New York Times: When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected president, he said Iran had more important issues to worry about than how women dress. He even called for allowing women into soccer games, a revolutionary idea for revolutionary Iran. Today, Iran is experiencing the most severe crackdown on social behavior and dress in years, and women are often barred from smoking in public, let alone attending a stadium event. The New York Times
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
Published: September 24, 2007
TEHRAN When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected president, he said Iran had more important issues to worry about than how women dress. He even called for allowing women into soccer games, a revolutionary idea for revolutionary Iran.
Today, Iran is experiencing the most severe crackdown on social behavior and dress in years, and women are often barred from smoking in public, let alone attending a stadium event.
Since his inauguration two years ago, Mr. Ahmadinejad has grabbed headlines around the world, and in Iran, for outrageous statements that often have no more likelihood of being put into practice than his plan for women to attend soccer games. He has generated controversy in New York in recent days by asking to visit ground zero a request that was denied and his scheduled appearance at Columbia University has drawn protests.
But it is because of his provocative remarks, like denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, that the United States and Europe have never known quite how to handle him. In demonizing Mr. Ahmadinejad, the West has served him well, elevating his status at home and in the region at a time when he is increasingly isolated politically because of his go-it-alone style and ineffective economic policies, according to Iranian politicians, officials and political experts.
Political analysts here say they are surprised at the degree to which the West focuses on their president, saying that it reflects a general misunderstanding of their system.
Unlike in the United States, in Iran the president is not the head of state nor the commander in chief. That status is held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, whose role combines civil and religious authority. At the moment, this presidents power comes from two sources, they say: the unqualified support of the supreme leader, and the international condemnation he manages to generate when he speaks up.
The United States pays too much attention to Ahmadinejad, said an Iranian political scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. He is not that consequential.
That is not to say that Mr. Ahmadinejad is insignificant. He controls the mechanics of civil government, much the way a prime minister does in a state like Egypt, where the real power rests with the president. He manages the budget and has put like-minded people in positions around the country, from provincial governors to prosecutors. His base of support is the Basiji militia and elements of the Revolutionary Guards.
But Mr. Ahmadinejad has not shown the same political acumen at home as he has in riling the West. Two of his ministers have quit, criticizing his stewardship of the state. The head of the central bank resigned. The chief judge criticized him for his management of the government. His promise to root out corruption and redistribute oil wealth has run up against entrenched interests.
Even a small bloc of members of Parliament that once aligned with Mr. Ahmadinejad has largely given up, officials said. Maybe it comes as a surprise to you that I voted for him, said Emad Afrough, a conservative member of Parliament. I liked the slogans demanding justice.
But he added: You cannot govern the country on a personal basis. You have to use public knowledge and consultation.
Rather than focusing so much attention on the president, the West needs to learn that in Iran, what matters is ideology Islamic revolutionary ideology, according to politicians and political analysts here. Nearly 30 years after the shah fell in a popular revolt, Irans supreme leader also holds title of guardian of the revolution.
Mr. Ahmadinejads power stems not from his office per se, but from the refusal of his patron, Ayatollah Khamenei, and some hard-line leaders, to move beyond Irans revolutionary identity, which makes full relations with the West impossible. There are plenty of conservatives and hard-liners who take a more pragmatic view, wanting to retain revolutionary values while integrating Iran with the world, at least economically. But they are not driving the agenda these days, and while that could change, it will not be the president who makes that call.
Iran has never been interested in reaching an accommodation with the United States, the Iranian political scientist said. It cannot reach an accommodation as long as it retains the current structure.
Another important factor restricts Mr. Ahmadinejads hand: while ideology defines the state, the revolution has allowed a particular class to grow wealthy and powerful.
When Mr. Ahmadinejad was first elected, it appeared that Irans hard-liners had a monopoly on all the levers of power. But today it is clear that Mr. Ahmadinejad is not a hard-liner in the traditional sense. His talk of economic justice and a redistribution of wealth, for example, ran into a wall of existing vested interests, including powerful clergy members and military leaders.
Ahmadinejad is a phenomenon, said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president under the more moderate administration of Mohammad Khatami. On a religious level he is much more of a hard-liner than the traditional hard-liners. But on a political level, he does not have the support of the hard-liners.
In the long run, political analysts here say, a desire to preserve those vested interests will drive Irans agenda. That means that the allegiance of the political elite is to the system, not a particular president. If this president were ever perceived as outlasting his usefulness, he would probably take his place in history beside other presidents who failed to change the orientation of the system.
Iranians will go to the polls in less than two years to select a president. There are so many pressures on the electoral system here, few people expect an honest race. The Guardian Council, for example, controlled by hard-liners, must approve all candidates.
But whether Mr. Ahmadinejad wins or loses, there is no sense here in Iran that the outcome will have any impact on the fundamentals of Irans relations with the world or the governments relation to its own society.
The situation will get worse and worse, said Saeed Leylaz, an economist and former government official. We are moving to a point where no internal force can change things.