The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
It was a relief to the international community when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the confrontational leader of Iran, retired in 2013 after a turbulent eight-year term as Iranian president and was replaced by Hassan Rouhani. The former leader was well known for his denial of the Holocaust and for his earnest suggestions to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in August 2006 that Iran and Germany align against, “the winners of the Second World War.” Close observers will also be familiar with his 2005 gambit to approach the International Atomic Energy Agency, which was in charge of conducting nuclear inspections in Iran, with an offer to fund the body’s entire annual budget. Ahmadinejad reasoned that if the West could “buy” the UN agency by funding it, so could Iran.
Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements and policies won him few friends abroad. And he did no better at home, where his brash initiatives resulted in economic and political chaos. The nuclear program that he so defiantly pushed forward led to the most punishing international sanctions imposed on a country in modern times. The sanctions wrecked an economy that was already reeling from years of mismanagement under his administration. His reelection in the summer of 2009 led to widespread and prolonged unrest, since many Iranians believed that he could have only won through a rigged vote. One top Revolutionary Guard commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, assigned with the task of putting down the revolt, described it on Iranian state television in 2013 as the most serious threat to the Islamic Republic since the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s, a war Iran nearly lost to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. When Ahmadinejad left office, the inflation rate was 46 percent, the growth rate stood at minus six percent, and the value of the national currency had dropped by almost 300 percent.
And yet, Ahmadinejad is now threatening to return to politics, a prospect that does not excite his old hardline friends and supporters.
Over the past few months, Ahmadinejad has been hinting that he might run for president in the June 2017 elections. He has been touring small towns and speaking in mosques. He has accused Rouhani of “screwing up” on the nuclear deal that Iran, the United States, and other world powers reached in July of last year as he believes that the agreement sacrificed Iran’s nuclear program for uncertain gain. His aides have also spread the word that if Ahmadinejad comes to power, he will increase by fivefold the $40 cash allowance he gave Iranians in 2011 after he removed subsidies on basic goods such as foodstuffs and fuel to move toward market prices and restore the economy.
Ahmadinejad’s fans, who are mostly former hardline Islamist university students and Basij militiamen, have built websites to publicize his movements and speeches. They’ve put up posters urging him to return to politics. One was captioned with “There is drought, we need rain” beneath a picture of the former president. To them, he represents someone who could deepen the Islamic revolution at home and lead an anti-imperialist movement abroad along with revolutionary leaders in Latin America, such as Fidel and Raul Castro and Daniel Ortega.
His opponents are not taking any chances. The spokesman of a hardline clerical group that once staunchly supported him is less keen these days. “Ahmadinejad does not deserve to be given another chance,” he said categorically. One member of parliament described it as a relief not to wake up every day and find that the president had said something inflammatory and created problems for the rest of the government. Another member of parliament said that before Ahmadinejad thinks of coming back, he has to clear his name from corruption, pointing to charges of misappropriation of public funds by him and his government.
The former president first came to power with the sound backing of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to Ali Saeedi, Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guards Corp, the Revolutionary Guard “engineered the elections,” bringing out the votes for him by mobilizing the Guards and the Basij militias, and by supporting hardline junior clerics who were dispatched far and wide to campaign for him. (There were indications at the time that the supreme leader’s office and particularly his son, Mojtaba, were also actively but quietly encouraging a vote for Ahmadinejad.) There was a strong suspicion of election fraud even when he was first elected in 2005. But he lost the support of both the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard in his second term in office when at times he publically clashed with Khamenei—particularly over his attempted sacking of the Intelligence Minister Haidar Mosslehi in April 2011—something Khamenei opposed. In protest, Ahmadinejad refused to turn up at the office for 11 days. Another source of tension with the supreme leader was his proposed choice for the first vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who held unorthodox views on Islam and proved capable of leading the president astray ideologically. Ahmadinejad and Mashaei belong to a sect of fervent believers of the early return of the Mahdi—the missing 12th Imam who many Shias believe will return one day to establish peace and justice on earth. Ahmadinejad and Mashaei also began to propagate a nationalist brand of Shiism that was at odds with the leader’s and the establishment’s brand of Islam.
Ahmadinejad may know that he is unpopular in the halls of power, but he senses an opportunity. The next presidential elections will most likely focus on the issue of how much Iran has benefited from the nuclear deal that led to the lifting of sanctions against Iran. In their criticism of Rouhani, the hardliners have argued that he gave up Iran’s most prized possession, the nuclear program, for “virtually nothing.” They have Khamenei on their side, as well as the Revolutionary Guard, the judiciary, and many other centers of power.
Rouhani has a difficult task ahead if he is to show how Iran has benefited under his administration and as a result of the nuclear deal. The benefits from the lifting of sanctions have been slow in coming. Unemployment is rampant, business is slow, and trade with the outside world remains stagnant. Iran is still recovering from banking sanctions that almost singlehandedly broke its economy. Iran’s access to trade in U.S. dollars remains blocked because of other sanctions related to its missile program, its deplorable human rights record, and its alleged support for terrorism.
At the same time, however, Rouhani has managed to bring down inflation from soaring heights to a level under ten percent. Iran is now largely rid of some of its worst sanctions. Oil exports have picked up. And importantly, he has injected a crucial dose of optimism into Iranian politics, which led to a poor showing for the hardliners in the most recent elections in March for parliament and the Assembly of Experts. Several of the key hardliner figures were voted out, and they lost control of parliament for the first time in 12 years. It was the latest indication that Iranians support moderation over the extremism that the hardliners embody.
And for the hardliners, desperate times may require desperate measures. Ahmadinejad has sensed that. He is the only hardline figure with any mass appeal. He still enjoys support among the poor in the rural areas across the country. During his time in office, he regularly travelled to provincial towns and villages and vowed to make improvements, although he delivered only on a fraction of his promises. He raised the salaries of the government pensioners, nurses, and workers. His ill-conceived plan to give every Iranian the equivalent of $40 per month in cash in lieu of some subsidies backfired on the economy by creating massive liquidity, but it boosted his following.
Professor Sadeq Zibakalam of Tehran University believes that Ahmadinejad can win 10–15 million votes, even today. The hardliners, however much as they dislike him, cannot easily ignore this. “They may have to eschew their pride and support his candidacy,” said Zibakalam in newspaper interviews. However, 15 million votes may not be enough to win the elections for the hardliners. In 2013, Rouhani won close to 19 million votes—just over 50 percent of the ballots cast. By contrast, the top two hardline candidates received only four and six million votes each.
If Ahmadinejad does not work out, the supreme leader’s office may have a second option: General Qassim Suleimani to run. He is the 59-year-old commander of the Quds force, the arm of the Revolutionary Guard responsible for covert operations abroad. He led some of the Iraqi insurgents who were fighting U.S. forces, but he is now leading Iran’s military campaigns in Syria and Iraq, and remains a godfather-like figure for the militant group, Hezbollah, in Lebanon.
Lately, Iran’s conservative media have been paying a lot of attention to the enigmatic general. One newspaper published a photograph of him consoling the son of Mustafa Badreddine, the latest Hezbollah martyr. It also ran an image of him leading forces to Aleppo in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Badreddine was also recently photographed in Iraq advising Shia militia commanders on the outskirts of Fallujah. A couple of days later, Suleimani made a speech in Tehran at the convention of a hardline parliamentary faction—an appearance that raised eyebrows in the capital since previously he had not been seen to delve into politics, and least of all, factional politics. It only intensified speculations about his intentions for next year’s presidential elections.
It is not inconceivable that Suleimani will run next year. After all, he may have more support than Ahmadinejad, particularly among the elite, given that Iran has grown more militarized over the years. Many Revolutionary Guard commanders have changed into civilian clothes and taken up positions in parliament, government, and in the economy. The general is charismatic, measured, and highly regarded not only by the hardliners but also by Islamic reformists and even nationalists who see his exploits in the region as defending the country’s interests—keeping Iran safe, which has become a source of pride. So far, Suleimani has not commented on the nuclear deal, preferring to keep out of this toxic political issue.
Suleimani is also very close to Khamenei, who is increasingly wary of Rouhani. The latter two regularly contradict each other publically on policy matters, from the importance of teaching English at schools to the role of women and the benefits of the nuclear deal. In next year’s presidential elections, Rouhani is up against formidable powers at home that will likely make the last year of his office the most difficult yet. But he still has an overwhelming majority of Iranians behind him who want him to steer the country toward moderation—however relative that moderation may look from the outside.