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Farcical Ruler of the Fars

The Iranian President — busy earning his country brickbats — is part Bozo, the Clown, part Great Dictator, writes Pramit Pal Choudhuri.

india Updated: May 02, 2008 22:39 IST
Pramit Pal Choudhuri

After they retire, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and George W Bush should meet. After all, they both believed their policies were guided by God, they both crippled their respective economies, they both earned the dislike of their electorate and, finally, they both overturned the Persian Gulf applecart. Of course, there will be points of disconnect. Ahmadinejad likes football while Bush once owned a baseball team.

Ahmadinejad is a hero on Arab streets, Jawaharlal Nehru University and other global centres of anti-American sentiment. But as regular visitors to Iran will assure you, most of his own people would like to see the back of this son of a village blacksmith.

There are two things that Ahmadinejad is infamous for in Iran. One, he is a serious apocalyptic Shia, a mahdaviat, a believer in the imminence of the Second Coming. Two, he doesn’t understand how to run an economy — which is why oil-rich Iran is in crisis. These are complementary: why bother with economics if you think the Twelfth Imam will be here to wipe out the sinners?

Ahmadinejad made it to the presidency three years ago during a wave of disgust with the reformist but do-nothing regime of Mohammad Khatami. Ahmadinejad, who had earlier served as mayor of Tehran and ensured men and women had separate elevators in his office, won 63 per cent of the votes. However, only 12 per cent of the electorate bothered to cast their ballots. Iranians rue not turning up that day. Last year, during municipal polls, the turnout was 62 per cent and Ahmadinejad’s party was clobbered.

Ahmadinejad is good at the narrowest of political tasks: feeding his base. Unfortunately, his main institutional support comes from the basiji, the militia which roams the streets beating up students, harassing women whose hijabs have slipped an inch and arrest political dissenters — all in the name of Islam. Presumably, gays escape the dragnet because, as Ahmadinejad assured an audience in New York City, “we do not have this phenomenon in my country”.

The Iranian leader’s most famous case of religious rapture was at the United Nations. Addressing the general assembly, he suddenly went off-speech and began beseeching the Twelfth Imam: “O mighty Lord, I pray you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the Promised One,…the one that will fill this world with justice and peace.” A video caught Ahmadinejad later saying someone had seen “a light around me and I was placed inside this aura”. Ahmadinejad went on, “For those 27 or 29 minutes, the leaders of the world did not blink. When I say they didn’t bat an eyelid, because I was looking at them. And they were rapt.” One suspects they were all thinking: “We’ll need a messiah to save us if this nutter gets a nuclear weapon.”

It’s no act: diplomats say the President is no different behind closed doors.

Ahmadinejad on the global stage is part Bozo the Clown, part the Great Dictator. He earns his country brickbats — and perhaps one day a visit by the Israeli Air Force — by saying Israel will be wiped out and holding a Holocaust-denial conference. The zany touch was to write to Chancellor Angela Merkel saying, in effect, that the Holocaust had been invented to keep Germany in its place and so Arabs and Germans were united in being victimised by a myth.

This gives Iran street cred in the Muslim world. But Ahmadinejad’s real motive was to undermine the more conciliatory Israel policy of Khatami. And he failed. His statements on Israel, and even the US, have been repeatedly contradicted by the real centre of foreign policy-making, the National Security Council. The latter takes its cue from the all-powerful spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei’s foreign policy advisor has pointedly said the Holocaust is a historical truth.

Tehran’s leadership — reformist or conservative — has been united about securing a nuclear deterrent ever since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran. It has been one on pursuing closer ties with countries like India and China, and supporting the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. And it is one in believing the collapse of Iraq into civil war, the present eclipse of the US, high oil and gas prices, and what scholar Vali Nasr has called “the Shia revival” has given Iran a historic opportunity to ensure it is the Persian Gulf’s top dog once and for all. If anything, their fear, is their President will be a monkey in the works. Ahmadinejad had been elected promising “to put more of the oil income on people’s tables”. Which he has: much of Iran’s oil bonanza has been spent on public giveaways, padding his cronies and local infrastructure.

But the country is now in money overload. His economy minister, Davud Danesh-Jafari, resigned last month in tears as official inflation headed for 19 per cent (unofficially 30). The minister blamed Ahmadinejad, saying the latter was keeping real interest rates negative while letting money supply grow 40 per cent a year. The President’s one-point economic plan: “People should adopt a culture of martyrdom.” With oil at $120 a barrel, his people should be in clover. Instead they’re in a bed of nettles and Ahmadinejad’s populism is largely to blame.

The President faces the electorate next August. It is pretty clear the entire spectrum of the Iranian polity, from pragmatists to conservatives, radicals to reformists, are desperately trying to figure out how to contain the damage being done to Iran, inside and out.

Confirming Ahmadinejad’s status as a political pariah, leading conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavikani demanded Ahmadinejad stop using clerics for his campaigns. As one recent visitor said, “Clerics from Qom don’t wear their robes in Tehran because Iranians come and spit on them.” Two grand ayatollahs, in a usual move, last month denounced high prices. A Baztab poll says that only a third of Iranians who voted for Ahmadinejad earlier say they will back him again. His support among other Iranians: 3.5 per cent.

Ahmadinejad recently kicked off his re-election campaign in Qom with a speech that included promises to “cut off the hands” of his opponents.

The truth is Ahmadinejad is a ruler out of his depth. Though trained as an engineer and a fearless combatant during the Iran-Iraq war, his coming to power was a fluke and his governance abilities are worse than zero. As his economics minister of three years said of the government, “There was no positive attitude towards previous experiences or experienced people. There was no plan for the future. Peripheral issues were given priority.”

Ahmadinejad once campaigned on the slogan, “It’s do-able, we can do it.” The record of his presidency has been that a promise by Ahmadinejad almost certainly means it will be done in the worst possible way.