Ahmadinejad rides the American tide By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - The Iranian street was clearly impressed by the new tone of United
States President Barack Obama, who stressed, first in his inauguration speech
and then through the Saudi channel al-Arabiyya, a willingness to conduct
serious dialogue with Tehran, if it "unclenched its fist".
Obama's campaign promise is seemingly not merely a bluff. Gone are the days of
president George W Bush, who was on the verge of ending his eight-year term at
the White House with a new military adventure against Iran.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed Obama's words, saying that Iran had a
"clear opportunity" to engage with the international community, taking the
head-start from the new US president. "We've got a lot of damage to repair,"
she added, words that made headlines in Persian newspapers around Iran. General
David Petraeus, commander of US forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and
chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, echoed these
words, saying that dialogue with Iran was "useful" and noted "there is
Meanwhile, speculation is rising in Tehran regarding who Obama will choose to
handle relations with Iran. There has been much talk that William Burns, a
veteran diplomat at the State Department who was charged with meeting Iranian
officials last summer in Geneva, would be given the Iran file.
Another name earmarked for the post - according to Iranian observers - is
Dennis Ross, a veteran of the Bill Clinton years rumored to be Obama's choice
for Middle East envoy. The only person unimpressed with Obama's choice of "Iran
experts" appears to be President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who announced last
Wednesday that he would be nominating himself for another term in office for
the presidential elections of 2009.
Although he sent Obama an unprecedented letter of congratulations in November
2008, the Iranian leader has since lost enthusiasm for the new president,
reportedly over the latter's position on Hamas and the war in Gaza.
Conservatives in Iran are uncomfortable dealing with a moderate like Obama. It
forces them too to be moderate; they cannot speak tough language to someone
addressing them in a moderate tone. They are telling the Iranian street not to
get their hopes up too high, reminding them that under the Democrat eras of
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, things were never rosy between Tehran and
They claim that Bush was easier to deal with "because he showed the true face
of America" and that it was Clinton who missed an opportunity for breakthroughs
with Tehran during the reformist era of president Mohammad Khatami. Ahmadinejad
was particularly angry last week at the European Union decision to remove
Mujahideen-e-Khalak (MOK), a military group aimed at overthrowing the Iranian
regime, from its terrorist list.
Ahmadinejad still sees the EU and US as two sides of the same coin, despite
that the Obama administration still brands MOK as a terrorist group, a position
it acquired in 1997. Ahmadinejad said that with this u-turn, the Europeans were
adding insult to injury and violating United Nations Security Council
resolution 1373, which requires governments to not provide terrorist groups
with any support or recognition.
The Iranian Student News Agency spoke on behalf of the president, saying that
MOK's hands "are stained with the blood of thousands of innocent Iranians and
non-Iranians". They said the EU decision was "invalid and condemned". An
Iranian conservative daily wrote, "The EU plans to use the MOK as leverage
against Iran in the nuclear talks. The EU should tell the world why it
blacklists Lebanese and Palestinian resistance groups fighting Israeli
aggression but clears the MOK, which has committed countless crimes in Iran and
Because of the MOK incident, and since Ahmadinejad wants a new round as
president, Obama's calls for dialogue have fallen on deaf ears in Tehran. In
response to Obama's gesture, Ahmadinejad snapped back at his old foe Bush, and
said, "God willing, he has gone to Hell!" He then unleashed a bundle of
grievances that he has with the US - none of which Obama is responsible for.
They include American support for a 1953 coup that toppled a democratically
elected Iranian government, during the years of president Dwight Eisenhower.
They also include American backing for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq wars, under
Ronald Reagan, and support for the creation of Israel in 1948, under Harry
Truman. He accused the US of preventing Iran from achieving any kind of
scientific progress, and injecting the country with “poverty, ignorance, and
illiteracy”. For a new page, he noted, American must withdraw from Iraq (which
Obama has promised to do) and apologize for all wrongs committed against Tehran
since 1979. After all the fire, Ahmadinejad said one useful thing: that he was
willing to look forward, no longer back, if there was a “fundamental change” in
US foreign policy.
All of that seems to be a big distraction from what really matters - a new
attitude in Washington that is being overlooked for political reasons by
decision-makers in Tehran. One reason is Ahmadinejad's decision to re-run for
office, which needs to drum up anti-Americanism. That is what sells, after all,
emphasized by phrases such as "Death to America!" The president wants to
distract attention, four years down the road, from all the economic promises he
made and failed to fulfill. He was voted into office in 2005, after all, by
promising more bread on the diner table of ordinary Iranians and a greater
distribution of oil wealth.
Opponents of the Iranian president are already furious at the fact that
reformist Khatami has not presented his nomination, whereas Ahmadinejad has,
and is seemingly, supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad's
decision to radicalize, in response to Obama's new tone, is clearly not
Ahmadinejad's own decision. It is dictated to him - or "advised" by the Grand
Ayatollah. Articles on the president are resurfacing in the Iranian press, and
the son of a prominent cleric, Ayatollah Khazali, has "accused" Ahmadinejad of
hailing from Jewish origins.
After all, Iran today is not the same Iran that existed in the 1980s. Former
presidents such as Khamenei, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami were all
clerics. Ahmadinejad is not. Iran is moving away from political Islam, although
many in the West refuse to admit that and despite the fact that it remains
dominant in the constitution and structure of government. Ahmadinejad won in
2005, and will likely win in 2009, but not because he has an Islamic agenda.
He will win if he manages to convince Iranians that the first four years did
not yield results - in housing, hospitalization, wages, infrastructure and real
estate - not because of him but because of the policies of Bush, which
distracted Ahmadinejad from his real objectives. Campaign slogans promised to
address the social and economic grievances of this generation, more so than to
uphold the ideals of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Pragmatism was more important than ideology. One slogan read "$550 for every
Iranian citizen”. Currently, unemployment in Iran is at 16% while female
unemployment stands at a staggering 21.2%. Another 31% of young men and women,
aged 15-29, are unemployed. Within this range, 34% are in the 15-19 age group
and 16% in 25-29. In three years, due to a growth rate of 13.2%, the rate of
unemployed youth will be 52%. Currently, 800,000 Iranian youth enter the job
market every year and the president has not been able to provide all of them
with jobs, as he promised he would do in 2005.
This might explain why, coinciding with Ahmadinejad's candidacy, Iranian Oil
Minister Gholam Hossein Nozari said that his country - under the president's
leadership - had earned more than US$64 billion in oil revenue from March to
December 2008. Oil prices, he added, have reached around $40 a barrel since
hitting a record high of over $147 in July 2008.
Other election gestures now emerging include a public message of support from
Ahmadinejad to a conference in Tehran entitled “Holocaust? A Sacred Lie by the
West”. Ahmadinejad was also keen to be the first to applaud Turkish Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for walking out of the World Economic Forum in
Davos, in objection to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres' words on Gaza. "The
Iranian people support your noble deed," said Ahmadinejad, who added that it
was based on "determination and courage".
One setback for the president is weekend reports that Khatami - who would
seriously challenge Ahmadinejad in the elections - has not completely ruled out
his candidacy. Khatami (who ruled from 1997 to 2005) said that if former prime
minister Hossein Mousavi will not run, he would nominate himself instead, on a
Another reformer, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi (who lost in 2005),
will also be running, in addition to Tehran's mayor, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, as
well as Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Mohammad Jahromi. Others include
Ahmadinejad's former interior minister Mostafa Pour Mohammadi and former vice
president Mohammad-Reza Aref. The 10th presidential elections, which will
determine Iran's fate until 2013, and a major part of Obama's regional foreign
policy, will take place on June 12.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.