The Oil and the Glory

Why Ahmadinejad isn’t on his way out

There has been much dancing on the grave of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. After his unnerving re-election two years ago in a disputed and bloody vote, Ahmadinejad’s many critics abroad and at home have savored the thorough political beating he has suffered over the last few months by Iran’s real power, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ...

Atta Kenare  AFP/Getty Images
Atta Kenare AFP/Getty Images

There has been much dancing on the grave of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. After his unnerving re-election two years ago in a disputed and bloody vote, Ahmadinejad’s many critics abroad and at home have savored the thorough political beating he has suffered over the last few months by Iran’s real power, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei . Yet there are signs that Ahmadinejad is not a spent force just yet. This wily survivor is in the midst of renewing himself.  His prime weapon has been a combination of oil supplicance and oil populism.

On the supplicant front, Ahmadinejad last week acknowledged Khamenei’s superiority by appointing Brigadier General Rostam Qasemi, a senior officer from the Revolutionary Guards, as oil minister. Qasemi has no experience in oil, but the Guards are tight with Khamenei. Analysts suggest that the move could trigger instability within the oil ministry, reports RFE-RL, but the opposite seems more likely as Ahmadinejad reinforces his flanks by shoring up his battered position with Khamenei. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal’s Farnaz Fassihi and Benoit Faucon write that parliamentary approval of the appointment is not certain, and it is true that Parliament and Ahmadinejad have been feuding. But defying Ahmadinejad is one thing; defying Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and the Guards is quite another. Rostam seems likely to stay put.

Then comes the populism. With U.S.-led economic sanctions biting, Ahmadinejad has sought to adapt by curbing expensive oil subsidies — together, food and oil subsidies cost Iran some $60 billion a year. But he has also distributed $40 per household to help soften the hardship, thus shoring up his credentials as a rare leader who looks out for the little guy, write the WSJ’s Jay Solomon along with Fassihi. The move has come mainly at the expense of "Iran’s wealthy ruling class," they write, producing "a massive redistribution of his country’s wealth" to the middle class.

This is no coincidence. At the National Interest, Stanford Professor Abbas Milani describes how Ahmadinejad began his revival with a forceful counter-offensive against parliamentary critics and the Guards, accusing both of profiteering. Milani suggests that this will come to naught, and that Ahmadinejad will be lucky to finish out the two years remaining in his term. At Al-Jazeera, Geneive Abdo writes that "Ahmadinejad should be grateful Khamenei has not ordered his arrest."

Yet does grave-dancing, or for that matter corpse-kicking, have a record for reliably reflecting political outcomes? After all, Karim Sadjadpour is also dancing on the grave of Khamenei. There appears to be a large dollop of eagerness, and less clear-sighted and cool assessment, in this celebration.

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