Ahmadinejad between looming sanctions, clientelism and populism
by Mario E. Russi

The IAEA report on Tehran's nuclear programme is due today; this may be the only subject about which all Iranian society agrees. Seizing power with the backing of militias and Guardians of the Revolution, the current president is looking after his clerico-military clientele. His true power lies in Islamic and anti-western rhetoric. Women can now go to stadiums but they cannot walk their dogs.


Tehran (AsiaNews) – Ahmadinejad is known abroad as a provocative hardliner. Today, the international community will judge the greatest challenge he has issued to date. The report of the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed El Baradei, on Iran's nuclear programme, will be delivered to both the UN Security Council and the IAEA Council of Governors. Diplomats say the report will likely confirm that Tehran has not respected UN and IAEA demands with regard to its uranium enrichment activities. The west, spearheaded by the United States, may well start talking about sanctions.

For Ahmadinejad, this will be a crucial moment on the international, but not the domestic, front, given that all sectors of Iranian society appear to agree about the "right" to nuclear energy.

This is not the case for all domestic aspects of his policy. As a populist candidate, he promised to put income from oil on the tables of the poor, and he used to allow himself to be photographed with a broom on the streets of Tehran. He really does live a frugal lifestyle, as opposed to Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the richest man in Iran, a symbol of the corruption omnipresent in the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad's election was first of all a rejection of Rafsanjani.

In fact, income from oil had been on the tables of the poor for years already: subsidized prices, an economy dependent on petrodollars, 70% of which is controlled by state-owned companies, and so on. Ahmadinejad did not use his broom to sweep out corruption, but rather to thank the clientele that swept him into power, that is, the Bassij ("voluntary") militias, and the so-called Guardians of the Revolution. Thousands of officials and employees of state-owned or partially state-owned companies gained or lost jobs.The militias have resumed an active role, for example, in violent demonstrations against foreign embassies during the controversy surrounding the Muhammad cartoons. Ahmadinejad has given these forces a stronger role in recent military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf as well as in the suppression of abuses of Islamic law.

But the Supreme Leader Khamenei has countered the limited presidential powers, giving Rafsanjani and other defeated election candidates significant counter-powers. The Iranian system is not pyramidical in structure. Ahmadinejad does not enjoy the trust and backing of parliament (although the majority has the same line of thinking) and he has no decision-making powers in the nuclear question. Apart from the power to promote and incite, he is left with the demagogue's tool of rhetoric. He has made full use of this. His revolutionary, provocative speeches are pleasing to his clerico-military clientele: in the hope of becoming their true leader, Ahmadinejad has become their ally, their standard and their spokesman. He is also the mouthpiece of anti-western Islamism in many countries around the world.

Now, Ahmadinejad has let the world know he is happy about climbing oil prices, he disdains the Security Council and the international community, he condemns the west for the cartoons controversy, he denies the Holocaust…

This rhetoric interests and convinces around 20 or 30% of the population devoted or linked to the regime, but it is addressed first and foremost to the outside world. The reaction of western countries could be used by the Iranian regime to prove there is truly a Zionist, world plot against Iran. Most people do not approve of the speeches of Khamenei, Rafsanjani or Ahmadinejad but their national pride is easily wounded when the world criticizes or puts too much pressure on Iran.

In this context, the nuclear dossier is probably the only subject enjoying near consensus in Iranian society and among some exiles too. For people, this is a matter of honour, of prestige. For the regime, it is also a safeguard. The fact that Iran creates so much talk and even fear at global level is already a big success… unlike other countries that discreetly go over the threshold of military nuclear power, Iran makes noise, creates chaos. There is talk of "inalienable rights" or "double standards"… but the nuclear bomb that truly disturbs and humiliates Iranians is very likely the Pakistani "Islamic" one, more than the Israeli one.

On 24 April, Ahmadinejad declared, in the presence of the international press: "The age of faith in military arms and arsenals is behind us, the current era is marked by intellectualism, literature and culture… Iran is against all types of arms, be they chemical, bacteriological, nuclear and non nuclear, and it considers they are contradictory to the culture of the divine prophets and damaging for the international community." However, Iran has non nuclear arms, its stores and develops them. His address gives no cause for rejoicing. Ahmadinejad is backed by extremist ideological schools and thinkers like Ahmad Fardid or

Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, who exalt violence and a Shiite messianism, in the hope that catastrophe may lead to the emergence of the "hidden imam".

The true cause for concern, more than anti-western needling, should be the apocalyptic "spirituality" that is likely at the root of, and will continue to be, decisions of the Iranian clerico-military regime.

Ambivalent measures announced some days ago are anecdotal, and brutal. Under a new police regulation, women who do not completely hide their hair with a veil, who have "indecent" clothes, or who take their dog out on a leash, risk 10 days in prison or fines ranging between 50 to 300 euros. Among other novelties, taxi drivers who take indecently dressed women in their cars, and shopkeepers who sell such clothes, will be punished. So far, such measures have never been fully applied, because it is not possible for the regime to do so. Two days after their publication, Ahmadinejad had mellifluous words to eulogize the Islamic veil and the need for an educational and progressive approach to such matters. The relative weakness of the regime becomes a guarantee of stability. People enjoy a breathing space of tolerance but still feel threatened, if not guilty.

On 24 April, Ahmadinejad surprised the world and cheered Iran up with a new and in vogue idea (just consider the World Cup in Germany): he gave Iranian women permission to go to football stadiums. "Contrary to the propaganda of some, experience has taught that the presence of women and families in public places promotes chastity," he said. And, he said, female fans "will get the best stands in stadiums." In fact, some women have already gone to Iranian stadiums. Ahmadinejad's measure reveals his tactical intelligence, but it also shows the limited possibilities Islamists have to impose their will on Iranian society.

In Iran, there are some brief "Carnivals": youth (two-thirds of the population is under 30) go out on the streets for half the night, they make lots of noise, and they even "forget" the Islamic veil at times. This happens when the national football team is victorious, or for the Iranian New Year, with plenty of Zoroastrian traditions, very ancient and popular.

Fanatical, Ahmadinejad is a tactician and a populist. He is worried about the "propaganda of some" against him and his promise to return to values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In reality, when it needs to be flexible, the Iranian regime is. When it needs to annihilate its adversary, it does so without shame. In February, a drivers' strike in Tehran was secretly suppressed with the utmost brutality, with physical pressure exerted even on the wives and children of trade union leaders. Ahmadinejad, the friend of the meek and the poor, has no scruples. People know it: the regime has la potestas, l'auctoritas is missing. Unless, perhaps, external pressures fails to match the required dose.

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