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Will Ahmadinejad turn out to be the lesser of Iran's evils?

For the past eight years, the Western world has loved to hate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Propelled onto the front of the political scene by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian president declared, before being elected in 2005, that the Iranian people hadn’t participated in the revolution for democracy. Since then, Ahmadinejad hasn’t missed an opportunity to make pro-democracy Iranians miss his serene predecessor Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005).

It is true that during the eight years that Khatami was president, the Islamist Republic had a better image. He was not a revolutionary reformist, but he was convinced of the importance of a “Dialogue Among Civilisations,” a mixed-bag concept that was favourable to inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue. With Ahmadinejad and his hatred toward reformists, his messiah complex and pathological anti-Semitism, Iran had replaced an intellectual with a henchman. But at least now people knew where they stood.


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech during a rally in Tehran’s Azadi Square (Freedom Square) to mark the 34th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 10, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Tehran and other cities chanting ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ as Iran celebrated the anniversary of the ousting of the US-backed Shah. AFP Photo

Did the Western world get it all wrong? Was it blind to the point that it did not see that behind the apparatchik was hiding a sort of reincarnation of the legendary Iranian folktale hero — Kaveh the blacksmith? Kaveh, the redresser of wrongs (especially when it is he who is wronged) and defender of the public interest (as long as he has the same interest).

Did the West underestimate the president’s ability to involuntarily lead his country to the fatal but effective end — implosion? Ali Khamenei is Iran’s true leader, a theoretical incarnation of the “government of the doctrine” — Velayat al-Faqih, the foundation of the regime’s ideology. Khamenei is probably kicking himself today for throwing away a big chunk of his political clout by pledging his full support to Ahmadinejad in 2009, during his controversial — and clearly fixed — victory against former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Moussavi, an ex-apparatchik turned dissident (he has been under house arrest for almost two years). 

The four years that followed the brutal repression of the Green movement, which took to the streets to contest the 2009 election results, allowed Ahmadinejad to gain independence from the Ayatollah, going from protégé to official scapegoat of the Islamic Republic. The snubs, public humiliations and press campaigns should have ended his reign a long time ago, but they didn’t. Between the two opposing camps, issues are now settled in the heart of the institutions — for all to see. 

In what other totalitarian regime can you see – as was the case on February 2 — a President, reading in front of a Parliament that hates him, the transcript of a compromising illegal phone tap of a high-ranking justice official, who is also the brother of the head of the Parliament, and who in passing is also close to Khamenei. His Arab neighbours, who used to deal with sedition with bloody purges, must have been stunned.

Internecine wars
The balance of power is not really in favour of Ahmadinejad. Against him stand the Ayatollah, the powerful Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and the Parliament. Faced with all this, Ahmadinejad has little chance of retaining power by installing one of his close allies as president during the next election, in June. The Guardian Council of the Constitution will probably exclude his allies from running, starting with his councilor and in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

This internecine war has already had hugely damaging consequences. By continually criticising the judiciary system and accusing it of corruption, by asking to visit the sinister Evine prison, where political prisoners — and now his friends — are held, Ahmadinejad has managed to convince the “silent majority” of the perversity of the revolution. This is the rural and popular electorate who worshipped him and carried him to power. On the other hand, Khamenei, by failing to reign in both sides of the conflict, risks losing his status and falling down from Supreme leader, to the level of mere faction leader.

As much as we delight in this spectacle and public airing of dirty laundry, the weakening of the regime will create a chain reaction of problems. First and foremost, there is a risk that Iranians will lose all interest in the presidential election. Faced with, on one hand the last remaining reformers, who are asking themselves whether it is worth participating in the election, and on the other hand with Ahmadinejad’s cronies, Khamenei might be tempted to play it as close to the vest as possible, perhaps asking his Parliament to choose a President.

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