TEL AVIV — “Mishavad va mitavanim”. It is possible and we can do it. That was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election slogan. It had a positive ring to it. Many of his young supporters liked it, because it sounded optimistic. A ‘can do’ attitude was what many were looking for, because Iranians were tired of geriatric Ayatollahs who were much better at creating problems than solving them.
The recent manoeuvres in Iran bear the hallmarks of not just Iran’s defensive doctrine, but also Ahmadinejad’s personality. Ahmadinejad considers himself as very calm and confident. When presented with a challenge or a problem, he doesn’t just bark back. He prefers to present his answer in a very cool and controlled manner. This has been visible during many of his interviews. The famous Mike Wallace interview is a prime example. Even though it was Wallace who was presenting the tough and sometimes provocative questions, it was him who got flustered and lost his cool, not Ahmadinejad.
One the surface, Iran’s recent manoeuvres are Ahmadinejad’s cool and calculated reply to the Americans, and the Persian Gulf countries who took part in another manoeuvre, a few days before, not far from Iran’s shores.
Iran’s and more specifically Ahmadinejad’s message is “not only do we have the missiles; we also have the technology and capability to strike back, and quickly. This is not 1980 when Iraq invaded, and it took Iran at least a year before it got its act together. Iran of 2006, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is ready, and able to attack. Your provocative muscle flexing does not scare us. We can do the same.”
However, there are other important factors which motivated Ahmadinejad to embark on the manoeuvres.
His honeymoon with the Iranian public is over. He tried, and did a good job of charming the voter with his honest image and populist expenditure promises. Now the Iranian public expect results, and they are not coming. On the one hand, inflation is raging beyond control. He has been unsuccessful in controlling it and this is making life more difficult in Iran.
His best hope is to fulfil all the projects and plans he promised the rural crowds. He is so good at making these promises, that people in far flung places greet him like a football star when he is in town (there are no rock starts in Iran since 1979). However there too seems to be a problem. Ahmadinejad’s lavish expenditure plans depend on oil prices remaining high. Much to his dismay, prices have been sinking to $58 per barrel.
Since taking office, Ahmadinejad has learnt that a possible solution to this problem is to act provocatively, so that oil markets get nervous, and prices go up again. The recent manoeuvres are Ahmadinejad’s means towards the achievement of higher oil prices. He must be hoping that he is successful, because if he fails, low oil prices will mean less money at his disposal to spend on his plans, and this will translate into less popularity, something that he can no longer afford. His belligerent nuclear policies are isolating Iran. If he wants to “stay the course” with his nuclear plans, Ahmadinejad needs all the popularity he can get at home, otherwise his plans may backfire.
Last but not least, its election time again in Iran. On December 15th, Iranians will go to the voting booths to choose the 86 clerical members of the Assembly of Experts. (for more information on this election please visit the previous meepas analysis here). This powerful assembly is empowered to select and supervise the supreme leader of Iran.
Ahmadinejad himself can not participate. However he is trying to ensure that “his” candidates are elected, so that perhaps one day, they will choose him or one of his allies as the next supreme leader of the Islamic republic. However this not proving easy. On the one side there is his nemesis, Ayatollah Rafsanjani. Nicknamed the Shark for his hairless face and deadly ambush skills, Rafsanjani has still not recovered from his shock defeat to Ahmadinejad at the presidential elections, and is looking to settle scores with him.
On the other hand, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Ahmadinejad’s own Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) colleague who also competed against him in the presidential elections and lost is also trying to field his candidates. Both Ghalibaf and Ahmadinejad have been competing for the support of the IRGC. Ghalibaf, who is also the Mayor of Tehran, has been trying to get the IRGC vote by giving IRGC companies contracts in the Tehran municipality. He has also been trying to attract the support of IRGC officials who are dissatisfied with Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad’s way of capturing the IRGC vote has also included giving contracts to IRGC companies. However, to stay one step ahead of Ghalibaf and other conservatives, Ahmadinejad has been trying to place the IRGC at the centre of Iran’s military machine. This is why the recent maneuvers were handed in their entirety to the IRGC (and not the Army or the Basij). The IRGC is taking all the glory, and Ahmadinejad’s hope is that with 6 weeks to go before the elections, they will thank him by voting for his candidate.
To the outside world, the sixth president of the Islamic Republic is an extremist man who should be isolated. He may be. But he is a cunning operator who never does anything for free. He almost always has at least one, if not more ulterior motives behind whatever he does. Failure to understand this will only lead to more misunderstanding and mistakes made about the enigma that is Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
About Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-born Middle East Analyst and the Director or the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company, meepas.com. He has been quoted and interviewed by the BBC, Radio Holland International, Haaretz Newspaper and the Boston Globe as well as a number of other newspapers and Radio stations. For rights to quote this article please contact email@example.com.