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Ahmdinejad's End-of-the-Year Blues

By: Kamal Nazer Yasin - The fading days of the Persian calendar year have also been the gloomiest for an otherwise trouble-free presidency.


By a fortuitously unrelated sequence of events, the last four weeks of the Persian calendar year ending on March 21 have turned out to be the most unpalatable for the Iranian president. Among those unpleasant events one can list the following: 1) the announcement of the candidacy of fellow-sans-culottes-champion Mir-Hossein Mousavi for presidency; 2) the unexpected rejection by the parliament of Ahmadinejad's proposed budget for the new fiscal year 1388; 3) a wickedly insulting letter sent by Ali Larijani to the insolent president; 4) a less-than-courteous reception by the people of Orumieh-where earlier he had made his name-to the latest presidential excursion; 5) the triumphal state visit of arch-foe Hashemi Rafsanjani to neighboring Iraq at the head of a large civilian-clerical delegation.


1) For Iranian hard-liners, of the three main reformist standard-bearers, the most desirable choice for a front-run candidate would have definitely been Mohammad Khatami-their protestations notwithstanding-and their worst would have been Mir-Hossein Mousavi.


Although Ahmadinejad's re-election is more or less assured, his "manner" of winning is by no means pre-determined. Among the large number of unknowns are: the campaign strategies of each camp, the size of the vote, the makeup of each coalition, the actual shape of the contest, and last but not least, the identity of the reformists' final candidate.


Clearly, both men would have lost the June election but a loss for Khatami would have also been an irreparable loss to the reformist cause and a major boon to the so-called Osoolgaran. Despite the great controversy that surrounds his name, Khatami continues to be the most respected public figure in Iran-even many of those who have been bitterly disappointed with his performance readily grant that he remains a principled individual-a rare trait amongst Iran's political class.


This means that Khatami is in potentia a major threat for the hard-liners as far as future contingencies are concerned. Without any question, a major loss at the polls in the June election would have terminally damaged Khatami's national and international stature. Therefore one could only welcome his withdrawal from the race as a judiciously sound decision.


Mousavi does have a certain stature of his own but it is nowhere near that of Khatami's and more importantly, Mousavi subscribes, as indeed does Ahmadinejad, to a kind of revolutionary egalitarianism and ethos-- except Mousavi is the genuine article and Ahmadinejad is a bad imitation. In other words, in the hardliners' eyes, Mousavi can steal the thunder from their blustery president. For once, it would be sheer joy to watch Ahmadinejad face his match.


2) In a historic vote on March 9, the usually meek and pliant Iranian parliament rejected a central plank of the government's budget for the 1388 fiscal year; namely the part on cutting the huge state subsidies and their replacement with cash handouts. A stunned Ahmadinejad administration took days to digest the meaning of the Majlis vote before it could come up with a strategy.


This kind of response by the Majlis has no precedents in the Islamic Republic and according to many analysts is born out of several monumental miscalculations on the part of the government.


For almost a year, the government had floated the idea of a major economic reform plan being devised for the following year. Last June, Ahmadinejad finally unveiled his plan as consisting of a sudden slashing of subsidies (to the tune of $34 billions) coupled with cash handouts which he said required no parliamentary approval since it followed the strictures of the country's fourth economic plan. At that point the government triumphantly handed out questionnaires to millions of citizens hungry for the promised cash handouts. Finally, to make its plan a fait accompli, the government delayed by several months the date by which it was supposed to submit its proposed budget which now included the economic reform plan in one single package.


For the dissident factions of Osoolgaran as well as much of the mainstream interest groups, this smacked of so much election-year politicking. Cash handouts of $30, or even $70, per head were certainly not worth the price of steep price hikes, 50% inflation rate, mass unemployment and civil unrest.


The parliament's Joint Budget Committee first reduced the proposed $34 billion subsidies reduction bill to $8 billion. This wasn't an unreasonable figure given the sharp drop in oil prices. Instead, the government's response was a take-no-prisoners approach: Ahmadinejad said he wanted the whole plan or none at all. A terrified Budget Committee went to work again, increasing the figure to the halfway point of $20 billion. Still, the government wouldn't relent: give us the whole thing or none at all, repeated Elham, the government spokesman.


To the amazement of the government ministers present, when the bill finally came to the floor for voting, the majority of the MP's rejected the entire targeted subsidies bill tout court. Thus, a combination economic miscalculation (banking on continued high oil revenues), misplaced hubris and heavy-handed bullying tactics finally did Ahmadinejad in.


3) Not since the early 1980's when ayatollah Khomeini had lashed out at Mehdi Bazargan in the most galling terms-- calling him a weakling and a spineless man-has an Iranian statesman been addressed in such humiliating and patronizing manner as was Ahmadinejad recently. The occasion was an exchange of official letters between the president and the speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani following the parliament's precedent-setting rejection of subsidies reform bill. On March 5, the irascible president issued a "constitutional warning" to the parliament calling its action unconstitutional and illegal. Laijani, writing on behalf of the majority of MP's, responded by a letter of his own in which he brusquely dismissed Ahmadinejad's letter as warranting no formal action whatsoever, calling it a "joke".


4) On March 4, Ahmadinejad decided to make one of his frequent provincial stops on the city of Orumieh in west Azerbijan. This was supposed to be a great publicity tour with thousands of appreciative townspeople cheering and applauding their beloved president. It was after all in west Azerbaijan that Ahamdinejad's career-- as the governor of the province-had been launched before he came to national prominence as Tehran mayor. Instead, he was treated to a rare display of public anger not seen in Iran in recent memory. Right in the middle of the public spectacle, Ahmadinejad's motorcade came under attack by more than one shoe-thrower who were apparently not enthused with this visit.


According to the March 6 Guardian report on the incident, after the repeated shoe-throwing and booing's, the security guards scrambled to catch the offending individuals but were unable to do so. Instead, the president's automobile quickly sped away to avoid further embarrassment. Following the incident, all the president's provincial excursion tours have been indefinitely cancelled and the Iranian media have been strictly forbidden to report on the episode-for very good reason.


About three months ago, the Iranian media turned Muntadhar Al-Zaidi , the Iraqi journalist who had thrown his shoes at former president George Bush, into a kind of folk hero. For weeks on end, the press had been replete with laudatory accounts of the incident and its hidden meanings for the Muslim world. Instantly,  Al-Zaidi's deed was touted as a righteous, even sacred, act of protest against tyranny and arrogance; one that, above all, had to be emulated by every freedom-seeker on earth. Subsequent to this, thousands of students and clerics took to throwing their shoes at effigies of George Bush, Olmert and even Sarkosi.


It is easy to understand the reasons for the ban on reportings of the fiasco: the news of the incident could have easily spread like wildfire among the populace and turned the entire episode into a sort of national craze for the trend-conscious Iranians. And, considering the overenthusiastic reaction given to Al-Zaidi's feat of civil disobedience, the authorities would have been hard pressed to punish their own wrongdoers too harshly.


5) As if all this wasn't enough, at the end of February, Ahamdinejad's nemesis, Hashemi Rafsanjani, led a 105-member-large delegation to Iraq on a state visit. In Iraq, Rafsanjani was feted like a head of a state. Politicians, including the president and the Prime Minister, welcomed him with great pomp and circumstance and held high-level discussions with him while Ahmadinejad had earlier received a token reception by Iraqi officials.


More importantly, Rafsanjani personally met with all four grand ayatollahs of Iraq. His visit to ayatollah Sistani was particularly significant for in a carefully-leaked report, the venerable ayatollah was quoted as effectively endorsing Rafsanjani's various positions. According to Ayandenews, Mr. Sistani told his visitor that he been familiar with his (Rafsanjani's) writings and had "expressed concern with the possibility that such moderate views were forced into isolation in today's Iran". Adding insult to injury, the influential website added that the ayatollah had counseled more moderation in taking positions on foreign policy matters by the Iranian statesmen since "the situation of Shias outside Iran is very different than inside" and taking radical positions "could create divisions among Shias"; an obvious slight to Ahmadinejad.


The unhappy conjunction of so many inauspicious events in so short a time would have been enough to cause major bouts of depression and hopelessness for most people not half as superstitious as Mr. Ahmadinejad. After all, few could fail to see in these anything but "ominous signs from the above". But not so with the impetuous Iranian president. And why would it be otherwise? He has the unqualified backing of those whose support really matters in Iran.


About the author: Kamal Nazer Yasin is a specialist in the Shia politics of the Middle East.

... Payvand News - 3/19/09 ... --

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