The next American president’s favorite rogue leader will most probably remain Iran's colorful Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Less than a year before the next Iranian elections in June 2009, Ahmadinejad has no serious challengers for his post who might steal his momentum.
Like any leader, Ahmadinejad's popularity has been fluctuating since he became president in June 2005. Many Iranians are fed up with high prices, both a result of rising food prices around the world and the government’s mismanagement of economy. But even with oil prices at over $140 a barrel, he has managed to provide the minimum necessary to his core supporters, mainly poor Iranians used to living on the very minimum. Since becoming president, he has toured the country and visited parts of Iran that no other president had ever visited before. He has made promises during those trips to improve people’s lives, and in some cases he has actually delivered. Ahmadinejad also has all the attributes that Iranians like to see in their leaders: he has the guts to stand up to world powers, he has the ability to communicate with ordinary Iranians in their own lingo, and no one can accuse him of financial corruption.
So it's not initially surprising that he's looking good heading into next year's election. But a great deal of that also has to do with what his opposition lacks.
To understand an Iranian president, you have to remember that even though Iran is called an Islamic Republic, the system of governance is more like a monarchy. The president of Iran is effectively the prime minister of an absolute monarch. Iran’s supreme leader – formerly Ayatollah Khomeini, currently Ayatollah Khamenei – is the man who really rules Iran. The Leader must formally accept the people’s choice for president, and if push comes to shove he can order the president’s resignation (Khomeini did just that to the first president of Iran, Abol Hassan Bani Sadr, in 1981.) So even though people can elect their president, a successful candidate must have the tacit support of the Supreme Leader. According to people close to the Leader, Ahmadinejad still enjoys his support. Khamenei seems to enjoy Ahmadinejad’s aggressive rhetoric and agrees with most of the president’s policies, and doesn’t mind if they continue for four more years.
Ahmadinejad has also been lucky that his opponents in the reformist camp have been entangled in infighting for much of the past three years. The main potential reformist candidate, former president Mohammad Khatami, reminds most Iranians of a philosopher on television whom they admire but can never comprehend. They remember Khatami as a nice but ineffective mullah who always apologized to people for his shortcomings. In fact, Khatami was nicknamed “Master of Apologies.” When his student supporters took to the streets to support him in 1999 and were brutally beaten by hard-line thugs, Khatami was heavily criticized for not defending them; it was seen as proof that he would never realize his ambitions (which included starting a “dialogue among civilization” and creating a “civil society.”) Khatami is still delaying an announcement about his candidacy. He also used to be called “Master of Indecisiveness.”
The former Speaker of Majlis, the Iranian Parliament, Mehdi Karrubi, is Khatami’s main reformist critic. He basically calls Khatami gullible and ineffective. Karrubi ran against Ahmadinejad last time and still believes that he lost because the ballots had been rigged by the Ayatollah Khamenei’s son among others. Karrubi comes from the tribal areas of West Iran and has a huge following among certain tribes. But his potential colleagues in the reformist camp have done their best to tarnish Karrubi’s reputation. Karrubi also headed one of Iran’s biggest foundations and has allegedly personally been benefiting from the foundation’s assets. Neither Khatami nor Karrubi will be the Leader’s favorites as president. Reformism to Ayatollah Khamenei means a challenge to his absolute power. Khamenei did not like it when, during Khatami’s presidency, reformists asked for restriction of the Leader’s power. He will most probably do his best to stop the same situation from happening again.
If the Leader’s support is a prerequisite for a presidential candidate, then another former speaker of Majlis, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel may think he has the best chance to become president. Haddad’s daughter is married to Ayatollah Khamenei’s son and the two men have been close friends for decades. But even though Haddad has expressed his interest in running for president, Khamenei knows better than to openly support someone who isn’t sure to be elected. Haddad represents the Islamic Republic’s elite and is too much of a yes-man for Iranians’ liking. Haddad’s main hobby is editing Encyclopedia Islamic rather than politics. If he does decide to run for president, the day after the elections he will have time to edit the Encyclopedia full-time.
Ali Larijani, the current speaker of Majlis, is another potential candidate who enjoys the Leader’s support. Larijani comes from a prominent clerical family. The problem with Larijani is that it seems that he constantly wants to remind you of his prominence. While Ahmadinejad does his best to be a man of the people and tempers his zealotry by smiling often and cracking lots of jokes in public, the more educated and experienced Larijani gives the impression that he is God’s gift to the Iranians and that it is their fault that they can’t understand him. Larijani lost to Ahmadinejad three years ago even though many thought that he was the Ayatollah Khamenei’s chosen candidate. If Larijani decides to run next year, it’s likely that the majority of Iranians will fail to understand his value again and won’t vote for him.
Ahmadinejad’s most serious challenge may come from Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Jafar Ghalibaf, who also lost last time. A retired and decorated Revolutionary Guard commander, Ghalibaf tried his best to present a different and more modern image of himself by wearing white designer suits and posh silver-rimmed glasses during his campaign. But by doing so he drove his core supporters to Ahmadinejad. Those Iranians who vote based on a candidate’s fashion sense didn’t trust or vote for Ghalibaf either. Since losing the election and immediately becoming Tehran’s mayor, Ghalibaf has tried to cultivate support among all kinds of Iranians, especially citizens of Tehran. He has mixed his criticism of Ahmadinejad with improving garbage collection, paving roads and all different measures that make a mayor a success. At the same time, Ghalibaf tried his best to undermine Ahmadinejad by reminding the world of the silliness of the president’s policies in public speeches and in the media. Finally, last week when Ghalibaf-controlled Tehran Emrooz (Today’s Tehran) newspaper published a special section criticizing the President’s policies, the newspaper was shutdown.
No one knows the real difference between Ghalibaf and Ahmadinejad yet. The mayor is better looking than the president. But that is not difficult, and Ghalibaf has been mainly criticizing the president rather than announcing his own policies. But in the context of the dysfunctional Iranian presidential campaign system, that is relatively normal. The presidential campaign process in Iran consists of testing the water for a long time, about three to six months before the elections, before announcing anyone’s candidacy. Rather than shaping the zeitgeist of the voters the way the candidates do in the U.S. and Europe, Iranians simply try to customize their own ideas according to the taste of the voters. This creates cynical voters in a country where people generally don’t trust the politicians anyway. Hence, people vote for the candidate they find the most genuine and honest compared to the others.
Ahmadinejad still seems to be the likeliest choice of Iranians in 2009. Whether Obama or McCain like it or not, they must prepare themselves for hours of aggravation over what to do with Ahmadinejad.
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