Monday, September 24, 2007

In Iran, "It's the Ideology, Stupid"

Excellent article:

TEHRAN: When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected president, he said that Iran had more important issues to worry about than how women dress. He even called for allowing women into soccer games, a revolutionary idea for revolutionary Iran.

Today, Iran is experiencing the most severe crackdown on social behavior and dress in years, and women are often barred from smoking in public, let alone from attending a public event in a stadium.

Since coming to office two years ago, Ahmadinejad has grabbed headlines around the world and in Iran for outrageous statements that often have no more likelihood of implementation than his soccer plan. He generated controversy in New York last week by asking to visit the site of the destroyed World Trade Towers - a request that was denied - and by agreeing to speak at Columbia University on Monday.

But it is because of his provocative remarks, like denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, that the United States and Europe have never known quite how to handle the firebrand president, say politicians, officials and experts in Iran.

In demonizing Ahmadinejad, they say, the West has served him well, elevating his status at home and across the region at a time when he is increasingly isolated politically because of his go-it-alone style and ineffective economic policies.

Political analysts here are surprised at the degree to which the West focuses on their president, saying the denunciations reflect a general misunderstanding of their system. Unlike in the United States, say, the Iranian president is not the head of state nor the commander in chief. That status is held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, whose role combines civil and religious authority. At the moment, this president's power comes from two sources, they say: the unqualified support of the supreme leader, and the international condemnation he manages to generate when he speaks up.

"The United States pays too much attention to Ahmadinejad," said a political scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. "He is not that consequential."

That is not to say that Ahmadinejad is insignificant. He controls the mechanics of civil government, much the way a prime minister does in a state like Egypt, where the real power rests with the president. He manages the budget and has put like-minded people in positions around the country, from provincial governors to prosecutors. His base of support is the Basiji militia and elements of the Revolutionary Guards.

But Ahmadinejad has not shown the same political acumen at home as he has in riling the West. Two of his ministers have quit, criticizing his stewardship. The head of the central bank resigned. The chief judge criticized him for his management of the government. His promise to root out corruption and redistribute the nation's oil wealth has run up against entrenched interests.

Even a small bloc of members of Parliament that were once aligned with him have largely given up, dissolving a small caucus they had formed in his support, officials said.

Rather than focusing so much attention on the president, the West needs to learn that in Iran, what matters is ideology - Islamic revolutionary ideology, according to politicians and political analysts here. Nearly 30 years after the shah fell in a popular rebellion, Iran's supreme leader also holds the title of "Guardian of the Revolution." Ahmadinejad's power stems not from his office per se, but from the refusal of his patron, Khamenei, and some hard-line leaders to move beyond Iran's revolutionary identity, which makes full relations with the West impossible.

There are plenty of conservatives and hard-liners who take a more pragmatic view, wanting to retain "revolutionary values" while integrating Iran with the world, at least economically. But they are not driving the agenda these days, and while that could change it will not be the president who makes the call.

"Iran has never been interested in reaching an accommodation with the United States," the political scientist said. "It cannot reach an accommodation as long as it retains the current structure."

There is another important factor that restricts Ahmadinejad's hand: While ideology defines the state, the revolution has allowed a particular class to grow wealthy and powerful.

When Ahmadinejad was elected, it appeared that hard-liners had a monopoly on all the levers of power. But today it is clear that Ahmadinejad is not a hard-liner, not in the traditional sense. His talk of economic justice and a redistribution of wealth, for example, ran into a wall of existing vested interests, including powerful clergy and military leaders...

No comments: