Wednesday, August 3, 2005

A New Iranian President

On Saturday, Mahmud Ahmadinejad will be inaugurated as President of Iran. Today, Mr. Ahmadinejad received the official approval of the Islamic Republic’s “Supreme Guide” – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, allowing him to take office. Winning an election in the Islamic “Republic” does not mean much – a candidate could have the real approval of 99 percent of the voters and still be vetoed by the “Supreme Guide” or his mullah “Council of Guardians.”

The outgoing President, the ostensibly liberal Muhammad Khatami, despite the hopes of journalists and other right-thinking people in America and Europe, was little more than a time-server, because the presidency means nothing more than serving as a compliant lapdog for the mullahs. Mr. Ahmadinejad, the mullahs’ chosen standard-bearer, can be expected to be an even more obedient pet.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory in the runoff portion of the sham presidential election should have been no great surprise. With a collapsed economy, disaffected young people, a restive business class, riots in the major cities, and the Europeans and Americans pressing the mullahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions, it is no surprise at all that the clerical dictators would want to be certain of their total political control. Nevertheless, the decision of Iran’s rulers to go for total political power, and to lock out so-called “reformists” will prove in the long run to be a fatal error.

There is little doubt that the Mullahs rigged the results. The Iranian newspaper Kayhan, which parrots the Mullah line, published the news of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory even before the polls closed, just as they had done the week previously. Aides for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s defeated rival, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, have told the press that many of their supporters and observers at polling stations were arrested and beaten.

However, this is not to say that there was not quite a bit of genuine support for Mr. Ahmadinejad. Mr. Ahmadinejad was certainly the candidate of the regime’s enforcers, and most fanatic supporters, but he also seems to have had the support of many of those who have suffered most from the Islamic regime. While the mobs and mullahs were busy throwing out the Shah, killing dissidents, destroying the middle class, burning books and making a botch out of the war with Iraq, the economy has been contracting, rather than expanding, unlike the Iranian population, two-thirds of which is under 35. In the last elections, people voted, rationally enough, for a change, the so-called “reformer,” Khatami, who revealed his powerlessness by doing exactly nothing. People may be excused for thinking the reformers are worse than useless.

“Supreme Guide” Khamenei, known affectionately in Tehran as “Ali Shah” – because he’s really a Shah, just without the birthright-- stated after the polls had closed that any effort to bring people into the streets to protest the theft is just not in the national interest. Not in the demonstrators interest either, as Ali Shah was too nice to mention that such would get them killed, tortured or imprisoned. Michael Ledeen, as well informed as anybody in the West about events in Iran, quotes Iranian bloggers as saying Ali Shah called out the Basiji (the regime’s rent-a-mob that beats up students and dissidents) to stuff the ballot boxes claiming that “Islam is in danger and it is necessary to save it by any means.”

Of course the Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), the “eyes and ears of the Islamic Revolution” and the Basiji would support Mr. Ahmadinejad, because he is, after all, one of their own: in the early 80’s, Mr. Ahmadinejad was part of the “Internal Security” section of the Pasdaran, and rumor has it he was even one of the hostage takers when the Tehran “students” and other odds and sods and assorted rabble invaded the US embassy all those years ago.

Only in the context of a hopelessly ruined country like the Islamic Republic could Mr. Ahmadinejad’s defeated opponent, Mr. Rafsanjani, (who has old Pasdaran connections himself), be considered a “moderate.” Mr. Rafsanjani presided over the final repression of the Islamic Revolution’s fellow-traveler idiot “moderates” – secular and leftist republicans who thought they could sup with Satan Khomeini to cast out Devil Shah. While Mr. Rafsanjani was President, dissidents were tortured at home, and murdered abroad; Iranian backed terrorists helped blow up the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina; and the Iranian economy slide towards complete collapse, which began with the Revolution, accelerated.

But Mr. Rafsanjani’s Iran is likely to be paradise compared to what’s in store under Mr. Ahmadinejad. He has his work cut out for him. The Economist says that 200,000 Iranians are emigrating a year, and unemployment is at least 16 percent, possibly higher. Inflation is at least 17 percent per annum, possibly more.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said today that “[t]he deprived…and the poor people will be the first priority on my agenda.” Who knows what this means ? The mullahs hate capitalism. Iran is as closed an economy at present as the Soviet Union in its worst days. Barely a fifth of economic activity is in private hands. While the population has grown by a third since the end of the Shah, the economy, in real terms, has lost a seventh of its 1979 value. Things are going to get worse. Probably, judging on his conduct as Tehran mayor, Mr. Ahmadinejad will embark on a large-scale soak-the-rich campaign, and increase subsidies for food, housing, and the state controlled sectors of the economy.

The political costs of this are, for the moment, minimal. The middle and upper classes hate the regime anyway. The economic and human costs will be severe. Privatization, and foreign investment, such as it is (mostly European), is probably finished. Iran, with its vast resources, and its educated urban population, should be rich. In the Shah’s time, Iran was really developing, and considered a greater economic power than, say Turkey, with a real economic future. Today, Iran is on the royal road to basket-case status.

Mr. Ahmadinejad believes that people have “religious duties” rather than “human rights.” Personally, Mr. Ahmadinejad is said to be an “ascetic” who will seek to purge Iran of “corruption” – both of the financial variety, which is rampant, and of the “moral” type – that is elimination of anything that smacks of Westernization. Ladies: better ditch the booze, and buy your veils now, if you plan on staying. Far wiser if you get hold of your relatives in LA or Texas and join them.

A collision with the United States is imminent. The economy of Iran is imploding, and since the mullahs have locked out the reformists, there will be nobody to blame for the impending disaster. Consequently, the clerics need to whip up nationalism, so they can blame their difficulties on foreign enemies – that is, on us. The mullah government will put whatever cash isn’t spent on food subsidies for the urban poor into weapons: particularly of the nuclear variety. They will also, to the extent they are not doing this already, stir up the rebels in Iraq against the Americans, and the pro-American government there.

Long term, the only option left for the mullahs to maintain their regime will be to mortgage Iran to China. China has money enough, weapons enough and need for oil enough to be interested in propping up the mullahs. A small number of Chinese troops in Iran would buy the mullahs immunity from military problems with the United States.

In the end, however, this is going to be a sucker bet. Not even the Chinese have enough money to save the mullah regime from its fundamental irrationality. The mullahs are too old, and too hated by elite society and anybody who works for a living, to long survive. Eventually economic reality will catch up to them too, as it did to the Soviet Union, and even to China. Unfortunately, the landing will not be a soft one. By choking off all paths towards liberty or reform, Ali Shah and his gang have ensured that the revolution that unseats them will be a violent one. Ultimately, the “Supreme Leader” and his mullah gang will do little more than completely discredit the idea of Islamic religious government.

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