UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

[ rfe/rl banner ]

Iran: Ahmadinejad Deriving Power From Rhetoric

By Vahid Sepehri

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 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'a 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.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list