Hate Ahmadinejad? Buy Iranian Pistachios!

Iran's political culture is far more complex and nuanced than slogans like "Axis of Evil" would have us believe. Those concerned about the threat posed by Iran need to start taking a more sophisticated look at its political system. To help us in that regard, we have our "savvy Iranian source" to analyze the outcome of Iran's recent municipal elections with his latest report from Tehran. He says:
  • The high turnout showed that the public is still interested in engaging the political system, despite all its imperfections

  • The vote displayed a desire by the population to go for the middle ground in the city councils (although the selective vetting of candidates in the Assembly of Experts elections ensured this prior to the vote for this body) (continued...)

  • Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (pistachio magnate and former Iranian president [pre-Khatami] who lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election, largely because he was perceived to be corrupt, while Ahmadinejad successfully appealed to the economic hopes of Iranian youth) made a good showing relative to previous elections. Even though he has not really increased his vote in absolute terms nationwide, Rafsanjani got many more votes than the other contenders for the Assembly elections. This means that his relative position in the system will again become stronger and that he now can make a bid for the Chairman's position in the Assembly.

  • This will in itself not mean that Rafsanjani will be able to oust or directly challenge Supreme Leader Khamenei but that his relative position of power will be increased, which will mean that he can put more pressure on the Supreme Leader on certain key issues and also position himself better for the

  • Rumours about Mr. Khamenei's illness have been circulating for over a decade now, and his health is at least on the surface not showing any sign of deterioration.

  • Ahmadinejad's supporters can no longer claim that he has the unconditional backing of a large portion of the electorate. While previously the Supreme Leader may have been reluctant to rein him in on certain foreign policy issues due to his massive electoral support, President Ahmadinejad's opponents can now easier claim that he doesn't in fact enjoy broad support and thus push the Supreme Leader into curtailing some of his actions/rhetoric.

  • Overall, in about six months' time, the actual impact of these elections will be much clearer and will also become easier to analyse as the implementation of Ahmadinejad's campaign promises are increasingly put to the test.

For more Iranian electoral analysis, see this piece by Syrian analyst Sami Moubayed.

I found the reaction of the State Department in Washington quite balanced. This is not the first time I have reported on this blog that Sean McCormack, the spokesman, is very professional. He is selective with his words and does not normally employ inflammatory rhetoric. For example:

"Well, it would seem that they're not the results that President Ahmadi-Nejad would have hoped for. I think despite the regime's efforts to cook the books in terms of an outcome, they seem to have been thwarted in that regard. There was a high turnout. But you know, again, there were some fundamental flaws in these elections in which there were numerous candidates that were excluded from even running in the elections, so the people didn't even have that choice to make ... there were people who were excluded from running in the elections who wanted to run in the elections."

Overall, what we are seeing in Iran is a balance of power between the President (Ahmadinejad), the Council of Experts (which chooses and "manages" the Supreme Leader) plus other legislative bodies, and the Supreme Leader (Khamenei). As convenient and tempting as it may be to classify Ahmadinejad as a dictator, if that were an accurate portrayal then the recent electoral results would have been far more to his liking. In this sense, Iran is more politically evolved than undemocratic governments like those of Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and most Arab countries.

But how does that explain Ahmadinejad's troubling remark that Israel should be "wiped off the map"? Our source says:

"The stuff about calling for Israel's destruction and things like that mostly have domestic power-politics objectives (and some external ones) but Iran would never get involved in open conflict with the Israelis, since this would be a very costly adventure...

...And let's not forget, the President of Iran is neither constitutionally nor institutionally entrusted with the ability to declare war. It is only the Supreme Leader that can do this."

That is of little comfort to Israelis, quite understandably. An Israeli friend and colleague wrote me right after Ahmadinejad made the infamous remark:

"What should we do? ...the world treats Ahmadinejad as a madman, but I think he is dead serious. Let me just remind you that Hitler published his plans for the Jews long before he executed them, and similarly - people then discounted him as a madman who would come to his senses when in power... I really think it's a plausible scenario that a nuclear weapon would explode in Tel Aviv and would practically demolish the state of Israel."

As our "savvy source" indicated, the true outcome of this most Iranian recent election won't be felt until a new balance of power in Tehran is reached over the next 6 months. But with Rafsanjani on the rise again and Ahmadinejad's public approval no longer riding sky-high, the battle lines have been drawn. In the meantime, those outside the country who want to influence the outcome can do little more than buy Iranian pistachios.