Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran Leader Emerges With Stronger Hand

June 15, 2009

News Analysis

Leader Emerges With Stronger Hand

New York Times

TEHRAN — The jokes among Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s detractors are legion. In one, he looks in the mirror and says, “Male lice to the right, female lice to the left.” In the West, one American tabloid rarely misses a chance to refer to him as “Evil Madman” and in the days before his re-election here he was taunted as a “monkey” and as a “midget.”

But the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was announced winner of a second four-year term this week is no cartoon character.

Whether his 63 percent victory is truly the will of the people or the result of fraud, it demonstrated that Mr. Ahmadinejad is the shrewd and ruthless front man for a clerical, military and political elite that is more unified and emboldened than at any time since the 1979 revolution.

As president, Mr. Ahmadinejad is subordinate to the country’s true authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who commands final say over all matters of state and faith. With this election, Mr. Khamenei and his protégé appear to have neutralized for now the reform forces that they saw as a threat to their power, political analysts said.

“This will change the face of the Islamic Republic forever,” said one well-connected Iranian, who like most of those interviewed declined to be named in the current tense climate. “Ahmadinejad will claim an absolute mandate, meaning he has no need to compromise.”

When he was first elected president in 2005, Mr. Ahmadinejad showed his fealty to the leader, gently bending over and kissing his hand.

On Saturday, the leader demonstrated his own enthusiasm for the re-elected president, hailing the outcome as “a divine blessing” even before the official three-day challenge period had passed. On Sunday, Mr. Ahmadinejad flaunted his achievement by mounting a celebration rally in the heart of an opposition neighborhood of Tehran, and holding a victory news conference where he scorned the West and made a joke out of his main opponent’s quasi-house arrest.

Commenting on the Obama administration’s conciliatory overtures, he also suggested that his willingness to reconcile with foreign governments would depend on their willingness to swallow his disputed election.

Asked about speculation that in his second term he would take a more moderate line, he smirked, “It’s not true. I’m going to be more and more solid.”

He can afford to be. With the backing of the supreme leader and the military establishment, he has marginalized all of the major figures who represented a challenge to the vision of Iran as a permanently revolutionary Islamic state.

In many ways, his victory is the latest and perhaps final clash in a battle for power and influence that has lasted decades between Mr. Khamenei and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who, while loyal to the Islamic form of government, wanted a more pragmatic approach to the economy, international relations and social conditions at home.

Mr. Rafsanjani aligned himself and his family closely with the main reform candidate in this race, Mir Hussein Moussavi, a former prime minister who advocated greater freedom — in particular, greater freedom for women — and a more conciliatory face to the West. Another former president and pragmatist, Mohammed Khatami, had also thrown in heavily with Mr. Moussavi.

The three men, combined with widespread public support and disillusionment with Mr. Ahmadinejad, posed a challenge to the authority of the supreme leader and his allies, political analysts said.

The elite Revolutionary Guards and a good part of the intelligence services “feel very much threatened by the reformist movement,” said a political analyst who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “They feel that the reformists will open up to the West and be lenient on the nuclear issue,” he said. “It is a confrontation of two ways of thinking, the revolutionary and the internationalist. It is a question of power.”

Since the vote was announced Saturday, Mr. Moussavi has been the hero of seething antigovernment protests in Tehran, but so far they have been contained by legions of riot police officers and hampered by a shutdown of that critical organizing tool, text-messaging. Mr. Moussavi said he was being “closely monitored” in his home, but hoped to speak at a rally on Monday.

“He ran a red light, and he got a traffic ticket,” Mr. Ahmadinejad quipped when asked about his rival.

Unless the street protests achieve unexpected momentum, the election could cast the pro-reform classes — especially the better off and better educated — back into a state of passive disillusionment, some opposition figures said.

“I don’t think the middle class is ever going to go out and vote again,” one Moussavi supporter lamented.

When he first caught the West’s attention, Mr. Ahmadinejad had been plucked from an obscure provincial governorship and made mayor of Tehran. There he established himself as a promising populist politician. He refused to use the mayor’s big car or occupy the mayor’s grand office. He didn’t accept his salary.

Four years ago, the supreme leader anointed him as the fundamentalist presidential alternative to two candidates the leader thought less reliable, Mr. Rafsanjani and Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Parliament. (Mr. Karroubi, a reformist cleric, tried again in this election, and on Friday was humiliated by the announcement that he had come in fifth in a field of four — after the invalidated ballots.)

Although his first election was marred by allegations of cheating, Mr. Ahmadinejad was credited with being genuinely street smart. He roused crowds with vague attacks on the corruption of the elite, with promises of a vast redistribution of wealth, and with appeals to Iranian pride. By playing to the Muslim world’s feelings of victimization by the West and hatred of Israel, he won adulation on the Arab street even as Arab leaders often disdained him, and that in turn earned him credibility at home.

“The old generation of the Islamic Revolution was going to die off,” said one Iranian analyst. “We thought they would inevitably give way to the reformers. But they found Ahmadinejad, and he was a wise choice. He was a new breed of populist — a new breed of demagogue.”

He is the son of an iron worker, a traffic engineer by education, but political analysts said that he might have been molded most by his experience in the Revolutionary Guards.

As president he has presided over a time of rising inflation and unemployment, but has pumped oil revenues into the budget, sustaining a semblance of growth and buying good will among civil servants, the military and the retired.

More important, he has consolidated the various arms of power that answer ultimately to the supreme leader. The Revolutionary Guards — the military elite — was given license to expand into new areas, including the oil industry and other businesses such as shipbuilding.

The Guardian Council, which oversees elections, had its budget increased 15-fold under Mr. Ahmadinejad. The council has presided over not only Friday’s outcome, but over parliamentary majorities loyal to Mr. Ahmadinejad.

For a time, it appeared that he was losing the favor of the supreme leader. Under Mr. Ahmadinejad, Iran was hit with sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, inflation and unemployment soared and unrest was rising at home as social restrictions were increased. Two of his own ministers quit, criticizing his management of the state, and Parliament discussed the prospect of impeachment.

The president seemed to stumble often. He raised tensions with the West when he told a United Nations General Assembly that he rejected the post-World War II order. He was mocked when he said at Columbia University in 2007 that there was not a single gay person in Iran. In April, nearly two dozen diplomats from the European Union walked out of a conference in Geneva after he disparaged Israel.

But political analysts said that back home, the supreme leader approved, seeing confrontation with the West as helpful in keeping alive his revolutionary ideology, and his base of power. President Obama’s conciliatory tone toward Iran, some Iranians believe, threatened to relax Iranian vigilance and the powerful forces to defend it.

Mr. Obama has made clear he still intends to explore an opening to Iran, though the questions of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy and the consolidation of hard-line power could complicate his strategy.

“The coming period will not be an easy one,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, director of the international relations section at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “Any change will be slow and difficult because we have an elite that is very much united in its hard-line orientation.”

Bill Keller reported from Tehran, and Michael Slackman from Cairo.

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