From the Toronto Star, 23 June 2009
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can't escape unscathed
Iranian leader's image tarnished as outrage over vote hurts regime, undermines presidency
Jun 23, 2009 04:30 AM
FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER
It was only a few months ago that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was bidding for a role as the new Iranian idol. With flamboyant appearances at home and abroad, plaudits from hardline clerics and a 15-member council dedicated to popularizing his "thought and works," the hardline president might well have expected a shoo-in at the polls. But as swelling protests, and widespread allegations of vote-rigging, rolled through the country, Ahmadinejad's "landslide" has turned to a dust. His image has faded and that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who unswervingly supported him, has come into sharp relief.
Doubts are escalating about the extent of Ahmadinejad's authority to lead, if he is able to resume the presidency after the unexpectedly muscular challenge of his more moderate rival Mir Hossein Mousavi. "The mask has been lifted and people clearly understand that it was Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who was really wielding the power," says Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He says publicly that his personal views are closest to Ahmadinejad's, so it is obvious that he is the one who was really conducting the country's policy for the last four years."
The outcome of the ill-starred election is still unpredictable, even for long-term Iran experts, and some believe Ahmadinejad may have won by a narrow margin rather than the large numbers that were officially endorsed. Meanwhile, inside the Islamic Republic, clerical factions for and against Ahmadinejad's victory are quietly struggling for power. The picture is blurred by the murky nature of the election's vote tallying. Yesterday, Iran's most senior election monitors acknowledged that votes cast in 50 cities exceeded the number of eligible voters in two provinces. Previous election results in some rural areas are also too far from the current ones to be credible.
But the continuing protests show that whatever the outcome, the electoral waters are now too muddy for many citizens to swallow. "The fact that people's votes were overturned poses a real threat to the legitimacy of the regime," says Haroon Akram-Lodhi, a professor of international development studies at Trent University. "That will also undermine Ahmadinejad's position, and not just in the urban areas, where he was less popular." Whatever the ultimate result, Ahmadinejad can't escape the effects of the protests unscathed, Akram-Lodhi says. "He will have been compromised, and widely seen as occupying a position to which he was not legitimately elected by the majority of Iranians."
The dilemma over Ahmadinejad's legitimacy makes it difficult for the United States to deal with Iran, even as the crisis over its nuclear ambitions drags on. Some are advising President Barack Obama to engage with the proclaimed winner of the poll, others to ignore him and reach out to Iran's opposition.
But questions also remain about whether the roots of Ahmadinejad's power run deeper than his critics believe. Although he has presided over soaring cost of living increases and rising unemployment, he has also poured money into popular housing and infrastructure projects and proposed cash handouts to replace fuel subsidies.
An overwhelming number of Iran's legislators have backed his return to power, with 220 out of 290 reportedly endorsing his election victory.
Ahmadinejad may also have a covert network of power that makes Khamenei's unprecedented public support more than just backing for a puppet politician, says Arang Keshavarzian of New York University, who witnessed the polls and their aftermath in Iran. "One of the questions is how much Ahmadinejad is in the forefront and Khamenei is following him, and how much it's the other way around," Keshavarzian told the Council on Foreign Relations, citing hints that Ahmadinejad and his "military-intelligence circle" may be putting pressure on the supreme leader.
"Some of these events in the past few days suggest it may in fact be Khamenei who is reluctantly following Ahmadinejad's lead."
But the behind-the-scenes power struggles have little relevance for the protesters who have risked life and liberty to join the demonstrations in the past week.
"If Ahmadinejad continues in power, he'll become an Iranian version of (Zimbabwe's discredited president) Robert Mugabe," predicts Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, a history professor at University of Toronto. The election has brought Iran to the crossroads, Tavakoli-Targhi says. "The future is in danger. In the past 30 years, Iranian society has been increasingly secularized. Now there is the possibility of an Islamic democracy that could be a model for the Middle East. "If it fails, it's not only Ahmadinejad that will be seen as worthless. The only way to save the revolution is to empower the individual. If that doesn't succeed, Iran will be a failed state."
- ► 2013 (23)
- ► 2012 (21)
- ► 2011 (27)
- ► 2010 (41)
- ▼ 2009 (13)
- ► 2008 (24)