Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ahmadinejad the Surefooted Survivor?

By Nima Tamaddon

As Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sacks his inner advisers and launches controversial austerity cuts, IWPR’s Iran editor Nima Tamaddon argues that the president is still on top.

Cuts to the cumbersome and costly system of price subsidies were launched a month ago, yet perhaps surprisingly, there have been no protests by Iranians angered by the rising cost of living. At the same time, the Iranian president got rid of 14 special advisers, a few months after sacking his foreign minister, which seems to suggest political turbulence within the regime.

On the face of it, the Iranian president seems relatively unscathed by the economic and political challenges he’s faced at home. Is that true, or is he really under a lot more pressure than we think?

His position actually looks assured, for several reasons. First, he’s been successful in crushing or at least neutralising all the critical voices ranged against him. A year-and-a-half after the disputed presidential election, opposition activists and other dissidents are still being harassed on a routine basis.

Why has he now embarked on such a tough programme of cutting subsidies on fuel, food and other essentials?

Ahmadinejad and his government had long wished to reduce subsidies on water, bread, electricity, petrol and so on, as they urgently needed to save on expenditure in the face of international sanctions.

The actual timing – beginning in December 2010 – makes a lot of sense strategically.

Since cracking down hard on the protests that followed the 2009 election, the government has succeeding in keeping the streets quiet through a strong security presence. People were worn down by the months of fruitless protest. As one journalist in Tehran put it, the crackdown “vaccinated” the system against further revolts, at least for the short term.

But surely it’s Ahmadinejad’s core voter constituency among poorer Iranians that is going to be hardest hit by cuts which mean higher prices. If so, why has he decided on a measure that could cost him dear politically?

These subsidy cuts will hurt not only the poor but the middle class as well. People have received some compensation in the form of cash payments and cheap loans, which will be of most help to poorer people.

In televised speeches, Ahmadinejad often urges Iranians to become more thrifty – to save money and consume only what they need. He’s even argued that in the long run, his subsidy cuts will benefit low-income families as well as wealthier ones.

But I’d also say Ahmadinejad has been compelled to turn his back on the his poorer supporters because he has no other option left to him. The lack of foreign investment and the severe effects of sanctions have left his government running short on revenues. The programme of cuts should save the regime almost 100 billion US dollars a year.

There’s another point – the mindset of Ahmadinejad’s core supporters, who believe that no matter how tough things get, the main thing is that everyone suffers equally, rich or poor. That mentality, combined with a heavy security presence on the streets, means that no significant protests are likely in the foreseeable future.

When the reforms were put to the Iranian parliament, they faced considerable opposition. Is that still the case?

Since the Majlis began debating the subsidy bill in 2009, there was always some opposition to it. But since the plan came into effect on December 19, there’s been no significant opposition to it from parliament.

The same is true of the Shia clergy as well. As recently as September, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, one of the ten most senior clerics in Qom, accused the Ahmadinejad government of lying about the state of the economy by releasing figures that falsely suggested inflation was being curbed. A month later, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, visited Qom and urged defiant clerics to lend their backing a government that in his words was carrying “a lot of weight upon its shoulders”.

Once Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state in Iran, asked people to back the government and gave his personal endorsement to the subsidy cuts, that was that – the clerics and parliamentarians fell silent. There was simply no more leeway for expressing hostility to the plan.

Ahmadinejad recently dismissed the 14 special advisors whom many had viewed as almost an inner cabinet. Does that reflect internal conflict within the elite, and perhaps indicate that the president’s grip is loosening?

It does suggest there’s rivalry or conflict within the system, but it’s hard to conclude from this that Ahmadinejad is weak politically.

The fact is that the president has constantly reshuffled his cabinet in recent years; and frequently replaced those around him. He never explains why he’s done it. He removed Manouchehr Mottaki as foreign minister last autumn, and although it was clear no love was lost between the two men, Ahmadinejad didn’t articulate his future intentions clearly. It isn’t known whether he wants Ali Akbar Salehi, who has taken over in a caretaker role, to become the next foreign minister.

In the case of these 14 advisors, Ahmadinejad has been similarly reticent. But it certainly could be read as evidence of some kind of clash of interests.

First Vice-President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, who is seen as close to Ahmadinejad, is facing mounting allegations of corruption. Is that damaging for the president himself?

Ahmadinejad is very well aware that any pressure on Rahimi is ultimately aimed at him. If he defends him, he won’t want to end up in the line of fire himself.

This looks to me like a proxy war between Ahmadinejad and Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the former president who still holds positions of influence. Ahmadinejad and his allies have returned fire by accusing Rafsanjani family members of corruption. It’s the same tactic, used to redress the balance of power. 

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