Originally Published 2005-11-07 06:43:26 Published on Nov 07, 2005
In a prescient view, when the region and the world were still sizing up the Iranian President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Xinhua despatch from Teheran featured by People's Daily in early August reported: "The successful play of the class card and religion card at a critical juncture has brought an unknown mayor to the office of the president.
Iran: Building on the Revolutionary Agenda
In a prescient view, when the region and the world were still sizing up the Iranian President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Xinhua despatch from Teheran featured by People's Daily in early August reported: "The successful play of the class card and religion card at a critical juncture has brought an unknown mayor to the office of the president. It provokes contemplations over Iran's true situation and the Iranian people's real expectations - a more vivid picture of Iran obfuscated from the world by inaccurate and inadequate media presentation." 

The commentary went on: "However, it must be pointed out that the president-elect cannot rely on these two cards (class and religion) after his assumption of power because the image of pauper hero and apologist is far from good enough to be a good president. The lucky man shoulders even greater expectations now." 

While the "international community" remains narrowly focussed on Iran's nuclear issue, latching on to every word uttered by Iranian officials, within Iran itself, the attention is centred on what is shaping up into an epic struggle in the overall orientation of Iran's national policies, the economic agenda in particular. 

True, there are ominous signs of the dividing lines getting frayed as Mr. Ahmadinejad's recent comments about Israel testify. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had this in mind when he warned last week that the "international community" should be careful not to create "a second North Korea." 

Three months into his presidency, Mr. Ahmadinejad has carefully begun to develop his electoral promises. As early as August 3 at the ceremony installing him as Iran's sixth President, Mr. Ahmadinejad said the promotion of `justice', which was the ideal of the Iranian revolution of 1979, would top his agenda. He explained that by `justice,' he meant a fair social distribution of wealth, eradication of poverty, tackling unemployment, and conducting a purposive struggle against all forms of discrimination and corruption. (In fact, he explained Iran's foreign policy too as borne out of similar impulses as "adoption of discriminatory policies and double standards toward other countries and the arrogation of special privileges and concessions in various economic, political and scientific spheres by certain governments, which at the same time deprive other nations of their due rights, too are manifestations of `injustice'".) 

Three weeks later, addressing a special session of the Iranian Majlis on August 21, Mr. Ahmadinejad further elaborated his thinking on what constituted `justice.' He said `justice' meant bridging the gap that existed between the common people and the administration by reforming the "bureaucratic system" and promoting "a culture of kindness"; focussing on unemployment and the attendant social problems; "rendering service to deprived classes" (among the "priorities of the government"); and improving public services ("the principle of rendering public service must be co-related to the extent of deprivation among sections of society"). 

A major plank of Mr. Ahmadinejad's electoral platform has been the redistribution of Iran's oil wealth that is under the control of a handful of interest groups. He had termed the move as his first battle to promote social justice. His battle cry to take on Iran's "oil mafia" and to give more contracts to Iranian firms in the oil sector, apart from redistributing oil wealth, generated enthusiastic support from the poor people. 

Last week, Mr. Ahmadinejad nominated a surprise choice as Iran's new Oil Minister - Seyed Sadeh Mahsouli. Whether the Majlis will ratify the nomination will remain an intriguing question in Iran's politics in the coming days. For, Mr. Mahsouli is the latest in a chain of appointments made by the President from the ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to key positions in the Government. Mr. Ahmadinejad has evidently turned to the IRGC (to which he has himself belonged since 1980) for providing aides on whom he could rely for the implementation of his agenda. 

The IRGC was created originally as the Praetorian guards of the Iranian revolution and was specifically barred by Imam Khomeini in 1989 just before his death, from any involvement in active politics. (Khomeini did not want to risk exposing IRGC to the factionalism that was endemic to Iranian politics - such was the importance the Imam attached to IRGC's role as the main pillar of the revolution.) 

However, since end-2003, there were incipient signs that the religious leadership was beginning to depend on IRGC to counter the so-called "reformist" challenge. In the parliamentary elections of 2004, for the first time IRGC had its candidates elected as legislators. Its political profile has been on a steady upward graph since then due to a variety of factors - including geopolitical factors such as the war in Iraq, escalating U.S. hostility, and Iran's nuclear issue - culminating in the victory of Mr. Ahmadinejad. (IRGC also manages Iran's nuclear programme.) 

This new force in Iranian politics combines adherence to the ideals and principles of the Iranian revolution such as social justice, and the special, dominant role of Islam. Sections of the religious leadership see this new force as the last hope for redeeming the ideals of the 1979 revolution, but large sections of the old guard equally view the crusade against corruption and the call for distributive justice with growing unease. 

Arguably, a showdown of this kind (common to all revolutions) should have taken place soon after 1979 but for the 8-year Iraq-Iran war (1980-88) and the passing away of Imam Khomeini in 1989. At any rate, under the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97), the regime careered away further and further from the revolutionary ideals. 

Corruption and political cynicism spread as the regime incessantly sought the complicity of the religious leadership in the misappropriation of state wealth. The bazaari interests linked up with the clergy and the upper crust of the (north Teheran) middle class - all in the name of "economic reform", "liberalisation" and "globalisation" - within a system of self-perpetuating crony capitalism. 

The `bonyads' (charitable trusts), corrupt and overstaffed consortium of companies headed by the elite or their cronies, exempt from taxes and answerable only to the Supreme Leader, accounted for nearly half of Iran's GDP by the time the Rafsanjani presidency ended in 1997. Mohammad Khatami promised change and received a huge popular mandate but in the event the old guard frustrated his programme. 

Mr. Ahmadinejad has astutely headed for the heart of the matter. He has formed a triumvirate with his key ally, Speaker of the Majlis Gholam Ali Haddad Addel, and the powerful chief of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, and opened up the sensitive issue of "corruption in the economic and administrative sections of society." Last Thursday, the opening salvo was fired when the Majlis met in a closed-door session, which was attended by Ayatollah Shahroudi. To what extent the campaign would be advanced, and with what speed, remains to be seen but the `bonyads' are bound to come under close scrutiny. 

The President's calculation seems to be that the political fight against corruption will throw the old guard off balance - a formidable combination of the religious leadership, bazaari interests, cronies and even sections of the Iranian bureaucracy and intelligentsia who parade as "reformists" and "moderates". He seems to calculate that such a "softening up" may facilitate easier passage of his painful economic agenda orientated toward redistribution of wealth and social justice. 

Indeed, the old guard can be expected to strike back. In the present context, the old guard has kept extensive links with Western powers as well. (According to details available now, anticipating his victory in the presidential election in June, Mr. Rafsanjani, who was idolised as Iran's `moderate' par excellence by the Western media, had, in fact, struck a deal with British interlocutors on a compromise over Iran's nuclear issue.) No wonder Mr. Ahmadinejad has decided to recall one third of all Iranian heads of missions in the embassies abroad. 

A pragmatic conservative  
Iran's nuclear issue is not directly linked to this titanic struggle over the `soul' of the Iranian revolution, but it is not so peripheral either. Mr. Ahmadinejad is instinctively a pragmatic conservative. He has not sought confrontation over the nuclear issue. His preferred choice will be compromise and cooperation. Even after the IAEA vote of September 24, he did not pull Iran out of the NPT or jettison the Additional Protocol or begin enriching uranium. 

The point is Mr. Ahmadinejad (and the IRGC) is acutely conscious that Western powers, especially the U.S., would be keenly watching and would try to fish in troubled waters. Therefore, through statements like the one he made recently about "wiping off" Israel from the face of the earth, he is conveying the message to the enemies of Iran to back off. He is underlining that the national consolidation of opinion is his ultimate strength - and, he is not looking beyond it. (Over 80 per cent of Iranians support the Government's nuclear policy.) 

It should not take much effort to understand what is it that has drawn Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, so instinctively close to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in such a short period of time.

The author is a former Ambassador of India with extensive experience in dealing with India's relations with countries of South West and Central Asia. He is presently Visiting Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Source: The Hindu, Chennai, November 7, 2005.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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