I do, however, live my life by the Boy Scouts motto: Be Prepared.
With that as prelude, Affe asked me if I wanted to join him in a visit to the range today and though I was feeling lethargic , I figured I needed to continue learning about how the new M1A shoots. Also, at about the time that Affe's email arrived I was reading the NY Times Sunday Magazine and had skimmed over a story titled
"Whose Iran? President Ahmadinejad may not be all that popular. And the tension between theocracy and democracy may be reaching a crisis."
I've pasted the story below, as it's not a bad story (continuing my love/hate relationship with the NY Times-I hate their overt and hysterical leftist bias but they are unmatched in the quality of many of their stories) and there was even a nice picture of President Hairy Bunghole (as Affe calls him), as seen here
I've been pretty clear over the course of the last year's posts here about my feelings for President Hairy Bunghole. I take his threats against Jews and Israel seriously and I think he should be terminated as soon as possible. In fact, if he were to ever be in an area that gave me access to a shot at him, I would take the opportunity to do to him what he has promised to do to my people. I would have no concern about losing my own life or liberty in the process, as I would see that as a fair trade.
In fact, one could say that my years of training in firearms use has been for exactly such a purpose, and the M1A that I bought was purchased with this kind of use in mind.
Thus, Affe's invitation came at just the right time, as the image of President Hairy Bunghole set my shooting juices to a boil.
I grabbed the M1A, a few clips of 7.62 ammo and my long-neglected 1943 German 98K Mauser (second from top in the picture below) and cut the picture of President Hairy Bunghole from the Times to take it for some fresh air.
I know that many ranges don't like shooters putting up pictures of people on targets, as one never knows who is at the range and who will take offense at a picture of a person being used as a target. Luckily, the picture was small, about the size of a large postage stamp, and I figured I could tape it next to a Shoot n see type of target and not have anyone notice.
It was a fine day of shooting and I proudly present the results of my day at the range with President Hair Bunghole. Please click on the picture to get an enlargement, as you'll need that to see just how good the shooting was. I had 20 rounds in the M1A clip and fired them off in about as close to rapid fire fashion as you can get away with at the local ranges (less than 1 second between shots).
This may be the best high volume, precision shooting I've ever done.
The first three rounds fired are off to the left of the picture. I then quickly adjusted and I can count seven rounds clustered at the bottom of the picture. Those 10 shots were ranging shots and when I saw that the last seven were grouping low, I adjusted and put the next 10 right into the center of President Hairy Bunghole's face.
The target was, of course, at 100 yards.
The quarter is there for size comparison purposes.
I hope one day to be able to see if my shooting is this good on the actual President Hairy Bunghole.
The Mahestan mall in South Tehran is sometimes called “the honeycomb” of the Basij, the Iranian youth militia, because it is here that Basijis, as the militia members are known, buy and sell banners for the Shiite festival of Ashura, as well as religious books and posters. Somber, bearded young men in collarless shirts linger over tea behind stands selling tapes of religious singers — cult celebrities who belt out tear-jerking laments for the martyrdom of Hussein and make a small fortune performing at memorial services. Omid Malekian, a 28-year-old employee of a Tehran petrochemical refinery and the son of a carpenter, was shopping at Mahestan on Dec. 16, the day after Iran’s elections for city councils and for the Assembly of Experts, the 86-member clerical board that will select the next supreme leader should anything happen to the current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the 2005 presidential election, Malekian voted for the winner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and when I asked if he was happy with the president, he answered frankly.
“Sometimes I am analyzing myself and thinking, Oh, we have done wrong,” he mused. “He is very popular and friendly with the people, but sometimes when he is expressing his ideas, he doesn’t think about the future or the consequences. He is a simple man.”
In particular, Malekian suggested that Ahmadinejad had been incautious in his promises to improve the economy — promises he has yet to keep. There was another area, too, in which Ahmadinejad had faltered: “About the Holocaust,” he said. “I don’t know much about it, but from the reaction of the world, it seems he should have said something different.”
Still, Malekian said that he voted for the most severe fundamentalist among the candidates running for the clerical Assembly of Experts. The campaign turned on the competition between two incumbents, Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi — widely reputed to be Ahmadinejad’s spiritual leader — and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the pragmatic former president who lost the presidential race to Ahmadinejad in 2005. Each hoped to increase his share of the vote and thus his power on the assembly.
South Tehran is Ahmadinejad’s heartland. It is here, in the less affluent neighborhoods of the city of 14 million where he was once mayor, that he rose from the obscure end of the seven-candidate roster in 2005, only to become one of the most popular figures in the Muslim world. Because liberal-minded Iranians boycotted the 2005 presidential election, and because Ahmadinejad so adeptly played the populist card, the militants, the unemployed and the cultural conservatives of neighborhoods like this one were in the driver’s seat, steering the politics of this crucial nation while their opponents warned of their presumed doctrinaire views and political naïveté.
Early on, Ahmadinejad’s faction was expected to win last month’s elections handily. But the results contradicted the conventional wisdom about the Iranian electorate. The president put forward his own slate of candidates for the city councils. It was trounced. By some reckonings, reformists won two-fifths of the council seats and even dominated in some cities, including Kerman and Arak. Some conservative city-council candidates did well, particularly in Tehran, but they were not the conservatives associated with Ahmadinejad: rather, they belonged to the rival conservative faction of the current Tehran mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. And most significant, the vote for Rafsanjani for the Assembly of Experts dwarfed that of Mesbah-Yazdi by nearly two to one. By mid-January, Ahmadinejad’s isolation even within his own faction was complete: 150 of 290 members of parliament, including many of Ahmadinejad’s onetime allies, signed a letter criticizing the president’s economic policies for failing to stanch unemployment and inflation. A smaller group also blamed Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory foreign-policy rhetoric for the United Nations Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. As if that were not enough, an editorial in Jomhouri Eslami, a newspaper that reflects the views of the supreme leader, accused the president of using the nuclear issue to distract the public from his failed policies. Ahmadinejad’s behavior was diminishing popular support for the nuclear program, the editorial warned. The Iranian political system seems to be restoring its equilibrium by showing an extremist president the limits of his power. But is it an equilibrium that can hold?
In part, last month’s election results reflected the complexity of Ahmadinejad’s skeptical, conditional and diverse constituency. They also demonstrated his isolation within the powerful conservative establishment, whose politics, however opaque, are determinative. At its center, Khamenei commands a faction known as the traditional conservatives. No elected leader can serve, let alone execute a policy agenda, without the acquiescence of the supreme leader and his associates. But was Ahmadinejad one of the leader’s associates? Or was he, like his predecessor, Khatami, something of a political rival? The answer to this question should determine the extent to which Ahmadinejad’s foreign-policy extremism and authoritarian tendencies are taken seriously as a political program. But it is a puzzle that has vexed political analysts since the president took office in August 2005, bringing with him a faction that was largely new to the post-revolutionary political scene. Composed partly of military and paramilitary elements, partly of extremist clerics like Mesbah-Yazdi and partly of inexperienced new conservative politicians, those in Ahmadinejad’s faction are often called “neoconservatives.” But to the extent that they have an ideology, it is less new than old, harking back to the early days of the Islamic republic. Since that time, the same elite has largely run Iranian politics, though it has divided itself into competing factions, and the act of wielding power has mellowed many hard-liners into pragmatists. Ahmadinejad’s faction, on the other hand, came into power speaking the language of the past but with the zeal of the untried.
In 2005, many analysts believed that Ahmadinejad’s elevation to the presidency must have been sanctioned by the supreme leader — indeed, that it reflected a hardening agenda among the traditional conservatives. He would be the “secretary” of Khamenei, a number of reformists said to me that summer in Tehran. But the way Ahmadinejad governed was nothing if not divisive. He undertook the most far-reaching governmental housecleaning since the revolution itself, reportedly replacing as many as 20,000 bureaucrats. And when it came time for the elections last month, he offered his own slates of candidates, disdaining to ally himself with the traditional conservatives or with anyone else. For the Assembly of Experts, Ahmadinejad endorsed a ticket of scholars from what is known as the Haqqani circle, a group of clerics who cleave strongly to the notion of the divine state and disdain popular sovereignty and democracy.
The senior figure in this circle, Mesbah-Yazdi, already belonged to the assembly. But in the fall of 2006, buoyed by association with the populist president, his group put forward a wave of candidates in a bid to transform the assembly. Even after the Guardian Council — an appointed body that answers to the supreme leader and that vets candidates and legislation — had disqualified almost half the proposed candidates, including most of the reformists and a large number of Mesbah-Yazdi’s students, clerics associated with Mesbah-Yazdi still stood a reasonable chance of winning dozens of the 86 seats. It was here that the ideological contest of the Ahmadinejad presidency was starkest. Were the public and the leadership ready to accept Mesbah-Yazdi’s brand of extremism along with the populism Ahmadinejad had served up? And what did it mean if they were not?
The 97-mile stretch of highway from Tehran southwest to Qom passes through a cratered landscape of magnificent desolation to the basin between a salt marsh and a desert at the foot of the Zagros Mountains. Middle-class, educated Tehranis often scorn and even fear Qom as the center of religious Puritanism and political repression. But for pious Shiites in Iran and elsewhere, the city is a pilgrimage destination, home to one of the holiest Shiite shrines, most of the living Shiite marjas (senior religious figures, literally “sources of imitation”) and more than 50 seminaries, institutions that long pre-existed universities in Iran and where the works of the Greek philosophers have for centuries been studied alongside religious texts. Students, who number some 40,000, enter Qom at an average age of 17. Some of them continue their studies for decades, as Shiite religious learning has no set end point. Since the Islamic revolution, the seminary city has thrived as the government has spent lavishly on mosques and dormitories, nearly all with the same pale brick and blue tile facades. In recent years, Qom has absorbed waves of Shiite immigrants from Afghanistan and Iraq. There is an Iraqi bazaar not far from the holy shrine, and the sight of men in Arab dishdashas is commonplace.
Mesbah-Yazdi has a major presence here in the form of the Imam Khomeini Institute, the enormous seminary of which Mesbah-Yazdi is the head scholar. It holds Iran’s most extensive library of scholarly books in English, totaling 11,200 volumes. It is the envy of the universities in Tehran. Mesbah-Yazdi, a fellow cleric told me, believed that it was important to understand Western ideas to better resist and refute them.
Born in 1934, Mesbah-Yazdi is an éminence grise among the ayatollahs of Qom, but age has not mellowed him. In the last decade he has become famous less for his learned philosophical exegeses (he posts his entry in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy on his Web site) than for his jeremiads at Friday prayers against popular sovereignty, free speech, women’s rights and Islamic reform. Public execution and flogging are “a basic principle of Islam,” Mesbah-Yazdi has said, and the government should regulate the content of speech “just as it checks the distribution of adulterated or contaminated foodstuffs.” Because “Mesbah” sounds like the Farsi word for crocodile, he is known by his critics as Ayatollah Crocodile. (A cartoonist was once imprisoned for depicting him as a reptile, shedding crocodile tears as he strangled a dissident writer with his tail.)
At Ahmadinejad’s invitation, members of Mesbah-Yazdi’s Haqqani circle occupy several key government posts. But before Ahmadinejad came to power, they had been pushed mostly to the margins of Iranian politics, where they complained bitterly about the efforts of the reformist Khatami and his colleagues to advance their agenda through the elected branches of government. To the Haqqani scholars, it seemed that the reformists were challenging the doctrine of velayat-i-faqih, which is based on the sovereign power of the chief jurist, the supreme leader. “We shall wait to see what place these foxes who claim to be the supporters of reform will occupy in hell,” Mesbah-Yazdi proclaimed. If Iranians believed in their supreme leader as the agent of God, second-guessing his judgment through elections was tantamount to holding a referendum on whether or not Damavand was the highest peak in Iran. What if 51 percent of the public said that it was not? “It doesn’t matter what the people think,” Mesbah-Yazdi was quoted as saying. “The people are ignorant sheep.” He has also said, “Islam was the government of God, not the government of the people.”
Mesbah-Yazdi’s most open and media-friendly acolyte, Ayatollah Mohsen Gharavian, did not put the matter quite so strongly when, draped in the encompassing Iranian chador, I met with him in an unadorned office at a small seminary on one of Qom’s dusty side streets.
“In the name of God, the beneficent and merciful,” Gharavian intoned, “before coming to the main question and answer, I want to know where you got this chador. Is it from the United States or Iran?”
From Iran, I told him.
“Congratulations on seeing you in a very Islamic manner,” Gharavian replied.
For a cleric who had been quoted as saying that despotism was not all bad and that public opinion was meaningless, Gharavian, who teaches philosophy at the Imam Khomeini Institute, did not have a severe presence. Rather, he was a big, courteous man of 54 with a reddish beard. The election to the Assembly of Experts was just a day away, and Gharavian was the hard-line candidate for the hard-line city of Qom. Still, he expected to lose, and he did lose. Amiably, he remarked that he had run and lost before, and that to win would have required a financial outlay of which he disapproved.
When it came to politics, he spoke mostly in evasions and platitudes. Democracy, he explained, was acceptable within the boundaries of Islam, and human rights were contained within Islam, but such rights should not include freedom of worship or freedom to believe things that are untrue or unwise. (His examples were the misguided beliefs of Nietzsche and Machiavelli.) The Islamic penal code required no modification in the modern era; its harshest punishments, he asserted, were no more violent than some American and European spectator sports. He appeared shocked by the suggestion that Iran held political prisoners and demanded an example. I offered the journalist Akbar Ganji, imprisoned for six years on account of his critical writings. Gharavian replied: “Did you read Mr. Ganji’s manifesto? He questioned the whole establishment.” Freedom of expression, he explained, did not include the freedom to “breach the peace of the society.” He demanded, “Don’t you have prisoners in your country?”
Mesbah-Yazdi’s statements on most of these matters were a matter of public record, and they were even blunter. “If someone tells you he has a new interpretation of Islam, hit him in the mouth,” he said in 2000. Two years later, he said, “The prophets of God did not believe in pluralism. They believed that only one idea was right.” On Sept. 4, 1999, he said: “Killing hypocrites does not require a court order, as it is a duty imposed by the Shariah on all genuine Muslims. The order of Islam is to throw them down from a high mountain and kill them outright.” He spoke the following month of the need to break the unnecessary taboo on violence.
If such a taboo existed in the Islamic republic, it had been broken. That year, a string of dissidents were murdered under suspicious circumstances. In the writings that led to his prison sentence, Ganji accused Mesbah-Yazdi of sanctifying such actions with whispered fatwas and members of the Haqqani circle of direct involvement in the murders. A member of the shadowy vigilante group Ansar-e Hezbollah, which had violently attacked student demonstrators in July 1999, lent credence to Ganji’s claims with videotaped testimony in which he said that Mesbah-Yazdi had encouraged the group to assassinate a reformist politician. “Now, on the issue of whether I authorized the assassination of individuals,” Mesbah-Yazdi declared unapologetically in March 2001, “I must say that Imam Khomeini, may God be satisfied with him, issued a decree saying that shedding Salman Rushdie’s blood was a religious obligation and, therefore, he advocated resorting to violence as well.”
Why Ahmadinejad would ally himself with these clerics remains something of a mystery. Contrary to popular belief, says Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University and a childhood friend of the president, Ahmadinejad never expounded a particularly conservative moral or social agenda. Rather, says Hadian, Ahmadinejad was and continues to be inspired above all by Ali Shariati, the mid-20th-century theorist of radical Islamic egalitarianism. The president’s agenda is redistributionist and anti-imperialist, Hadian says. That doesn’t make him a democrat. Nonetheless, “he is basically using Mesbah,” Hadian says. It is an alliance of political convenience.
Alireza Haghighi, a political scientist who teaches at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, agrees that the association between Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi has been overstated. But in an article he wrote with his colleague Victoria Tahmasebi in International Journal, Haghighi documented yet another Ahmadinejad genesis story. Young Ahmadinejad led a politically and religiously conservative Islamist student group during the Islamic Revolution, the writers claim. When the leftist Islamist students proposed seizing the American Embassy in 1979, Ahmadinejad opposed the action as imprudent, but he suggested that if they went ahead with it, they should seize the Soviet Embassy as well. His plan rejected, Ahmadinejad found himself excluded from historic events and spurned by the Islamic left, which was at that time a powerful faction within the regime. His opposition to that faction ossified into a vendetta.
Soon after Khomeini’s death, the Islamic left lost the factional battle for dominance. Its members wandered eight years in the political wilderness before returning as the reform movement. That, too, Ahmadinejad was anxious to crush. In that aspiration he would have found ample common ground with the Haqqani circle.
As president, Ahmadinejad looked to the extreme right rather than seeking allies among the traditional conservatives, and in so doing, he exposed himself politically. “They were very arrogant,” Hadian said of Ahmadinejad and his camp. “They didn’t want to make any compromises. He has stood against the entire political structure in Iran, not inviting any of them, even the conservatives, to be partners. You don’t see them in the cabinet; you don’t see them in political positions.”
And for that there was a price to be paid. This fall, Rafsanjani, who had suffered a humiliating defeat at Ahmadinejad’s hands in the presidential election of 2005, was reportedly persuaded to run again for the Assembly of Experts by the supreme leader or people close to him. Rafsanjani is a divisive figure in Iranian politics. He is widely perceived as a kingmaker, the power behind the rise of Khamenei to the position of supreme leader and that of Khatami to the presidency. But though he remains highly respected among clerics, Rafsanjani is not a beloved figure in Iranian public life. During his presidency, he adopted an economic liberalization program that involved extremely unpopular austerity measures; meanwhile, through pistachio exports, he had himself become one of the richest men in Iran. Political and social repression did not ease until Khatami, his successor, came into office.
Nonetheless, in the Assembly of Experts elections in December, Rafsanjani emerged as the compromise candidate of the reformists and traditional conservatives. One reformist activist described him to me as the very last line of defense against the extreme right. And Rafsanjani delivered a staggering blow, winning nearly twice as many votes as Mesbah-Yazdi. The neoconservatives, it seemed, had been slapped down much the same way the reformists had: the traditional conservatives had decided that the threat they posed was intolerable, and the voters had decided that the president associated with them could not deliver on his promises.
On the morning of Election Day, Dec. 15, there were long lines outside the polling places in central and east Tehran. A crowd milled about the front courtyard of Masjed al Nabi, a large mosque in the east. There were children, a television camera and a seller of balloons in the shape of rabbit ears. A middle-aged couple stood by the sinks normally used for ablutions; the woman wore a long, tailored raincoat and a conservative black scarf. Her husband explained that the election was very important to them. “We are choosing our future,” he said through an interpreter. He was too sick, really, to move, but he had told his doctor that he could not forgo his civic duty to participate in the election.
Then I asked him if he saw big differences among the candidates for Assembly of Experts. “No,” he said, “they are all the same.”
What about the ones for city council?
“No,” he replied. “They are all the same, too.”
It is nearly impossible to have a political discussion with only one person on an Iranian street. Outside Masjed al Nabi, the first interloper was a clean-cut 35-year-old man in a plaid shirt who gave his name as Ali. “How can you say they are all the same?” he nearly shouted at the man who had been speaking. “We have candidates who are like the Taliban and others who are practically liberals. We have candidates who think women should be free and others who do not think so at all.”
“I never heard of a thing like that,” the first man said calmly. “The country has laws to decide these matters.”
To my right, a woman in a chador heatedly exclaimed: “He’s right! How can you say they are all the same? That’s why we’re here to vote, because they are all different. Our new president, Ahmadinejad, before the election he said women were free and equal. Now he says we should just make babies. Because he wanted our votes, he said good things.”
The original couple took advantage of the hubbub to slip away. Mohammad, a 37-year-old in a running jacket, pushed his way into our circle. “I am not voting,” he told me. “I want to choose my freedom. I don’t want to vote for them. I’m sure that whether I vote or not, it makes no difference. I don’t accept the Constitution of this country, and I hope I can change it without voting.”
Ali was listening intently. “The people who are good in this thing accept the vote of the people not just for show and not just on Election Day,” he told Mohammad. “Even in America it is the same; everywhere in the world it is. Everywhere in the world there are some people who are pro-democracy and others who are against it. Now people are more educated. One day, our democracy will be better than democracy in the United States, if we believe in it. We like our religion, our imams, God and Islam. We want democracy next to this. We don’t believe in democracy and freedom the way it exists in other parts of the world. We want something of our own.”
It was 5 o’clock when I left the crowded mosques of middle-class central and east Tehran for the deserted polling places of the affluent northern hills. In Tajrish, an election official told me that he had seen just 200 voters — far fewer than in the presidential election less than two years ago. “All the mullahs are the same,” he confided. “Everything always gets worse. Ahmadinejad is like a catalyst, speeding it up. The philosophical foundation of the state is not good.”
The debates among ordinary voters go to the heart of a structural weakness in the Iranian state. Founded on two conflicting ideas — the sovereignty of the people and divinely inspired clerical rule — the Islamic Republic of Iran has suffered from a decadelong crisis of legitimacy. Nothing forced that crisis quite the way the reform movement did, despite, or perhaps even because of, its cautious temperament and legalistic methods. Over the course of Khatami’s presidency, Iranians were faced with an inevitable question: What use was a supreme leader in a democracy, and what use were elections in a theocracy? The rise of Ahmadinejad, then his comeuppance, have forced those questions from the other direction. How far could the conservatives go in the authoritarian direction, and if not all the way, why not?
“In a sense, many people, including myself, we believe that Mesbah is right,” Sadegh Zibakalam, a reformist Tehran University professor, reflected when I visited him at his mother’s home in north Tehran in December. “Trying to make an amalgam of Western, liberal, democratic ideas and Shiite theology is nonsense. It doesn’t work.”
Later, he added: “Either Khamenei is infallible, or he’s not. If he’s not, then he is an ordinary person like Bush or Blair, answerable to the Parliament and the people. If he is, then we should throw away all this nonsense about Western values and liberal democracy. Either we have Western liberal philosophy, republican government and checks and balances, or we should stick to Mesbah. But to combine them? Imam Khomeini was so popular and charismatic. People rallied behind him and believed he was infallible. We never thought, What if the supreme leader is not supported by the people? The answer to this was brilliantly made by Mesbah: to hell with them.”
Zibakalam described Mesbah-Yazdi’s reading of velayat-i-faqih as a radical version of the one first proposed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But when I looked back through the lectures in which Khomeini first delineated the theory in Najaf in 1970, I found a vision strikingly similar to Mesbah-Yazdi’s. At that time, Khomeini had little truck with popular sovereignty. He quoted the Koran and sayings attributed to Muhammad: “The prophet has higher claims on the believers than their own selves” and “The scholars are the heirs of the prophet.” The only legitimate legislation was that which had already been made by God, and this would be administered by the learned jurist, who would rule over the people like a guardian over a child.
Nine years later, from his Paris exile during the revolution, Khomeini would approve a constitution drafted by more liberal associates. It was the blueprint for a parliamentary democracy, in which a council of clergymen would play an advisory role. This draft became the basis for the debate that occupied the first Assembly of Experts, convened to revise and approve a final constitution. After much discussion of the contradictions it engendered, the experts, many of them clerics, nonetheless yoked velayat-i-faqih to the republican structure they had been handed.
To this day, the structure of the Iranian state remains too liberal for the authoritarians and too authoritarian for the liberals, but the traditional conservatives at the center of power cannot resolve this obvious paradox at the republic’s heart without relinquishing their own position. The best they could do was to revise the Constitution after Khomeini’s death, greatly expanding the powers of the clerical councils and of the supreme leader at the expense of the elected offices.
Clerics I spoke to from the traditional conservative camp associated with Khamenei were paternalistic in their view of the state rather than outright authoritarian. They seemed to genuinely believe in a limited form of popular sovereignty — guided, of course, by Islamic scholars so that the people would not fall into error but nonetheless necessary for the legitimacy of the state.
It was this traditional conservative establishment that the reformists, many of them clerics, hoped to transform by introducing new policies through the legal channels of the state and by persuading jurists to assimilate new ideas about rights and freedoms into their interpretations of the sacred texts. One of the leading reformist theorists, Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, explained to me: “Many nations have influenced our jurisprudence. We could set aside some of the decrees of Islam today and bring some Western laws to replace them. This doesn’t make us infidels.”
After eight years in power, the reform movement found itself blocked by the conservative establishment, hamstrung by its own mistakes and unwilling or unable to shore up the failing economy. Ahmadinejad rose in its wake, campaigning not on ideological extremism but on populist blandishments. He would ease the financial pain of his countrymen, he promised, by bringing Iran’s oil wealth to the people’s tables.
As Omid Malekian had intimated to me at the Mahestan shopping mall, however, this was not a promise to make lightly. The Iranian economy has been mismanaged at least since the revolution, and to fix it would require measures no populist would be willing to take. Under Ahmadinejad, inflation has risen; foreign investors have scorned Iranian markets, fearing political upheaval or foreign invasion; the Iranian stock market has plummeted; Iranian capital has fled to Dubai. Voters I talked to pointed to the prices of ordinary foodstuffs when they wanted to explain their negative feelings about the government. According to Iranian news sources, from January to late August 2006 the prices of fruits and vegetables in urban areas rose by 20 percent. A month later, during Ramadan, the price of fruit reportedly doubled while that of chicken rose 10 percent in mere days. Housing prices in Tehran have reached a record high. Unemployment is still widespread. And Ahmadinejad’s approval rating, as calculated by the official state television station, had dipped to 35 percent in October.
Iran is not a poor country. It is highly urbanized and modern, with a sizable middle class. Oil revenues, which Iran has in abundance, should be channeling plenty of hard currency into the state’s coffers, and in fact the economy’s overall rate of growth is healthy and rising. But as Parvin Alizadeh, an economist at London Metropolitan University, explained to me, what ultimately matters is how the state spends its influx of wealth. The Iranian government has tried to create jobs swiftly and pacify the people by spending the oil money on new government-run projects. But these projects are not only overmanned and inefficient, like much of the country’s bloated and technologically backward public sector; they also increase the demand for consumer goods and services, driving up inflation.
Ahmadinejad has continued this trend. He has generated considerable personal good will in poorer communities, but hardly anyone I asked could honestly say that their lives had gotten better during his presidency. He fought to lower interest rates, which drove up lending, leading to inflation and capital flight. The government cannot risk infuriating the public with the austerity measures that would be required in order to solve its deep-rooted economic problems. But as long as its short-term fixes continue to fail, the government will go on being unpopular. The last two presidents have lost their constituencies over this issue. And so officials seek to distract people from their economic woes with ideological posturing and anti-Western rhetoric. Not only has this lost its cachet with much of the Iranian public, it also serves to compound Iran’s economic problems by blackening its image abroad. “Iran has not sorted out its basic problem, which is to be accepted in the international community as a respectable government,” Alizadeh said. “Investors do not take it seriously. This is a political crisis, not an economic crisis.”
For a Western traveler in Iran these days, it is hard to avoid a feeling of cognitive dissonance. From a distance, the Islamic republic appears to be at its zenith. But from the street level, Iran’s grand revolutionary experiment is beset with fragility. The state is in a sense defined by its contradictions, both constitutional and economic. It cannot be truly stable until it resolves them, and yet if it tries to do so, it may not survive.