Iran General NewsA frail economy raises pressure on Iran’s rulers

A frail economy raises pressure on Iran’s rulers


New York Times: In one of the coldest winters Iranians have experienced in recent memory, the government is failing to provide natural gas to tens of thousands of people across the country, leaving some for days or even weeks with no heat at all. Here in the capital, rolling blackouts every night for a month have left people without electricity, and heat, for hours at a time. The New York Times

Published: February 3, 2008

TEHRAN — In one of the coldest winters Iranians have experienced in recent memory, the government is failing to provide natural gas to tens of thousands of people across the country, leaving some for days or even weeks with no heat at all. Here in the capital, rolling blackouts every night for a month have left people without electricity, and heat, for hours at a time.

The heating crisis in this oil-exporting nation is adding to Iranians’ increasing awareness of the contrast between their growing influence abroad and frailty at home, according to government officials, diplomats and political analysts interviewed here.

From fundamentalists to reformists, people here are talking more loudly about the need for a more pragmatic approach, one that tones down the anti-Western rhetoric, at least a bit, and focuses more on improving management of the country and restoring Iran’s economic health.

The mounting domestic challenges, the most serious of which is a grinding period of stagflation, with inflation growing and the economy weakening, have apparently deepened tensions between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the religious establishment he ultimately answers to. And they have helped spur a collective rethinking of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s stewardship as Iran prepares to celebrate the 29th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution this month and to hold parliamentary elections on March 14.

“I think the Islamic Revolution is going through an identity crisis, and is trying to mature,” said Nader Talebzadeh, a filmmaker who supports Mr. Ahmadinejad. “We are maturing, gradually.”

There are increasing signals, however, that the government is not interested in hearing other voices and is geared instead toward maintaining power by silencing critics. For the parliamentary elections, so far about 70 percent of all reform candidates have been disqualified.

While the president’s supporters say the rejections were based on legal standards, like a lack of loyalty to the Islamic system or the idea of having a supreme leader, reformists say the rejections are an effort to keep them out of power.

Last week, the government shut down Iran’s most important feminist magazine, which had been published for 16 years. The authorities also arrested a small group of students after a protest at Tehran University over poor conditions in their dormitory.

In the middle of a snowy, icy winter, women have been arrested for not wearing proper Islamic clothing. Hats over head scarves, boots over pants, can bring trouble.

“Their harsh reaction to everything shows they feel very vulnerable,” said Morad Saghafi, a philosopher and writer in Tehran. “They arrest 10 students because they think if they don’t, 100 will come. Yes, they feel vulnerable.”

In recent weeks, even Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader, changed his tone regarding the president, offering rare public criticism while reasserting his own standing as the steward of Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies.

“The present government, similar to any other government, has certain shortcomings which should be mentioned sympathetically,” Ayatollah Khamenei said recently before warning critics not to go overboard. “But some individuals attempt to criticize and insult every move by the government. The majority of these individuals are, however, negligent, that they are acting in line with the enemies’ propaganda.”

Sayeed Laylaz, an economist who was briefly a deputy minister in the former reform government, said: “The supreme leader realizes this economy, this country, doesn’t work anymore. He is trying to reconstruct it from within.”

An adviser to the supreme leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid a dispute with the president, added that “there is a consensus” on the need for better management.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s office refused requests to discuss events in Iran with the president or his advisers. The president’s new chief security adviser, Saeed Jalili, refused to be interviewed unless the entire content of the interview was printed in a question-and-answer format in the newspaper. Posting it on the Internet would not suffice, his office said.

But political analysts, politicians and supporters say that the president does not have to change as long as the mood for change stops with the political elite, and that the troubles so far have not undermined his support among the pious poor. He continues to be popular, they say, seen as a man of principle and good intention, though that may be wearing thin.

South of Tehran, near the Imam Khomeini International Airport, in a neighborhood called Robat Karim, people were without gas for days last month, and they continue to suffer cuts in power at midday and at night, residents said.

Iran’s natural gas shortage became a crisis when Turkmenistan, to the north, cut off supplies in December over a pricing dispute. Iran does not have the refining capacity to meet its own needs.

Robat Karim is a conservative neighborhood, wary of foreigners, and supportive of the president. But with streets that have not been cleared of snow, and the cold nights, nerves have frayed.

“I have a tenant in an apartment upstairs, and there was no gas for days,” said Nour Asadzade, 70, a shopkeeper in the neighborhood. “He asked me to help, but I said, What can I do, it’s in the hands of the government.”

Outside, a 52-year-old woman stepped carefully around the ice, the potholed road and the puddles. “I want to say, ‘No, they don’t pay attention to us.’ ” She said her name was Akram, then grew frightened and slipped into her house.

For years it seemed that Iran was evolving away from a state defined exclusively by revolutionary ideology. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, himself a father of the revolution, emphasized pragmatic economic ties. His successor, Mohammad Khatami, eased up on social restrictions and called for a “dialogue of civilizations.”

Then came Mr. Ahmadinejad, who rose from a new generation, a class of men who fought in the eight-year war with Iraq, and who have since moved to roll back Iran to a time when revolutionary ideology defined the state. For example, Kaveh Bayat, a historian, said the desire to export the revolution was back.

“The idea that you have to export the revolution or you will cease to exist is another deeply ingrained element — it was dormant during Rafsanjani and Khatami but it is awake again,” Mr. Bayat said. “We tried to forget it, but it is back.”

President Ahmadinejad so changed the direction of the state that it has led many to assert that three decades after the revolution, Iran remains a place defined by individuals, not institutions.

Nearly everyone seems to recognizes that one of the biggest problems is the nature of the political system — divided as it is among multiple factions, each striving for access to power. It is not one devised to build compromise, and the internal fighting can send confused messages to the outside world. “It would make our job a lot easier, if only they could agree,” said a Western diplomat based in Tehran who spoke on the condition of anonymity, which is standard diplomatic protocol.

Another diplomat said, “I am stunned by their emotion and antagonism they demonstrate in their fighting with each other.”

At least two views exist about where this is leading. One view is that Mr. Ahmadinejad and his radical allies needed to come to power to see that ideology cannot be a successful guide to running a modern state like Iran. The economic hardships, according to this view, will ultimately moderate or marginalize them. “They come into the center of power and they realize running a country like Iran is difficult,” said a business consultant and political analyst in Tehran who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution.

“This specific topic, the management of gas resources, hits every home,” the consultant said. “I think with this, the system as a whole has reached a climax.”

Another view holds that Mr. Ahmadinejad and his ideologically driven allies will not give up power, and will not be driven from power. “From a social point of view, we have a social structure in place for the emergence of fascism,” Mr. Bayat, the historian, said. “Like Europe in the 1920s, we have a dissatisfied proletariat looking for radical and extreme solutions. Ahmadinejad is not imposed on us.”

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