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Learning to Live With the Devil We Know
Posted on Jun 16, 2009
By Scott Ritter
The Iranian people went to the polls last Friday to elect a president. Pre-election polling showed the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, consistently holding a 2-to-1 advantage over his closest opponent, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. When the final election results were announced by the Iranian Ministry of Interior (the agency responsible for counting the votes and publishing the results), President Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, with 63 percent of the vote—about a 2-to-1 advantage. And yet, when the northern suburbs of Tehran, home to a large number of moderate reform-minded Iranians who are vehemently opposed to Ahmadinejad, erupted in violent protest, and Mousavi began to cry fraud, the Western media immediately jumped on the bandwagon, giving birth to the “instant history” of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections.
Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory should have come as a surprise to no one. The controversy surrounding Iran’s president, at home and abroad, represented a double-edged sword capable of cutting not only the incumbent but those who opposed him. Thanks to the explosion in energy prices last year, the global economic crisis that threatened Ahmadinejad’s re-election chances was blunted by the newly filled coffers of the Iranian government. Awash in hard currency derived from the sale of Iran’s oil and gas (Iran is, after all, the world’s fifth largest producer of oil), Ahmadinejad successfully used the energy crisis to his political advantage.
Pundits and opponents can rail all they want about the temporary stability of the Iranian economy, noting quite accurately that the fundamental problems that afflict Iran’s economic engine have not been fixed. Once the price of oil stabilizes at a lower level more in line with the realities of supply and demand in a slow-growing global economy, Iran’s economic difficulties will re-emerge with a vengeance. But to the average Iranian on the street, pummeled by inflation and unemployment, the upswing in Iran’s economic fortune was directly tied to the policies of the country’s high-profile president, right or wrong.
Iran’s improved economic condition, however temporary, also strengthened Ahmadinejad’s hand when it came to managing Iran’s complex and controversial foreign relations situation. Until two years ago, the shunning of Iran by the West, spurred on by Ahmadinejad’s hard-line positions on nuclear energy, Iraq and Israel, was creating a backlash among a significant segment of the population of Iran, including Ahmadinejad’s political base. The underprivileged who brought Ahmadinejad to power found themselves bearing the brunt of the economic consequences of political isolation and economic sanctions. Popular opinion held that Ahmadinejad had gone too far, and that there was a need for more moderate policies designed to ease tensions with the West and improve Iran’s economy. Iran’s economic surge, fueled more by higher oil and gas prices than sound economic policy, eliminated that domestic pressure almost overnight.
Moreover, aggressive and belligerent rhetoric emanating out of Israel and the United States—touting the possibility of military action against Iran in the hope that the Iranian people would be compelled to vote Ahmadinejad out of office if they were placed under the cloud of potential conflict—backfired. With food in their bellies and money in their pockets, Iranians increasingly rallied around their president in the face of the increasingly hawkish rhetoric coming from American and Israeli politicians and military officials. While President Barack Obama has called for unconditional talks with Iran and appealed for moderation in U.S.-Iran relations, the U.S. military and intelligence services continue to conduct covert operations designed to undermine the authority and viability of the current Iranian government. Ahmadinejad, given the focus of attention that had been placed on him, was able to tap into this wave of newfound Iranian nationalism in a very personal way, melding himself as one with all of Iran. Mousavi’s calls for improved ties with the West, when seen in this light, were counterproductive and severely damaged his election chances.
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