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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 May 2006, 12:16 GMT 13:16 UK
Iran leader plays populist game
By Shirzad Bozorgmehr
Managing editor, Iran News, Tehran

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a crowd
Will Ahmadinejad live up to his election promises?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election victory last June surprised everyone in Iran.

After all, we all knew his opponent, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but very few of us knew much about Mr Ahmadinejad.

Mr Rafsanjani had been president twice; he was also speaker of parliament twice and was one of the best known figures of Iran's Islamic Revolution.

In contrast, Mr Ahmadinejad was a former governor of a remote province and had been the mayor of Tehran for less than two years when he ran for presidency.

Promises to poor

The instant analysis was that Iranian voters had tired of the old faces and wanted someone new to politics to run the country - preferably one whose reputation was not tainted by accusations of corruption, as Mr Rafsanjani's was.

Former Iranian leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Mr Rafsanjani's reputation was tainted by accusations of corruption

But with 20-20 hindsight, we now realise that there were more reasons for Mr Ahmadinejad's election victory. Unemployment and inflation were major factors, for example.

The poor feel the pain of unemployment and inflation more than others. Mr Ahmadinejad promised the poor he would improve their lives.

He told them they were the most important social class in the country. And they are. Low-income people are the largest class in terms of numbers, and because of his promises and his modest lifestyle they considered Mr Ahmadinejad as one of their own.

As president, he is still using populist methods to hold on to his constituency, and he has been successful so far, mainly because people are still hoping that he will be able to fulfil his election campaign promises.

Nuclear issue

Mr Ahmadinejad was also popular in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, IRGC, and the Basij militia. After all, he was a member of the IRGC. They believed Mr Ahmadinejad would stand up to foreign pressure, especially over the nuclear issue. And he has not disappointed them.

Iranian women protest in support of Iran's nuclear programme at the Isfahan plant
Iran's media fuelled strong public support for Tehran's nuclear plans
He recently declared to the world, in defiance of the US and the United Nations Security Council, that Iran had joined the exclusive nuclear club.

The nuclear issue was a major consideration in Mr Ahmadinejad's election. Confronting the West over Iran's nuclear programme had gradually become a matter of national pride.

The ultra-conservative state-run radio and television had done a masterful job of mobilising the public against any retreat on the issue of acquiring advanced nuclear technology, even before Mr Ahmadinejad was elected.

Jobs hope

Another group, young Iranians who had every reason to fear Mr Ahmadinejad's election because they thought he might tighten social restrictions, nevertheless voted for him and still support him because of the way he is standing up to Western "bullying" of Iran.

His promise to create jobs for the young people also helped him get the youth vote. More than 70% of Iranians are under the age of 30; many of them are highly educated but unemployed.

Paradoxically, Mr Ahmadinejad also had the support of those who are against social permissiveness.

More support came from others who were neither political nor religious conservatives.

They voted for Mr Ahmadinejad because they are against the West's cultural invasion. They believe that growing foreign influences, such as certain types of Western music, literature, fashion and social norms, are not good for the country.

Parliament

However, some of Mr Ahmadinejad's campaign promises may come back to haunt him.

An Iranian motorists looks at a petrol pump screen as he fills up
An increase in petrol prices could cost the president popular support

In his many visits to the poorer provinces before and since his election, Ahmadinejad pledged financial aid from the country's Oil Surplus Fund, a multi-billion dollar reserve account set aside for emergencies and investments in key sectors of the economy.

However, parliament does not want him to use this fund.

In fact, the president and parliament do not see eye-to-eye on many issues, despite the fact that the majority of MPs are fundamentalists.

Over the objections of Mr Ahmadinejad, parliament has also passed a law that would increase the price of subsidised petrol five-fold by September. Despite his resistance, the poor people will blame him for higher petrol prices.

Making promises of generous financial aid to help the poor has created expectations that, if unfulfilled, could seriously affect the president's popularity.

He will also lose his support among the youth if he fails to come through with his jobs programme.

Iran needs to create at least 700,000 jobs each year just to keep the rate of unemployment, currently more than 15%, from climbing higher. But even in the best of circumstances, fewer than half that number would find work.

Beloved underdog

The president's domestic popularity depends on several factors, some of which he can control, and some he can't.

He has some control over improving the lot of the masses, creating jobs and cutting inflation. He can try to cut the size of the government too, and boost the private sector. All of that seems straightforward and do-able.

But there is a catch - he can only create more jobs if there is more domestic and foreign investment, but neither of those will happen if Western economic sanctions remain in place.

US sanctions have failed to bring Iran to its knees. They have even helped the country become independent of foreign know-how in a number of areas.

But sanctions have stifled the rate of economic growth, reduced foreign investment and created domestic investment insecurity.

Iranian women hold up posters of Mr Ahmadinejad during a rally
Outside pressure could boost domestic support for the president

In addition, Iran's economy is dependent on oil exports and is therefore subject to OPEC price fluctuations and the changes in the US dollar.

The irony is that those factors Mr Ahmadinejad cannot control, such as the policies of Western countries regarding Iran, may have a greater impact on his presidency than his own domestic policies.

Tightened economic sanctions, threats of military attack and the exclusion of Iranian officials from international discourse all sound ominous - but, because of the Iranian mindset, they could all backfire.

Iranians are Shias; this is a sect of Islam based on the principle of martyrdom and sacrifice for one's beliefs. Iranians always support the underdog and adore those who are oppressed and have been wronged by powerful individuals or governments.

If Mr Ahmadinejad improves the economy and creates jobs for the unemployed youth, then his current popularity will continue and may even increase.

And if he fails - and is seen to fail because of Western interference and threats against Iran - then his standing will also rise, regardless of the success or failure of his policies.

The world may be dealing with Mr Ahmadinejad for another seven years, if he is re-elected in three years' time.




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