Eight days after Barack Obama delivered his much-touted speech in Cairo, Iranians are going to the polls to vote for their own president. Although reelection for incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed to be guaranteed just a few weeks ago, there now appears to be growing potential for an upset victory by challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been running a campaign as the candidate of change.
Mousavi is no new-comer to the Iranian political stage. He held the now-defunct post of Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989 (which was, at the time, an executive position much akin to the current presidency) during Iran’s brutal eight-year war with Iraq. Currently the president of the Iranian Academy of Arts, the trilingual Mousavi – Farsi, Arabic, and English – served as a presidential adviser from 1989 to 2005 and held a position on the Expediency Council, Iran’s highest arbitration body.
In the American and European mainstream media, Iranian supporters of Mousavi are routinely referred to as “more educated,” “better off,” and “pro-Western” than their counterparts who support Ahmadinejad. The Iranian economy, which has seen rising inflation and slowed growth in the past four years, has become a major point of contention during the campaign process and recent debates. The President has been blamed for three rounds of UN Security Council sanctions, diminishing Iranian prestige and reputation internationally, and Mousavi even chided him as arrogant and driving Iran toward “dictatorship.”
Ahmadinejad’s detractors point to all these factors as proof of his failed leadership; however, a closer look into the accusations may reveal a different story – or, at least, a different perspective.
Ahmadinejad is a populist who is seen as having “a deep sympathy for the poor” and has worked very hard to redistribute wealth across the wide range of socioeconomic tiers of Iranian society. He has helped the poor and lower middle class by increasing pensions (sometimes by more than doubling them), loans, and government workers’ wages, also increasing and maintaining financial support for the families of those killed or wounded during the Iran-Iraq War. The New York Times reports that Ahmadinejad “has also handed out so-called justice shares of state firms that are selling stock to the public, and provided low-interest loans to young married couples and entrepreneurs.”
Still, opponents claim that his focus on redistribution, rather than creation, of wealth within Iran has harmed the Iranian economy and has resulted in increased unemployment, especially in Iran’s vast young population. Nevertheless, his supporters disagree. “Who says Ahmadinejad created unemployment?” twenty-five year old market worker Hamid Nassiri told the Times. “It’s not true at all. He is from the people, and he attends to the people’s needs.”
In fact, even though discussion of the Iranian economy seems to be working against Ahmadinejad, Kelly Campbell of the U.S. Institute of Peace has thoroughly debunked many of the myths about Iranian economic turmoil, explaining that the country has “actually performed well in aggregate terms, with a moderate rate of growth in the last ten to fifteen years, including healthy GDP and per capita growth in investment. In the last three years, Iran’s actual growth rate has averaged 5.8 percent.” Kelly continues,
Nor do economic indicators support assertions by some observers that inflation is much higher than the rate stated by the Iranian government. In the last fifteen years, the consumer price index (CPI) has increased by a factor of forty-two; if the inflation rate were actually twice the reported rate, the CPI would have increased by a factor of 950. Prices have increased by a factor of five in the last ten years, not twenty, as some claim. While this rate of inflation is cause for concern, it is in line with the depreciation of the exchange rate.
[Another] myth is that Iran suffers from widespread poverty and rising inequality. The poverty rate actually declined throughout the 1990s and continues to fall, and is low by international standards—especially when compared to that of other developing countries. Government public service and social assistance programs have helped to reduce poverty, particularly in rural areas. In addition, economic inequality throughout Iran has remained fairly stable and does not appear to be increasing.
Over the past few years, Ahmadinejad has also courted economic alliances with a number of Latin and South American nations, promising $1 billion to help develop Bolivia’s oil and gas sector, opening a trade office in Ecuador, and entering into various agreements with Nicaragua, Cuba, Paraguay, Brazil and, of course, Venezuela. Surprisingly, however, not all of these overtures have to do with oil trade. In 2007, Nicaragua received a loan of over $200 million from Iran to build a hydroelectric dam and, in August of last year, Ahmadinejad donated $2 million for the construction of a hospital. The Council of Hemispheric Affairs‘ Braden Webb reports that “Venezuela and Iran are now gingerly engaged in an ambitious joint project, putting on-line Veniran, a production plant that assembles 5,000 tractors a year, and plans to start producing two Iranian designed automobiles to provide regional consumers with the ‘first anti-imperialist cars.'”
Ahmadinejad’s inroads into Latin and South American, in order to act as “counter-lasso” to the United States, have certainly upped his anti-imperialism credentials – so much so, in fact, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the strong relations “disturbing.”
Mousavi, on the other hand, has set his sites closer to home, attacking Ahmadinejad for focusing on the Americas rather than “investing in Iran’s neighboring countries…the President has obviously failed to get his priorities right.” Mousavi, on the other hand, favors increased privatization and foreign investment. “We should create an economic revolution to fight inflation,” he said during a televised debate. “The private sector is a vital part of our plans to revive the country’s economy.” Believing that Ahmadinejad squandered excess oil revenue while in office, Mousavi insists, “The oil industry should improve. Right now our economy is solely restricted to oil exports without realizing that the oil industry is dependent on other economic sectors” and that “stable economic policies will help Iran to attract foreign investment.”
As a self-described reformist, Mousavi has rallied a strong following by calling for more freedom of the press, freedom of information, more professional opportunities for women, the abolition of the so-called “Morality Police,” as well as noting that “blinkered attitudes and false interpretations of Islamic teachings do not satisfy public interests and only trigger the country’s backwardness.” He wishes to push for more personal freedoms, lifting the state ban on private television stations, and also believes that the supervision of police and law enforcement forces should be handed over to the President, rather than remaining in the hands of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As to Mousavi’s claims that Ahmadinejad is dictatorial, the fact that Ahmadinejad has no control over Iran’s military, doesn’t have final say on foreign policy matters, has no power over the nuclear energy program, and has often been challenged by both the Majlis (Parliament) and Judiciary, quickly exposes those accusations as campaign rhetoric and name-calling. In fact, the Iranian legislature rejected more than two-thirds of Ahmadinejad’s recommendations for ministers which resulted in it taking almost a year before his Cabinet was fully staffed. Hardly the trajectory of a tyrant.
The view from the United States appears to be that, with a Mousavi win on Friday, relations between Iran and America will improve. Mousavi clearly strikes a more conciliatory tone when discussing international affairs than does Ahmadinejad, who has always been consistent in his insistance that Iran has every legal right to enrich uranium under the protocols of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that sanctions against Iran imposed by UN Security Council resolutions are themselves illegal.
“Our country was harmed because of extremist policies adopted in the last three years…My foreign policy with all countries will be one of detente,” Mousavi said after first announcing his candidacy. “We should try to gain the international community’s trust while preserving our national interests.” He has also said, “In foreign policy we have undermined the dignity of our country and created problems for our development.”
Nevertheless, the former prime minister insists that “Iran will never abandon its nuclear right” and echoes the statements of both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad when saying, “If America practically changes its Iran policy, then we will surely hold talks with them.”
It is clear that an electoral victory for Mousavi would be seen as a political victory for Barack Obama as well. It is assumed that Mousavi is more “rational and reasonable” than Ahmadinejad and would therefore be more amenable to Washington’s demands, regardless of how illegal and hypocritical those demands may be. As such, he is the preferred candidate by Western analysts and politicians.
But how different would the United States treat Iran, really?
Back in 2003, soon after the invasion of Iraq, the Iranian government sent a “proposal from Iran for a broad dialogue with the United States” and the fax suggested everything was on the table – including full cooperation on nuclear programs, acceptance of Israel and the termination of Iranian support for Palestinian militant groups.” Flynt Leverett, a senior director on the National Security Council staff at the time, described the Iranian proposal as “a serious effort, a respectable effort to lay out a comprehensive agenda for U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.” A Washington Post report from 2006 revealed that the document listed “a series of Iranian aims for the talks, such as ending sanctions, full access to peaceful nuclear technology and a recognition of its ‘legitimate security interests.’ Iran agreed to put a series of U.S. aims on the agenda, including full cooperation on nuclear safeguards, ‘decisive action’ against terrorists, coordination in Iraq, ending ‘material support’ for Palestinian militias and accepting the Saudi initiative for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The document also laid out an agenda for negotiations, with possible steps to be achieved at a first meeting and the development of negotiating road maps on disarmament, terrorism and economic cooperation.”
The proposal was roundly rejected by the Bush administration.
The then-government of reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami – now a Mousavi supporter – even voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment from 2003 to 2005 and still received nothing but lies and threats from the United States and its European allies. As Ahmadinejad recently pointed out, “There was so much begging for having three centrifuges. Today more than 7,000 centrifuges are turning,” and then asking, “Which foreign policy was successful? Which one created degradation? Which one kept our independence more, which one gave away more concessions but got no results?”
Many commentators point to a new approach from Barack Obama’s Washington, which they believe should be reciprocated from Tehran. Apparently, Obama’s recent Cairo speech appealed to many Iranians, even government officials. Ali Akbar Rezaie, the director-general of Iran’s foreign ministry’s office responsible for North America commended the new tone coming from the US president, saying, “Compared to anything we’ve heard in the last 30 years, and especially in the last eight years, his words were very different…People in the region received the speech, from this angle, very positively, with sympathy.” He added that the upcoming Iranian election would set the stage for a new chapter in US-Iran relations. “After the election we will be in a better position to manage relations with the United States,” he said. “We’ll be at the beginning of a new four-year period, and the political framework will be clear.”
But what has Obama said to or about Iran that should prompt such positive and optimistic responses? Not a whole lot.
Exactly one year to the day before his Cairo speech, and the day after clinching the Democratic nomination for president, Obama stood before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and stated that “There is no greater threat to Israel — or to the peace and stability of the region — than Iran.” He said this about a country that has not threatened nor attacked any other country in centuries and harbors absolutely no ambitions of territorial expansion. The same can obviously not be said about Israel, or the United States. Obama continued,
The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. Its president denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.
Obama threatened Iran with ratcheted up pressure, if it did not bend to American demands – demands based on unfounded accusations and outright lies. This pressure would not be limited to “aggressive, principled diplomacy” but would include “all elements of American power to pressure Iran.” Just to be clear, Obama promised his audience to “do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
In his inaugural address, Obama seemed to calm down and offered the Muslim world “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” A week later, during an interview with Al Arabiya TV, the new president reiterated his insistence that the US was now “ready to initiate a new partnership [with the Muslim world] based on mutual respect and mutual interest.”
Two months later, in March, Obama addressed the Iranian people and government directly by releasing a taped message on the occasion of the Iranian New Year. The message urged a “new beginning” in diplomatic relations. Obama said,
“My Administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek, instead, engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.”
Obama’s emphasis on “mutual respect” is striking considering the near constant usage of that phrase in Iranian overtures for years. Many Iranian officials, including UN ambassador Javad Zarif, former president Rafsanjani, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamidreza Assefi, have been calling for international relations based on “mutual respect.” The Mossadegh Project‘s Arash Norouzi points out, as far back as February 2000, then President Khatami was saying, “We believe in existing alongside, and forging relations with, all countries…on the basis of mutual respect and interests.” Then, in early 2004, then Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi said, “We call for positive and constructive dialogue on the basis of mutual respect.” In December 2007, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki stated, “As senior Iranian officials have reiterated, we welcome any rational approach that is based on mutual respect.”
Ahmadinejad himself has used the phrase a number of times ever since he was the mayor of Tehran and running for president. More recently, in a July 2008 interview with NBC News, Ahmadinejad wondered if the United States was finally beginning “a new approach; in other words, mutual respect, cooperation, and justice? Or is this approach a continuation in the confrontation with the Iranian people but in a new guise?”
Some say that where Ahmadinejad is confrontational, Mousavi will be more mollifying. But Ahmadinejad has always been ready for diplomatic engagement with the United States, despite what you may hear constantly in the mainstream media. In fact, the day after Obama’s Al Arabiya interview, Ahmadinejad delivered a speech in the Iranian town of Kermanshah. This is how his speech ended:
We welcome change but on the condition that change is fundamental and on a right course, otherwise the world should know, that anyone with the same speaking manner of Mr. Bush, same language of Mr. Bush, the same spirit of Mr. Bush, adventurism of Mr. Bush, even using new words to speak to the nation of Iran, the answer is the same Mr. Bush and his lackeys received over the years.
We hear that they are making plans for Iran. We in turn wait patiently, listen carefully to their words, carefully assess actions under the magnifying glass and if a real change occurs in a fundamental way, we shall welcome it.
In May, at the request of Barack Obama, the Pentagon updated its plans for using military force against Iran. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained that “as a result of our dialogue with the president, we’ve refreshed our plans and all options are on the table.” So much for not advancing threats.
Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and long-time AIPACer Dennis Ross as top Iran advisor is also troubling. Clinton once threatened to “totally obliterate Iran” if it ever attacked Israel with the nuclear weapons it doesn’t have and has suggested that negotiations with Iran, while doubtfully being fruitful, will be primarily useful to garner support for more “crippling” multilateral sanctions. Also, it has long been said that Ross has advocated an “engagement with pressure” strategy of dealing with Iran which, as Ismael Hossein-Zadeh explains, “means projecting or pretending negotiation with Iran in order to garner broader international support for the US-sponsored economic pressure on that country.” In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, former National Security Council staff members Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett relate what Ross revealed to them regarding his cynical strategy:
In conversations with Mr. Ross before Mr. Obama’s election, we asked him if he really believed that engage-with-pressure would bring concessions from Iran. He forthrightly acknowledged that this was unlikely. Why, then, was he advocating a diplomatic course that, in his judgment, would probably fail? Because, he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. Citing past “diplomacy” would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.
They also make it clear that, “the Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Under these circumstances, the Iranian government — regardless of who wins the presidential elections on June 12 — will continue to suspect that American intentions toward the Islamic Republic remain, ultimately, hostile.”
Even more recently, during his speech in Cairo, Obama, after once again mentioning “mutual respect,” said that “any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” Whereas this sounds like an unprecedented admission by a sitting US president, it’s important to remember what Bush said to Charlie Gibson back in 2002 during an ABC News interview: “Matter of fact, I said this in a press conference, that it’s the sovereign right of Iran to have civilian nuclear power, and I agree, and I believe that.”
As Iran Affairs‘ Cyrus Safdari points out, “Arguably, Bush’s statement is more sweeping than Obama’s…compare ‘may have some right’ to ‘has a sovereign right’.” He continues,
In any case, Iran’s absolute and unqualified and unquestionable right to access the full nuclear fuel cycle is based on international law and not for Obama or Bush to decide. Iran has the same rights to nuclear technology (or any other technology) as Japan, Argentina, Brazil, the USA…
Nor is it up to Iran to “prove that its aspirations are peaceful” (code words for “must give up enrichment and forever rely on us to power their economy”.) Iran has signed the NPT and after years of inspections, no evidence has been found of any weapons program. The burden is therefore on Iran’s accusers to prove their allegations, and not vice versa.
Meanwhile, not only is Iran’s nuclear program legal, it is under heavy scrutiny by the IAEA. Just recently, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Ali-Asghar Soltaniyeh, confirmed Tehran’s continued cooperation with the UN nuclear agency while at the same time it continues its uranium enrichment activities. He told reporters, “After six years of intrusive and robust inspection and issuance of 24 reports, the director general has once again reported to the world that there is no evidence of any diversion of nuclear material or case of prohibitive nuclear activities.“
Maybe the US just doesn’t like Ahmadinejad, what with his deliberately being mistranslated and intentionally misquoted by Western media. Blamed for threatening to “wipe Israel off the map” (an idiom that doesn’t even exist in Farsi), Ahmadinejad is constantly called a Holocaust denier for questioning why the horrific Nazi genocide of European Jews resulted in the violent displacement and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Ahmadinejad has never threatened to attack Israel, but rather hopes that the people of Palestine can all – Jews, Christians, and Muslims – vote for whatever type of government system they are to live under. Ahmadinejad’s willingness to bring up issues pertaining to Zionism without worrying about the delicate sensibilities of Western audiences has made him a pariah.
Obviously, it is seldom remembered that, in 2001, the former Iranian president and putative moderate, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is now heavily supporting Mousavi’s run for office, declared that although Israel would be destroyed by an atomic bomb, the Muslim world would only be damaged by one and therefore “such a scenario is not inconceivable.” Nevertheless, the LA Times noted back in 2006, “four years later, when Rafsanjani was running for president, Washington and its European allies were eagerly hoping that he would win.” Apparently, an actual threat of nuclear destruction didn’t seem to bother Western powers at the time. Now all they talk about is a fictitious one.
Still, hopes are that Mousavi will be more tactful in his discussion of Zionism and Israel’s reliance on the Holocaust for its own existential validation. Recently, when asked about his views on the Holocaust, Mousavi said: “Killing innocent people is condemned. The way the issue [Holocaust] was put forward [by Ahmadinejad] was incorrect,” but continued in a manner almost identical to the incumbent president, “Of course the question could be that why Palestinians should be punished for a crime committed by Germans?”
As millions of Iranians flood to the polls today to vote, it may become clear that a vote for Ahmadinejad is more a vote for continued Iranian resistance to US influence and hegemony in the region, whereas a vote for Mousavi is a vote for possible reconciliation based on Iranian fears, American demands, and Israeli paranoia and deception.
And so, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
[Nima Shirazi was born and raised in Manhattan. He now lives in Brooklyn and writes the weblog Wide Asleep In America under the moniker Lord Baltimore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
This article also appeared on Nima’s blog, Wide Asleep in America.