Thursday, October 13, 2005

Iranians wait for change from Ahmadinejad

The new president, more than 100 days into his term, faces persistent discontent at home.

Poor, and with her sons jobless, Delaram Vatanha didn't vote for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June. Her identity card was being held as collateral for a purchase from a local appliance shop.

Mr. Ahmadinejad promised Iran's legions of poor that he would put the nation's oil income "onto people's tables." But more than 100 days after the vote, Mrs. Vatanha - along with Iranians who gave the Islamist ideologue a surprise 61 percent mandate - are waiting for change. READ MORE

"Maybe, hopefully, [Ahmadinejad] will do something," says Vatanha, sitting in her tiny $30-per-month basement apartment. Unable to find jobs as house painters, her sons left home three weeks ago in search of work. She tugs her chador more tightly around her face. "I am having a nervous breakdown. I just read the Koran, and ask God to help [my sons.]."

Such uncertainty is manifest across the Islamic Republic, as Iranians begin taking measure of their choice: a man who is filling top positions with Revolutionary Guard cadres, and insists that he will build a pure Islamic government.

While the former mayor of Tehran struggles to manage high expectations inside Iran, his hard-line packaging of Iran's controversial nuclear program is risking further isolation abroad. Last month, the UN's nuclear watchdog voted to send Iran to the UN Security Council for violations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Britain last week also accused Iran of being behind the supply of sophisticated explosives to insurgents in Iraq.

Domestic discontent

Critics - including many in Ahmadinejad's own conservative camp - complain of delays in forming a new cabinet. Four potential nominees, including that for the oil minister, have been rejected by parliament.

So far, markets in the weak economy are taking a wait-and-see approach that businessmen say could last a year or more. One industrial crane dealer - whose business is a good barometer in building-crazy Iran - says he sold 40 machines in the six months before the election, but has sold only two in the three months since.

Still, parliament this week approved a $1.3 billion "love fund" intended to give financial support to young newlyweds. Another big-ticket package to lower chronic unemployment is on the table, and the president wants to double teacher salaries.

Iranians who have seen internal reports on cabinet-level proceedings say that "social justice" - leveling inequalities in wealth, and creating more opportunities for the poor - tops the agenda. But the learning curve has been steep for a team with little international experience.

"Most people think Ahmadinejad is honest, but they have some doubts about his capability, and will wait and see," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the moderate conservative Resalat newspaper.

"Ahmadinejad says he wants 'justice' in society, [but] he should rationalize that, and say 'I want to narrow the gap between rich and poor people,' " says Mr. Mohebian. "He should not say 'I will lead you to a society of perfect equality.' It is not possible."

Ahmadinejad tapped into deep public discontent: some voters went for his image as a 'man of the people' who speaks for the poor; others supported him because he is not a cleric; and still others saw him as the antiestablishment candidate. But analysts say he will needs to evolve new policies to satisfy a disgruntled electorate.

Bridging the conservative divide

While conservative factions control every lever of power in Iran for the first time since reform-minded Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997, these hard-line forces are tempered by the Expediency Council. Led by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was soundly defeated by Ahmadinejad in the June run-off, the unelected body has been granted an unprecedented "oversight" role for all branches of Iran's formal power structure.

"The presidential election polarized the political spectrum, and this move represents a reunification of policies," says an Iranian analyst who asked not to be named. "It is a signal to this administration that 'You are not doing this alone, you must take others with you.' "

Ahmadinejad says his victory has ushered in a "second revolution," after the first that created the Islamic Republic in 1979. He has accused "certain gangs" inside the oil ministry of blocking his choice for minister, and rebutted claims that officials are "weak persons because they are new faces."

US-Iran thaw? Maybe later.

Ahmadinejad also attacked "certain decisionmakers within the Islamic establishment, whose hearts and minds are set on countries far beyond our borders but pretend to support the Islamic Revolution." That may have been aimed at Rafsanjani, who ran a slick, Western-style election campaign, and promised not only to improve ties with the West, but to end decades of estrangement with the US.

Such possibilities are on hold now. Archaeologists at Harvard, for example, who were to begin a six-year project last month along the ancient Silk Route, say their plans are on ice.

"The [Iranian] individuals who had been supportive of international cooperation have been replaced," says Harvard archaeology professor C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, also noting that specific waivers from the US State Department have been difficult to obtain. "It's much more difficult now. Neither side is making this particularly easy."

Waiting for a crackdown - and money

Still, at home, the long-expected crackdown against social freedoms that blossomed under Mr. Khatami has not yet come. But the basiji militia, frequent enforcers of such codes, have launched exercises in eight cities recently to "confront [urban] unrest," state television reported, according to Radio Free Europe.

"Ahmadinejad and his colleagues are looking for an Islamic state, and that means a state without democracy," says Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, a political sociologist and veteran reform editor. "After three months he couldn't show himself to the ordinary people as a capable man, and it's very bad for him....They are waiting for the oil money to come to the table."