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IRAN: Ahmadinejad’s Predicament and Iran’s Political Crisis

Analysis by Farideh Farhi*

HONOLULU, Hawaii, Aug 10 2009 (IPS) - With the confirmation of his re-election by Ayatollah Khamenei and his oath of office taken, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will begin his second term facing much steeper challenges than any of Iran’s previous second-term presidents.

In fact, despite the proclaimed support of 24 million Iranians, his government is by far the weakest post-revolutionary government. Ironically, it is this weakened position that tempts him to be a force of constant agitation and confrontation.

Challenges facing Ahmadinejad include open hostility from a large section of the Iranian elite which Ayatollah Khamenei characterised in Ahmadinejad’s confirmation speech as “angry and wounded”; highly charged criticisms of his appointments and policies from within the conservative ranks; continued civil disobedience; a public mood that has turned from mostly inattentive and apolitical to concerned and angry; general unhappiness among the clergy about the harsh crackdown; and a much more hostile international environment.

All this is on top of serious economic woes that he was unable to address during his first term – as he had promised to do in his 2005 campaign.

Prior to the June election, Ahmadinejad had indeed attempted to implement a value-added tax on the sale of goods and introduce legislation to overhaul Iran’s over-bloated subsidy system – replacing it with more targeted cash subsidies to the poorer strata of society. These measures plus gradual price increases in utilities and fuel prices were meant to lower the government’s fiscal burden.

But, merchants resisted the implementation of the value-added-tax. His so- called Economic Transformation Plan was also roundly rejected prior to the campaign season as the conservative-controlled Majles – worried about the legislation’s inflationary impact and its unreliable or exaggerated data – chose to delay the discussion till the post-election period.

The political crisis that has ensued has effectively pushed economic concerns to the side, and brought to the forefront once again a whole set of political civil rights issues emphasised during former President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist era.

Ahmadinejad could pursue his economic agenda while at the same time attempting to reduce political tensions generated by the election and its aftermath. This would entail a coordinated effort with other centres of power – including the office of the Leader and the Judiciary – to address some of the serious breaches of citizens’ rights that have occurred, finding those responsible for them, and putting in place mechanisms that would ensure against their repetition.

But Ahmadinejad’s personality – and the paranoid outlook of the security- oriented circles that surround him – make it unlikely that he will choose that route for fear that any sign of weakness will only worsen his predicament. The decision to put on trial past officials en masse under conditions that lacked the slightest trappings of due process is already an indication against such a conciliatory approach.

In foreign policy, Ahmadinejad’s approach to Iran’s unprecedented turbulences is likely to deem the best defence a strong offense.

In reaction to his polarising approach, efforts to influence, control or dislodge him will come from all corners of Iran’s political spectrum – making his already erratic managerial style even more haphazard and shifting, adding to his difficult position.

Foremost among his woes is popular protest combined with unprecedented cracks at the top of Iran’s political apparatus that show no sign of subsiding. For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, a president is faced with a combination of popular mobilisation and a squeeze from the top.

Squeeze at the top has always been a predicament of the office of Iran’s president, caught between non-elective institutions – robustly equipped with their own independent and often shadowy security and economic appendages – and a rancorous elected Parliament, whose only assertion of power in the Iranian political system can come in the form of confronting or harassing the president on domestic issues.

But the persistent social mobilisation from below is bound to make the squeeze at the top even more difficult to manage because of the intensity of pressures coming from challengers, critics, and even avid supporters.

Ahmadinejad’s supporters are already calling for more heads to roll over election events, demanding that some of the most celebrated figures of the Islamic Republic – including Mir Hossein Mussavi, and former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – be put on trial for their collusion with external powers to stage a Velvet Revolution against the Islamic Republic.

Ahmadinejad’s challengers – riding on popular sentiments that have gone beyond indignation over election fraud and turned into an even more visceral outrage over the harsh crackdown in the streets, torture and deaths in prisons for which no one is willing to take responsibility – have already turned their movement into one pursuing an end to the arbitrary rule of Iran’s many shadowy instruments of repression.

The strategy of this Green Movement, according to Mussavi, will be inspired by a “slogan that in its expansiveness includes the largest number of Iranians both inside and outside of Iran.” There is persistent emphasis on the political and civil guarantees in the Islamic Constitution that “have remained vanquished” and the insistence that those engaged in the crackdown “are the ones that are breaking the structure” of the Islamic Republic.

This constitutionalist approach is deemed the most effective in creating further cleavages between the government and its conservative critics.

Ahmadinejad has never been very popular even among conservatives, but recent events have created further worries among them about his ability to manage the tide of protests and letting them subside.

To be sure, similar worries exist regarding Ayatollah Khamenei – whose wholehearted support of Ahmadinejad has effectively transformed him, in the public mind, as the real source of the harsh crackdown. However, as the chief executive officer of the country, Ahmadinejad is the one who ultimately has to face the brunt of criticisms regarding the way popular protests are confronted, prisoners treated, and civil rights undermined.

In any case, he is a much easier target to attack without being accused of questioning the foundation of the Islamic Republic.

In trying to find a Modus Vivendi to placate popular anger against his presidency, Ahmadinejad’s first task will have to be the selection of a team that can reach an agreement about how to deal with the situation. And this may not be an easy task, as one of his weaknesses as a leader has always been his inability to work well with people outside of a very close circle of friends.

In his first term he had to spend almost nine months trying to get approval for key ministers in his cabinet. And by the end of his first term, close to half of his cabinet had been either sacked or had chosen to resign. He also changed the heads of key institutions such as the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) several times, and at the end managed even to antagonise the most hard-line of his ministers at the Intelligence and Culture and Islamic Guidance ministries.

This is why two major conservative organisations – Followers of Imam and Leadership Line and Society of Islamic Engineers – have already issued unprecedentedly harsh letters warning Ahmadinejad against obstinacy, not listening to anyone, and having delusions about the extent and depth of the support he has been given. Instead they called upon him to avoid “confronting the clergy,” and to rely on the views of “Majles and Leadership” in choosing his cabinet.

Ahmadinejad’s options are limited. He can acknowledge his weakened presidency, over-see a cabinet whose individual members will contest his policies, and head an administration that is conflicted from within. Or he can try to try to act resolutely by picking fights with almost every political force in the country – in which case his behaviour will be the source of heartache for everyone who for ideological reasons or for fear of reformist resurgence ended up supporting him in the election.

*Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate of the Graduate Faculty of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

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