the international attention. He's making the most of the nuclear issue to distract attention from the failures of the economy," he adds.

"If the U.S. had not made such a big thing of the nuclear issue Ahmadinejad would have been in big trouble by now. He could have been overthrown. He's achieved nothing in the past year. The economy is very bad. Everyone is poor," said a Tehran resident.

Failure to Deliver on His Promises

None of the policies conducted along his "redistributive Islamic socialism" are helping the poorest people and some have clearly worsened their situation.

One of his plans to eradicate poverty was to offer discounted shares of Iran's biggest state-owned companies to the neediest people. The initiative completely failed as these people have no money to buy these shares, even at discounted prices, and anyway most of these companies fail to make a profit.

"Since the privatization process failed to produce the desired results, one question that arises is how the present administration intends to move forward in containing the role of the state," the Iran Daily asked.

The massive injunction of oil money into the Iranian economy has only fueled inflation and accelerated unemployment.

The cost of necessities such as bread, fruits, vegetables, poultry and meat has increased by 25 percent since the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in late December. Rents are up 30 percent and so is the average rate of unemployment, which is even worse among young people.

Student Protests

As a result of the Ayatollah's pro-birth policies, the Iranian population is very young. Two-thirds of the 70 million Iranian people are less than 30 years old. In such context, the opinion and aspirations of the youth can hardly be ignored.

On Dec. 11, Ahmadinejad delivered a speech at the Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran. For the first time, he got a taste of what may be waiting for him if he does not manage to deliver on his promises.

To his surprise, students interrupted his speech. They set fire to pictures of their president while chanting "death to the dictator."

On a Web site, the students accuse him of corruption, mismanagement and discrimination. "The students showed that despite vast propaganda, the president has not been able to deceive academia," a statement said.

Some students were also angry over the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust. "The conference was shameful and had brought to our country Nazis and racists from around the world," a student said.

On the country's annual student day, 2,000 students protested at Tehran University. They denounced the crackdown on university professors. Since Ahmadinejad was elected, many intellectuals have been forced to take an early retirement.

Humiliation in the 2006 Elections

The 2006 elections for the Assembly of Experts and local councils were the first nationwide elections since Ahmadinejad became president. Sixty percent of the voters showed up and inflicted a humiliating defeat to his political allies. Ninety percent of them failed to retain their seats.

"The results show that voters have learned from the past and concluded that we need to support moderate figures," the daily Kargozaraan wrote.

"This is a blow for Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi's list," an Iranian political analyst was quoted as saying.

Warning From the Majilis

Obviously, the defiant stance and provocative rhetoric of the president come at a sizable cost to Iranian taxpayers. The Russian antiaircraft Tor-M1 missile systems bought to protect their nuclear installations, mostly the enrichment facilities located at Natanz, is worth $1.4 billion dollars.

To many Iranians, the money could be better used. And many agree that the same could be said of the funds sent to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

According to an in-depth analysis of the Iranian parliament, the attitude of Ahmadinejad toward the U.N. Security Council could have disastrous consequences for Iran's economy. It estimated that the regime would survive about a year after which it could collapse under social unrest.

Yet, considering the failure of his domestic policies, Ahmadinejad is unlikely to back down on the only issue that keeps the masses behind him. On Monday, a senior Iranian lawmaker announced that 38 International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors had been barred from entering the country.

"People say it's Ahmadinejad who's the problem. Even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, favors some kind of deal. But this is Ahmadinejad's flagship issue. People like the way he has stood up to the Americans and he isn't going to throw that away," a Western diplomat argues.

The Impact of Sanctions

So far, Ahmadinejad has firmly rejected the idea that the sanctions could hurt his country. On Sunday, while delivering a speech on his next budget to the Parliament, he argued that that the price of tomatoes was lower than reported by some people.

In early September, a commission of the Iranian Parliament published the results of a six-month study in a 100-page document concerning the consequences that the U.N. sanctions would have on economical, social and political affairs. The sanctions were passed in late December.

The report concludes that Iran is highly vulnerable to economic sanctions. The commission members recommend telling the population that the sanctions are very unlikely, that they have been anticipated by the government and that the country has the capacity to survive them.

The report warns that the sanctions would force the government to allocate all its resources to prevent social unrest and that the internal stability of the state would be weakened, perhaps even threatened.

Oil provides 85 percent of Iran's export revenues while 50 percent of its importations come from Western countries, 40 percent from the European Union alone. Sixty percent of these importations involve industrial equipment absolutely necessary to the economic expansion of the country.

An embargo on exportations to Iran would paralyze Iranian production capacities in sectors such as cars and electricity in about four months as the stock of spare parts would completely dry up.

Due to substantial cash reserves accumulated in recent years, the effects of an embargo on oil importation would take a bit longer, about one year, to manifest themselves.

In this respect, it is worth noting that recent efforts of U.S. diplomacy have succeeded in convincing the Saudis to increase their oil production to keep the price around the current level.

On Monday, the European Union called on "all countries" to enforce the U.N. sanctions voted unanimously by the Security Council, and announced that EU member states would begin their implementation of the sanctions in early February.

"A coordinated enforcement of the sanctions is important to keep pressure on Iran to accept the offer of the international community to come back to the negotiating table. The EU 27 member states would implement the sanctions as speedily and effectively as we can," British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said.

Criticism From the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri

Last Friday, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri harshly criticized Ahmadinejad and accused him of harming the country. Montazeri, 85, is the most senior theologian of the Shiite Muslim faith. He would have been the successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini if it had not been for a dispute between the two as he opposed the powers wielded by unelected clerics.

"One has to deal with the enemy with wisdom, not provoke it. This provocation only creates problems for the country," Montazeri told a group of reformists and opponents of Ahmadinejad in the holy city of Qom.

"Some countries don't have oil and gas. Yet, they run their country and stand on their own. We have so much oil and gas but make useless expenditures work for others and don't think of our own people's problems and the price of basic commodities go higher and higher every day," Montazeri added.

Intervention From the Supreme Leader

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, seems eager to defuse current tensions with the international community. Through the media that he personally owns or directly controls, he has sent a clear message that the time has come for Ahmadinejad to keep quiet on the nuclear issue. The supreme leader has the final word over Iran's foreign policy, security and armed forces.

As Khamenei believes that Washington's aim is to overthrow his regime, he has much to worry about. The White House has ignored the Iraq report recommendations to engage Iran. Richard Perle has recently declared that Bush would order a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities if they attempt to acquire nuclear weapons and recent top military appointments as well as sea power reinforcements in the Persian Gulf would seem to indicate that the White House might indeed order such an attack.

Officials close to Khamenei have said that he will favor a new team of negotiators that would possibly be led by Mohammad Moussavian, a former senior nuclear negotiator and an ally of Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran who was defeated by Ahmadinejad in 2005.

A few days ago, Moussavian accused Ahmadinejad of lying to the people about the grave consequences of the penalties voted for by the Security Council.

"Our advice to the president is to speak about the nuclear issue only during important national occasions, stop provoking aggressive powers like the United States and concentrate more on the daily needs of the people, those who voted for you on your promises," wrote the Islamic Republic, a newspaper owned by Khamenei.

In recent weeks, a radio program has allowed open debate on the controversial issue of Iran's nuclear program. In Iran, the state-owned broadcasting monopoly is not controlled by the government. Instead, the agency responds directly to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

The current director of the agency, Ezzatollah Zarghami, who took over in mid-2005, is a former general of the conservative Revolutionary Guards. Zarghami is believed to be close to Khamenei.

It is not entirely clear why Khamenei has allowed this debate. What is clear is that some of the guests have fiercely criticized the nuclear program.

"Why have the officials linked the country's development to the nuclear program? Why have they tried to convince people with the wrong notion that if we suspend our program we lose our national identity and our independence?" asked Sadeq Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University.

Zibakalam said that a developing country such as Iran would be better off investing in schools and hospitals. He argued that the sanctions, let alone a military confrontation, would destroy Iran.

Is the Regime in Danger?

In recent months, allies and critics of Ahmadinejad have agreed on one premise: there is not much the Western powers can do to Iran for the country holds all the cards. The local and traditional rival has been eliminated. The U.S. military is bogged downed in a disastrous civil war in Iraq. The Israeli army lost its aura of invincibility in the Lebanon war. Russia is eager to protect its business interests and China needs energy. Last but not least, oil prices are high.

No wonder Tehran feels confident. Still, the confidence of Iranian leaders could be misplaced as they may soon find out that they are not operating from a position of strength.

About 70 percent of the Iranian government revenue comes from oil profit. Yet, due to a lack of investment and modernization of their installations, Iran fails to meet the quota set by OPEC. This year, the loss may amount to about $6 billion.

According to a recent study, the oil exports revenue will continue to decline at a rate of 10-12 percent annually and may completely dry up by 2015. For sure, the study relies on some hypotheses that are difficult to test.

For instance, it assumes that due to current geopolitical uncertainties in the region countries such as China and Japan will refrain from investing the funds necessary to offset the current decline in oil production. Recent events confirm this assumption. For instance, Japan has greatly reduced its anticipated investments in Iranian oil fields.

The mere possibility of such a scenario is certainly giving top Iranian officials a pause. To the conservative establishment, Ahmadinejad has become a liability.

His defiant stance is now putting the existence of the regime at risk. At the same time, he has lost his power base as he failed to deliver on his promised domestic reforms.

His departure would at least provide a short-term cosmetic solution to a dangerously escalating crisis. The parliament could impeach him. The supreme leader could simply remove him.

Or maybe, the regime will just find another way to push him aside, quiet his rhetoric and remind him that under the constitution, he is indeed answerable to people, yet enjoys very limited powers to achieve his goals.

Short of a military strike against Iran, one may expect Ahmadinejad to fade away in a much less visible role. But should the United States or Israel opt for that solution, it is a safe bet to expect all Iranians, including his most outspoken critics, to close ranks behind him.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ludwig De Braeckeleer

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