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Iran: Ahmadinejad Deriving Power From Rhetoric

  • Vahid Sepehri --> (RFE/RL) August 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Perhaps one of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's most remarkable traits since taking power two years ago today has been a fondness for bombastic remarks.

Such comments have given him an international profile not unlike that held by the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s.

Comparison To Khatami

The fiery discourse may also have given Ahmadinejad some of his power in Iranian domestic politics. But while this may have strengthened his political position against some institutional opponents and critics, it may not assure either his reelection or win his radical supporters too many seats in next year's parliamentary elections.

The supreme leader must have the system's survival as his primary concern. And he may feel revolutionary speeches by the president are a less solid ground for the Islamic republic's long-term survival than the "expediency" so dear to some members of the Shi'ite clergy.

The impact of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric on the political scene can also be compared to the popularity enjoyed by his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

The rhetoric and the popularity constituted a less tangible component of the two presidents' power, allowing them -- at least for a short time -- to take the initiative.

Unable To Reform

In Khatami's case, his popularity and electoral support seemed to give him the upper hand against conservative opponents for many months or even the early years of his eight-year presidency.

But this popularity -- along with his mild-mannered approach -- did not allow Khatami and a reformist-majority parliament to impose a reforming and liberalizing agenda.

The system and mechanics that disperse power in Iran and put key areas of foreign and nuclear policy-making into the hands of an oligarchy headed by the country's supreme leader have proved too inflexible to allow a reforming or a radical president to impose their agendas upon certain essential state objectives.

Whether radical like Ahmadinejad or reformist like Khatami -- there is a middle policy-making ground with which Iran's presidents must seemingly conform.

But Ahmadinejad's rhetoric has proved a powerful instrument of political leverage inside Iran. With the support of some powerful clerical allies -- such as Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati and prominent conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi -- the president has once more brought the radical and revolutionary discourse into prominence.

'Creeping Coups'

Ahmadinejad has allowed Iran's more hard-line political elements to renew their pressure on the press, civil bodies, and labor activists, and to recreate something akin to the fear-filled environment of the first decade following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Talk is once again about enemies, treachery, and "creeping coups" by foreigners who are plotting with the help of domestic agents. In the economy it's about corruption and of the thieving rich living the high life in contrast with "the people" whom Ahmadinejad ostensibly champions.

Observers have seen this Manichaean rhetoric as fuelling an increasingly polarized atmosphere: the media may speak of radicals and moderates, but in the discourse of the president and his allies, the picture is of friends and enemies, the pious and the impious, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries.

The reformist daily "Aftab-i Yazd" asked in a July 30 editorial if there could be a government of moderation in the country when opponents and critics are demonized; or any peaceful cohabitation of groups essentially loyal to the religious polity.

Moderate Hard-Liners

Part of the president's "stunning" rhetoric has been focused on moderate hard-liners -- those perceived to be most threatening to his radical current among extreme hard-liners.

These moderate hard-liners are pragmatic elements that have effectively absorbed the "institutional" reformists of the Khatami era to form a front representing a less revolutionary and more rational and "expedient" model of government.

The main elements of this front seem to be Khatami and former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the technocratic-style Executives of Construction Party, and former officials associated with the Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations such as Hasan Rohani or even the less politicized judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi.

It seems both sides have their strengths and weaknesses. Both have their share of state offices, their influence, and sway over a little army of clients and friends.

In addition, the hard-liners use bombast and verbal attacks as an instrument of intimidation and -- many would argue -- sometimes the courts, too.

Negating Postrevolutionary Ideals?

The moderate hard-liners use -- as best that they can -- the counterrhetoric of moderation, consensus, and expediency.

This might be a weakness for the "moderates." Who in Iran could forcefully assert that expediency is now the slogan of a regime born of a revolution? Which public official or press editor would dare state that the revolution is over -- that people are tired of it -- and that the state must now pay less attention to "cancerous" Israel and more to interest rates, public transportation, or privatization? It would be akin to a negation of Iran's postrevolutionary ideals and history.

Ahmadinejad has also brought his rhetoric to economics. His decisions in this area suggest a streamlining of economic policy-making bodies and a shortening of the economic link between the executive branch and the public than any decision to privatize in line with state and constitutional projects.

His move to transfer the shares from state-owned companies to workers in the form of "justice shares" seems a reluctant version of privatization, and more like a boost to the cooperative sector.

Where is the privatization, some observers have asked, when state-appointed managers continue to make the decisions in these firms? Meanwhile, the intermittent denunciations of corruption -- or threats to reveal officials who have their hands in the public purse -- are the economic complement to Ahmadinejad's tirades against the enemy within or his verbal desecration of Israel.

Voters Not Intimidated

But while this may intimidate even his most powerful critics, it may not be enough to keep the presidential party in power. Not one faction has all the power in Iran, and political groups seem to work in shifting alliances. The Ahmadinejad discourse is not attractive to all members of the conservative family in Iran. His populist style has intermittently alienated the clergy in Qom, which could have an impact on the preferences of some voters.

Additionally, voters are not necessarily intimidated by the threatening discourse, as shown by the results of two elections last December which -- in spite of government assertions to the contrary -- were perceived by many observers to have signified a public rejection of Ahmadinejad's presidency.

Another factor in the life of the president is the role of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Like all senior officials, he must have the system's survival as his primary concern. And he may feel revolutionary speeches by the president are a less solid ground for the Islamic republic's long-term survival than the "expediency" so dear to some members of the Shi'ite clergy.

In a hypothetical confrontation between the radical hard-liners and the "pragmatists," Khamenei may well choose expediency over populism -- a political firecracker that could explode in his face. Moderation and expediency may -- in such a case -- prove to be the decisive strengths.

Assessing Ahmadinejad

President Ahmadinejad in parliament (ISNA photo)

Mohammad Maleki, the first head of Tehran University following the Islamic revolution, says he doesn't believe the students' criticism of the government constitutes a revolution.

"What is going on right now is that because [the government] cannot tolerate the students' criticism, they try to prevent it by shutting down universities and by threatening professors and students," Maleki says. "What they are currently doing is in my opinion, and in the opinion of many professors, aimed at creating an atmosphere of fear and terror among professors and students to stop them from openly criticizing the government."

Ali Niku Nesbati, a member of the Office to Foster Unity, Iran's largest pro-reform student group, says that during Ahmadinejad's presidency, the disciplinary committee has issued warnings to 523 students for political activism. He adds that over the past year alone, more than 1,700 students have been "marked with stars" and subsequently encountered difficulties when applying for graduate degrees. (Ahmadinejad's government has reportedly adopted a "star rating" system for student activists and gives regime critics between one and three stars, depending on the perceived threat they pose.)

Nesbati says what is noteworthy is that "as the government is faced with more problems and is unable to resolve them, we are encountering more repression."

"As we have witnessed over the past few months, more pressures have been exerted on women, workers, and teachers," Nesbati says. "The same obviously applies to students."

(Nesbati was imprisoned on July 9, 2007. He made the above statements before his imprisonment.)


Abbas Marufi, an Iranian writer and publisher based in Berlin, says never in Iran's history has the book market faced tougher circumstances than today.

"The government has laid the foundations for the destruction of good and professional publishing in Iran," he says, adding that the government has created a situation that is exploited by "pseudo-publishers" -- as he describes them -- who are in the business solely to profit by publishing books for which they can get subsidies.

Marufi says that over the past two years, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has even started to revoke publishing rights issued by previous governments.

Ebrahim Nabavi, a journalist and satirist, says the book-publishing sector today faces circumstances similar to those 10 years ago. According to Nabavi, it has become very difficult to get accreditation for new publications or to renew old licences.

But Sadegh Samii, director of publishing house Ketabsara, says many government critics are simply ignorant of the rules and regulations of publishing in Iran.

"We Iranians are in the habit of blaming others for our own failures," says Sadegh Samii, director of the publication "Ketabsara." "So if at any point in time, I'm unable to select a good book and find a qualified translator, I put the blame on the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. But this is unjustified."

Samii says over the past 27 or 28 years, the ministry's regulations have not changed at all. But he admits that the regulations have been applied more or less strictly during different periods.


Siamak Taheri, a newspaper journalist based in Iran, says Ahmadinejad was elected two years ago on the promise that he would bring social equality to the country. At the time, many Iranians were dissatisfied with their country's economic situation and had lost faith in the reformists' ability to improve it, so they pinned their hopes on Ahmadinejad.

"But the economic situation has worsened under Ahmadinejad and unemployment and corruption have increased." Taheri blames the situation on the makeup of the government.


Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, says she has not seen the government "take any positive action in the fight against high prices and in the struggle for prosperity, which is an important human right." Ebadi says this has prompted workers and teachers to hold strikes, which unfortunately have led to arrests and interrogations.


Nahid Kheirabi, a journalist and women activist based in Iran, says one of the "reactionary viewpoints of the 9th republic has been the renewed discourse on the legitimacy of temporary marriage," which according to Kheirabi constitutes "an insult and a threat to humanity, to both men and women." But Kheirabi says society's negative reaction to the concept of temporay marriage has forced Ahmadinejad's people to retreat on this issue.