The Isolation of Ahmadinejad
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
30 Apr 2010 02:18
Ahmadinejad's estrangement at home and abroad puts entire nation at risk.[ opinion ] One of the most important results of the rigged presidential election of June 12, 2009, and its bloody aftermath has been the almost total isolation of the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its patrons, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and top commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This isolation has taken place at both the national and international levels.
Internally, even some of Ahmadinejad's most ardent supporters -- those who, when he was first elected president in 2005, were willing to go to any lengths to justify whatever he did -- are deserting him. As the vast scale of corruption, incompetence, and nepotism of his administration becomes clearer, some of the more honest fundamentalists have criticized Ahmadinejad and the men around him.
As but one example, consider the so-called Fatemi Street Fiasco. Right before the end of the Iranian year on March 20, there were several reports that some of the people closest to Ahmadinejad, most importantly First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, have been involved in embezzling as much as $35 million -- a large sum by any standards, and particularly for Iran.
The fiasco acquired its name because another apparent culprit was a high-ranking manager in a state-controlled insurance company with headquarters on Tehran's Fatemi Street. The judiciary ordered the arrest of a few people. Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary chief, reportedly asked Ahmadinejad to fire Rahimi, to no avail.
Who were the most outspoken about the fiasco and who named Rahimi as a central player in it? One was Ali Motahhari, a Tehran deputy to the Majles (parliament), brother-in-law of Speaker Ali Larijani, and son of the late Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari (1920-1979), a student and disciple of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Another was Elyas Naderan, also a Tehran Majles deputy and a former Revolutionary Guard commander. Naderan, a fundamentalist, was the liaison between the Guards and the Majles from 2000 to 2004, when the parliament was under Reformist control. Naderan and Motahhari were, and still are, strong critics of the Reformists, particular of former President Mohammad Khatami, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Mehdi Karroubi. Both rejected the notion that last year's presidential election was rigged, although Motahhari has spoken about people's loss of trust in the political establishment.
An open letter to Sadegh Larijani, signed by 216 Majles deputies, argued that certain people in high governmental positions had more essential roles in the embezzlement than those who have been detained. Meanwhile, reports began circulating that the $35 million may have been used for buying votes for Ahmadinejad. The Lebanon-based Jaras website, which supports the Green Movement, detailed how government-controlled spending around the country supported Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi's claims that the government had purchased votes. The president visited Ayatollah Khamenei and, swearing on the Qu'ran, told him that all the funds in question were spent on official election business and not diverted for personal purposes. He then asked the Supreme Leader to order a halt to all inquiries into the corruption allegations against Rahimi. Apparently, he argued that the pursuit of such investigations would bring last year's elections into question and thus threaten the entire regime.
So what happened? All of a sudden, the critics fell silent. It seems that Khamenei issued a hokm-e hokoomati (order of the Supreme Leader) declaring that the embezzlement investigations should cease for the sake of maslahat-e nezaam (expediency of the political establishment). That was the end of the story. In the view of Tehran's fundamentalists, the expediency of the political establishment is far more important than the national interest in uprooting corruption. After all, the bloody crackdown and the suffocating repression that followed last year's elections were intended to protect the hardliners, not the nation. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
One may ask why Ahmadinejad does not fire Rahimi and others such as the utterly corrupt Minister of Social Welfare Sadegh Mahsouli. After all, for someone whose public image rests on claims of piety and fealty to the interests of the poor, is it not better to get rid of those who are glaringly corrupt? Some attribute Ahmadinejad's reluctance to his stubbornness and loyalty to his friends. Some claim that he has to act tough because, otherwise, there will be an avalanche of such cases.
I do not concur with either of these proposed rationales. Ahmadinejad does not fire the malefactors because the hardliners are isolated. For the past two decades, they have been dividing the people into khodi and ghey-e khodi (insider and outsiders, or ours and theirs) -- in other words, those who are perceived as loyal to the political system and those who are not. Due to the growing repression, corruption, incompetence and the resulting protests against them, the circle of the khodis has been shrinking rapidly. Some of the most talented and competent people to serve the country since the 1979 Revolution have been dismissed, jailed, or forced into exile. Others have simply decided to leave the system in frustration or despair.
At the same time, the hardliners are terrified even by their own shadows. They know that they cannot win a free election. They know that the vast majority of the people despise them, either because of their corruption and economic incompetence, or the suffocating repression, or both. Even the high-ranking managers of the Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic (the national radio and television network) recently conceded that since last year's election the broadcaster has lost close to 50 percent of its audience. Reports from Tehran and other cities indicated that, despite the network's best efforts for the Nowruz holidays (the celebration of the new Iranian year that began on March 21), people did not pay much attention to its programs. During the few trips that Ahmadinejad has dared to make around the country, the hardliners have had great difficulty in putting together even modest-sized crowds to "greet" him.
As a result, the hardliners are suspicious of everybody. Anyone who protests even the most minor issue is immediately labeled a foreign agent, a counterrevolutionary, an enemy of the national interest, a disturber of the public peace. Under such conditions, only those who have a direct stake in preserving the status quo are willing to work within the system, and their ranks are shrinking. After all, they must be worried about the future -- if not their own, then their children's. In sum, if Ahmadinejad were to fire those publicly known to be corrupt, he would have few people left to turn to. That is why the wrongdoers are constantly rotated through various posts.*
Even more dramatic has been the isolation of Ahmadinejad and his government at the international level. He has no allies to speak of. Not long ago, he wrote his second letter to President Barack Obama, but has received no response. As Mir Hossein Mousavi said of the hardliners, "They accuse us of being agents of foreign government, but they write letters to the same governments."
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki recently went to Vienna in an attempt to convince the Austrian government, a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council, to vote against the sanctions that the United States and its allies plan to propose. He was rebuffed. Bosnia, another nonpermanent Security Council member, which was supported by the Islamic Republic during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, gave the same response: It will vote against Iran.
Russia's position vis-à-vis sanctions have shifted in a similar direction. President Dmitri Medvedev has stated several times that Iran has acted irresponsibly toward the international community in regards to its nuclear program, and that there may be no alternative but more sanctions. As for China, it speaks from both sides of its mouth when it comes to the question of sanctions. It is not clear whether China supports or rejects them. That alone is very telling.
The Arab states of the Middle East would be willing to form a coalition with the United States against Iran, if America was willing to provide them with political cover -- some positive and definitive movement on the Israeli-Palestinian problem. The only thing that has so far saved the day for Ahmadinejad is Benjamin Netanyahu's intransigence over the construction of more illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Ahmadinejad administration was recently dealt yet another blow. Its bid to win one of the four seats earmarked for Asia on the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) generated fierce opposition from human rights campaigners, both Iranian and non-Iranian. If the campaign had succeeded, it would have made a mockery of the HRC. To save face, the regime now says that it aims to become a member of an international women's rights body, an even more ludicrous proposition from a government that has for years systematically discriminated against women, not to mention all the female protesters that have been killed, raped, and jailed since last June's rigged elections.
The isolation of Ahmadinejad's government is also demonstrated by the status of the Iranian nuclear program. The official position has not changed since February 2003, when then President Khatami announced the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. But whereas Europe and even the George W. Bush administration made no dramatic moves against the Khatami administration, everything has changed since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. Many U.S. and Israeli officials have said repeatedly that he is the best thing that has happened for their attempts to isolate Iran. Many Israeli officials openly hoped that he would win last year's rigged election for just that reason.
Ahmadinejad's isolation was manifested in glaring fashion a few days ago when he visited Zimbabwe. The country's president, Robert Mugabe, is a reviled figure around the world. A former revolutionary and liberation fighter, he now reigns as a cruel despot who has bankrupted his country, once one of Africa's most prosperous. Indeed, his story is strikingly similar to that of some of Iran's ex-revolutionaries.
The fact that Ahmadinejad has to visit such a contemptuous figure in a vain attempt to demonstrate that he is not isolated is only half the tale. Zimbabwe's prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader who was essentially forced by South Africa to accept Mugabe as president, strongly protested Ahmadinejad's visit. His political party, Movement for Democratic Change, called the Iranian president a "war-monger, a trampler of human rights, an executioner." It expressed concern that his visit could affect the country's attempts to improve relations with the West. Can it get any worse for Ahmadinejad than to be insulted by the prime minister of a nation that he is visiting as a state guest?
From Zimbabwe, Ahmadinejad traveled to Uganda, another nonpermanent member of the Security Council. He tried to persuade President Yoweri Museveni to vote against the upcoming sanctions resolution, or at least abstain from it. As an inducement, he proposed to build an oil refinery in the country (Uganda has some significant, newly discovered oil reserves), even while Iran itself suffers from a refinery shortage. But Musevini's spokesman, Tamale Mirundi, declared that Uganda has not ruled out voting against Iran.
If Ahmadinejad's isolation held no potential for a lasting effect on the nation as a whole, it would not be so important. But the fact is that his isolation -- the consequence of electoral theft, violent crackdowns on peaceful protesters, rampant corruption, and the pursuit of a foreign policy simultaneously aimless and aggressive -- directly threatens Iran's national security and territorial integrity. If this isolation continues, if it deepens, who will support Iran if Israel or the United States launches a military attack? Who will stand up to argue that attacking Iran is destructive to the Iranian people with whom the West has declared its solidarity? Who will make plain the truth that a violent assault, or the imposition of crippling sanctions that will only hurt ordinary Iranians, would be the worst thing that could happen to the country's democratic movement?
I shudder to even contemplate such horrific scenarios. Will Ahmadinejad force us to witness them come true?
* Ayatollah Khamenei is similarly isolated. He does not have much support among the clerics. Only the most extremist and most corrupt seem to support him, an issue I will explore in detail in a forthcoming article.
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