He’s the best-known face of the regime — largely reviled in the West and especially in Israel. He’s a Holocaust denier. He incites genocide against Israel. He claimed there was no homosexuality in Iran. He has championed Iran’s drive to the nuclear bomb.
But next June, having served two terms, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will conclude his eight years as president. The regime at the weekend set June 14, 2013, as election day. And here’s a little secret of which few people outside Iran are aware: Plenty of Iranians think they’re going to miss Ahmadinejad, albeit relatively speaking, because they fear he is going to appear benevolent compared to his likely successor.
Ahmadinejad “won” his second term in elections widely regarded by Iranians as having been fraudulent; the “results” were announced before the votes could possibly have been tallied, in a process that was regarded as an un-Islamic “dishonoring” of public trust and that alienated even some of the regime’s most loyal supporters. And he has presided over eight repressive years of bleak regime rule. But many Iranians believe that the man who succeeded Ahmadinejad as mayor of Tehran, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf — a former senior member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and former Iranian police chief — will succeed him, too, as president, with still more repressive consequences.
I was in Iran three years ago, when Ahmadinejad was “reelected.” I was visiting relatives in Tehran, and also doing some reporting on what it was assumed would be an unremarkable presidential vote on June 12, 2009. Instead, public anger over the indecent haste with which Ahmadinejad’s reelection was announced — when there had plainly been a great deal of public support for the Green Movement candidate, ex-prime minister and would-be reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi — prompted spontaneous street protests. I found myself in the midst of riots that the regime, taken by surprise, initially found hard to control.
Foreign journalists were required to leave, and a ruthless crackdown gradually began to restore order. I stayed on as the riots intensified and then as they were violently quashed. As an Iranian citizen, I was able to continue to report — at my own risk, and as best I could, while remaining under the regime’s radar.
Revolution was in the air. The protesters I interviewed seemed caught up in a fervor they must have inherited from their parents’ generation 30 years earlier. Iranians were pouring into the streets, chanting the slogans “Death to the dictator” and “God is great” — the very same slogans that had shaken Iran under the Shah in the late 1970s and eventually led to the end of monarchial rule.
Iranians wanted change. But with hindsight, they didn’t seem to know what kind of change they wanted most — and while the international community was slow to respond to the people’s protest, the regime moved quickly and ruthlessly to reimpose control.
I’ve been back to Tehran several times since, including quite recently, and reconnected with many of my 2009 sources and contacts in Tehran. In contrast to that frenzied period three years ago — and despite the fact that the citizens of another repressive and ruthless regime, in Syria, are daily risking and losing their lives to oust a loathed government, or maybe because of that — those contacts indicate that in the Iran of 2012, the Iran that will now start gearing up for next year’s elections, revolution is not in the air.
“I never wanted a revolution,” a former protester and college student who spent six months in Iran’s notorious Evin prison in 2009 told me recently. “What we really want is reform,” he clarified. “Many of us believe in our current government system… I don’t hate my country, I don’t want what happened in Egypt or Syria to happen to us. I voted for Mousavi and chanted praises for him in the streets. But he is a coward, I realize that now. Our country needs stronger leaders who will work within the system to change it.” A resurgence of 2009-style protest, this ex-prisoner told me — chastened, perhaps, by his personal experience — “will make things worse.”
‘Mr. Ahmadinejad isn’t an evil man,’ says a Jewish business owner living in Tehran. ‘He donates money to our charities and pays tribute to the Jewish community. It’s the next president I’m
This student was among the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who poured out into the streets of Tehran and other cities in demonstrations led by Mousavi and fellow presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi. Both politicians, who were labeled seditionists at the time of the protests, had been regime insiders until not so very long before: Mousavi was the much-praised prime minister during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, while Karroubi was one of the country’s most prominent political clerics and a former Parliamentary Speaker.
Along with other Iranian politicians who either supported the uprisings, or failed to distance themselves from the Green Movement, these two would-be leaders are said to have been excluded from participation in the 2013 elections… and any other election. The regime is not about to make the mistakes of 2009 all over again. So Mousavi and Karroubi, in today’s Iran, are laboring under regime-imposed restrictions on their movement and will continue to wield limited or no clout in Iranian politics — unless, that is, they prove capable of bringing supporters out into the streets again.
That seems unlikely. Over the past three years, on successive visits to Iran, I have watched revolutionary zeal give way, not so much to defeatist acceptance, as to a fervent but less publicly energized desire for reform. And some of my sources believe the regime is making an effort to at least be perceived as listening.
“The government is trying to make peace right now,” claimed another former protester, who also represents some of those who were jailed three years ago. “I’m still working on several cases of young people who are being pardoned and released from prison. More will be freed as we move closer to the new election.”
This source went on: “We all have disagreements with how the country is run. Even Mr. Ahmadinejad quarrels with the ayatollah” — Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — “because the ayatollah wants to take more power away from the president’s office… The government is like a group of quarreling children right now. But this doesn’t mean it will be the end of our nation.”
Divisions at the very top — including between Khamenei, the highest ranking political and religious authority, and Ahmadinejad — have indeed been visible to all. In April 2011, in what was seen as a bid to gain control of the powerful Intelligence Ministry, Ahmadinejad dismissed the minister. Khamenei immediately reinstated him. Ahmadinejad very publicly stayed away from work for 11 days. The president has clashed several times with parliament — firing ministers, merging ministries; parliament has countered by threatening to investigate alleged funding misdemeanors surrounding his 2009 reelection.
Khamenei has generally intervened to clip Ahmadinejad’s wings rather than to support him — even as Iranian state media characterizes relations between the supreme leader and the president as akin to those between father and son. And such clashes have prompted a not-insignificant increase in public sympathy for the president.
“I didn’t vote in the previous elections and didn’t participate in the protests,” a Jewish business owner living in Tehran told me recently. “My family and I try not to get involved in politics in this country, but I’m fearful for its future.
“Mr. Ahmadinejad isn’t an evil man,” he added. “He donates money to our charities and pays tribute to the Jewish community in Tehran. It’s the next president I’m afraid of, especially because of how much power the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) has now. Many major businesses are owned by them. They are taking over the country economically. The ayatollah is letting them do so, probably because he feels indebted to them for restoring the peace on the streets three years ago.”
The apparatus responsible for preventing internal dissent and military uprisings, the IRGC unleashed security forces to arrest, beat and sometimes knife and kill protesters who were voicing public disapproval after the 2009 elections. Among its victims was Neda Agha-Soltan, killed on June 20 when attacked by a plainclothes regime militiaman in scenes that were captured on video and broadcast worldwide.
Such brutality horrified Iranians, and the watching world… and enhanced the IRGC’s standing and influence within the governmental power structure.
Millions of people in Arab countries have been successful in removing their ruling governments. But unlike their Arab counterparts, Iranians might not get too far if they take to the streets. It could backfire, and the military sector could grow in strength. Even hardliners like Ahmadinejad may feel their influence slowly dimming as military factions take the reins.
I, too, was a (minor) victim of IRGC brutality when a small group of us, making our way to Freedom Square where a large crowd of demonstrators had gathered, were attacked by plainclothes armed thugs.
“The military section is becoming increasingly more powerful, I’m afraid,” said a mullah who leads Friday prayer at a local mosque in northern Tehran, referring to the IRGC and other branches of the security apparatus. “In the past three years, their influence has become much stronger than that of the clergy and religious leaders. Their voice is heard more. What the Revolutionary Guard are forgetting is that we created them to protect the Islamic system of the clerical government, not the other way around.
This cleric told me he was certain Ghalibaf — a military commander at a very young age during the Iran-Iraq war who later held a senior position in the IRGC, and who stepped down as Iranian police chief when he briefly sought the presidency in 2005 — would succeed Ahmadinejad, and that he feared for the consequences. “I can say with confidence that the next president will be Mr. Ghalibaf. I just hope this country doesn’t forget our Islamic principles in the years to come.
Many of my sources said that, were there to be a new upsurge in public protests, this would play into the hands of the IRGC, which is braced and ready to quash any demonstrations and widen its authority. The IRGC leaders take the view that it was they who, in 2009, saved the regime from the greatest challenge it had faced since the revolution, the sources said. The price they demand in return is greater influence over domestic policy, foreign policy, and the economy.
If there are new protests, the sources said, the IRGC will react, and its power will grow, with the Iranian government becoming increasingly militarized. The nomination and possible election of Ghalibaf would emblemize this, they said.
While the military tried to maintain control of Egypt’s revolution, but seems to have been increasingly marginalized by the democratically elected President Mohammad Morsi, an Iranian public effort to demonstrate over similar grievances — economic conditions, unemployment, unaccountable government, human rights breaches, the absence of democracy… — would likely backfire, boosting the military, many of my sources said.
Concern over such a trend, some said, is breeding if not alliances, then at least a degree of quiet cooperation between supporters of relative hardliners like Ahmadinejad and the reformists. They have a common opponent: The IRGC. Even hardliners like Ahmadinejad may feel their influence slowly dimming as military factions take the reins, my sources said.
The problem is that an IRGC-favored candidate, Ghalibaf, is now set to seek the presidency. And from what I can tell from my trips to Iran over the past three years, the demonstrators who protested Ahmadinejad’s election three years ago may be too intimidated to dare raise their voices against his IRGC-backed would-be successor.