Thursday, December 21, 2006

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A bad week for Ahmadinejad

I was on Hugh Hewitt's radio show on Tuesday evening to talk, ostensibly, about my Washington Post essay on grand strategy. We wound up talking about Iran mostly. You can read the transcript here. Hewitt is of the belief that the U.S. cannot afford even a small risk of someone like Ahmadinejad possessing nuclear weapons. I am of the belief that Ahmadinejad is not that as powerful inside Iran as Hewitt believes.

It's been a good week for my argument. First, there are election returns:

Opponents of Iran's ultra-conservative president won nationwide elections for local councils, final results confirmed Thursday, an embarrassing outcome for the hardline leader that could force him to change his anti-Western tone and focus more on problems at home.

Moderate conservatives critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a majority of seats in last week's elections, followed by reformists who were suppressed by hard-liners two years ago.

The vote was widely seen as a sign of public discontent with Ahmadinejad's stances, which have fueled fights with the West and led Iran closer to U.N. sanctions....

The election does not directly effect Ahmadinejad's administration and is not expected to bring immediate policy changes. The local councils handle community matters in cities and towns across the country.

But it represented the first time the public has weighed in on Ahmadinejad's stormy presidency since he took office in June 2005. The results are expected to pressure him to change his populist anti-Western tone and focus more on Iran's high unemployment and economic problems at home.

Leading reformist Saeed Shariati said the results of the election was a "big no" to Ahmadinejad and his allies.

"People's vote means they don't support Ahmadinejad's policies and want change," Shariati, a leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Iran's largest reformist party told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Similar anti-Ahmadinejad sentiment was visible in the final results of a parallel election held to select members of the Assembly of Experts, a conservative body of 86 senior clerics that monitors Iran's supreme leader and chooses his successor.

A big boost for moderates within the ruling Islamic establishment was visible in the large number of votes for former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election runoff.

Rafsanjani, who supports dialogue with the United States, received the most votes of any Tehran candidate to win re-election to the assembly. Also re-elected was Hasan Rowhani, Iran's former top nuclear negotiator whom Ahmadinejad repeatedly accused of making too many concessions to the Europeans.

Then you've got your student protestors -- Nazila Fathi explains in the New York Times:
The student movement, which planned the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy from the same university, Amir Kabir, is reawakening from its recent slumber and may even be spearheading a widespread resistance against Mr. Ahmadinejad. This time the catalysts were academic and personal freedom.

“It is not that simple to break up a president’s speech,” said Alireza Siassirad, a former student political organizer, explaining that an event of that magnitude takes meticulous planning. “I think what happened at Amir Kabir is a very important and a dangerous sign. Students are definitely becoming active again.”

The protest, punctuated by shouts of “Death to the dictator,” was the first widely publicized outcry against Mr. Ahmadinejad, one that was reflected Friday in local elections, where voters turned out in droves to vote for his opponents.

The students’ complaints largely mirrored public frustrations over the president’s crackdown on civil liberties, his blundering economic policies and his harsh oratory against the West, which they fear will isolate the country.

But the students had an additional and potent source of outrage: the president’s campaign to purge the universities of all vestiges of the reform movement of his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami....

[Babak] Zamanian, the head of public relations of the Islamic Association at Amir Kabir, said that while the situation had not been ideal in the Khatami years, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s antireformist campaign had led students to value their previous freedoms.

They were permitted to hold meetings and invite opposition figures to speak, he said, and could freely publish their journals. Now, he said, their papers are forbidden to print anything but reports from official news agencies.

The students also complain about the president’s failure to deliver economic growth and jobs. At last week’s protest, which coincided with a now infamous Holocaust conference held by the Foreign Ministry, students chanted, “Forget the Holocaust — do something for us.”

Well, it's going to be tougher for Ahmadinejad to boost economic growth is more foreign direct investment doesn't come through. The Financial Times' Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Roula Khalaf report that this is now a problem:
Iran’s oil minister on Wednesday admitted that Tehran was having trouble financing oil projects, in a rare acknowledgment of the economic cost of its nuclear dispute.

“Currently, overseas banks and financiers have decreased their co-operation,” Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh told the oil ministry news agency, Shana.

The statement underlined the impact of de facto financial sanctions on the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ second biggest oil producer. As the controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme has escalated, the US has applied pressure on European banks and financial institutions to curb dealings with Tehran.

The fact that the UN Security Council could soon impose the first – even if mild – sanctions against Iran has compounded the political uncertainty and risks of doing business with Tehran. Iranian officials insist there is international interest in investing in Iran’s oil industry and European executives play down any impact on companies seeking deals in Iran....

“There’s a growing awareness that de facto sanctions are beginning to hurt and everyone understands the future of the economy depends on the development of oil and gas,” said a western diplomat. “Banks are not lending, partly because of US pressure, but the banks are also drawing their own conclusions.”

The Security Council should be approving sanctions today.

None of this means that Ahmadinejad will disappear tomorrow. It does mean, however, that the president of Iran will be worrying about more than being "insulted" by student protests.

posted by Dan on 12.21.06 at 08:49 AM


The protest, punctuated by shouts of “Death to the dictator,” was the first widely publicized outcry against Mr. Ahmadinejad, one that was reflected Friday in local elections, where voters turned out in droves to vote for his opponents.

Dr. Drezner fails to note the irony here. The fact that Ahmedinejad's faction lost elections shows he is not a dictator. Moreover, try yelling that sort of rhetoric at an anti-Bush rally anywhere near the president and see how long it is before the secret service pays you a visit.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 12.21.06 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

did i not read somewhere that the cards were stacked against Ahmed--- by Ayatollah because latter feared former was moving against him? - latter does get to choose which candidates run, no?

posted by: cull tech on 12.21.06 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

Why are people like Hewitt willing to take great risks, including invading countries and killing many people, to avoid even a small risk that certain enemies will obtain nuclear weapons, at the same time that they denigrate any measures to decrease carbon emissions because it hasn't been sufficiently proven that either (a) the earth is warming, or (b) human conduct is responsible for such warming that is occurring? Frankly, I'm not smart enough to know the correct position in either event, but the positions taken by Bush-apologists seem contradictory to me.

posted by: Tillman Fan on 12.21.06 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

Mitchell Young,
There were two years between Pinochet losing the referendum and then finally leaving office. Was he not a dictator during those two years?

And Ahmadinejad is not the dictator. That would be Ali Khamenei.

posted by: kwo on 12.21.06 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

KWO I was noting the irony that in today's United States you would must assuredly get at least a visit from the Secret Service, if not be actually detained, for making a 'death threat' against the president at an event. That is, if you could escape one of the free speech pens that usually are put in place at such events. Somehow in this area, Iranian 'dictatorship' exhibits more freedom of speech than the US.

Oh, here's a poly sci question. Let's say that the Iranian regime actually changes due to the recent council elections, taking a more moderate tack. Would that indicate that it is more democratic that the US? After all, we just had elections were the voters kickedout the party with legislative power, largely because the people were sick of two Americans dying per day for nothing. Yet somehow were are now talking about increased involvement (i.e troops) in Iraq. So, who wins on accountability to voters-- the US or Iran?

posted by: Mitchell Young on 12.21.06 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

"And Ahmadinejad is not the dictator. That would be Ali Khamenei."

Exactly. Khamenei and the other ayatollahs have long been the real power behind Iran's policies, and Khamenei is concerned about Ahmedinejad having too much power, so this is hardly surprising. The ayatollahs like having Ahmedinejad in there as a pit bull, but not with his fangs too sharp-- they're the ones who make the moves there.

These elections therefore change nothing about Iran's on-the-ground policies.

posted by: Cormac on 12.21.06 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

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