Right time, wrong man

A day does not pass in Iran’s state-controlled media without constant glorification of developments in the country’s ‘home made’ nuclear programme. A vast national project started before the Iranian revolution in the 1970s, and then restarted in late 1980s, like many others, is only now beginning to bear fruit.

While on the international front, Iran remains compliant to its obligations under the NPT, domestically, in many corners, the nuclear project is received rather sceptically.

This scepticism is not sourced in technicalities or as a result of western demands that Iran halts enrichment, but instead in how through masterful exercises in public relations, the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has turned this costly national project into a key feature of his own image as a courageous leader against bullying powers ganged up to deprive yet another third-world country of its “rights.”

Throughout the past eight years while the US and EU have been busy developing and implementing their punitive measures against Iran, ranging from sanctions to threats of annihilation, Ahmadinejad has been gaining more popularity not only inside Iran in a society with a fresh collective memory of its historic failures and recent shortcomings, but also beyond Iran’s borders across the Muslim world.

Despite having seen no tangible benefits yet in the development of various nuclear technologies (as opposed to its tangible costs) Iranians at large remain very supportive of this project. This support however is not accidental and is largely down to a monopolised media which lacks dissenting voices and opposing views regarding the costs associated with Iran’s defiance against the west.

One can understand Iran’s sensitivity towards foreign interference in this matter. With a history of betrayal and deceit from the west, few support compromise solutions. However such routine censorship of views opposed to the official narrative, may seem unusual if not seen in context.

Indeed a pattern can be found in how Iran’s new status in nearly every field from science to political influence is framed such that it is directly linked by the state media to Ahmadinejad’s persona in contrast to his predecessors’ moderate –- read weak — approach.

As Iran nears its presidential elections, Ahmadinejad’s team who were so far acting rather low-profile in gathering support for his second-term, are slowly beginning to make public one of the largest and most coordinated media campaigns in Iran’s history. Perhaps interestingly not a single private donor will contribute to this campaign. Nor will Ahmadinejad need any local campaign offices, according to himself. Costly bill-board adverts? Why bother when you have the combined resources of the country’s largest newspapers, hours and hours of unchallenged airtime on state TV and radio stations, coupled with analysis that often only adds insult to injury.

This campaign however began quite a while back. That is when Ahmadinejad started distributing cash from Iran’s vast oil revenues amongst the more deprived sections of the society. He ignored plans for a comprehensive social security system (which had not materialised in lack of funding) and instead dissolved the “National Office for Planning & Budgeting” and distributed cash to those who attended his provincial meetings or sent him personal pleas for help with rising inflation.

People in villages and small towns who had not once seen a high-ranking official visit them, are suddenly confronted with Mr President who incidentally has a very deep pocket. In the past four years Ahmadinejad and his whole cabinet have travelled to every corner of Iran, not once but twice, to “resolve local issues.” Media reports after every trip are littered with numbers of local cases discussed by the cabinet, hours of meetings that took place or the thousands of letters handed to the President accompanied by pictures of locals running after his vehicle in joy and fascination.

He has introduced “Justice Shares” where people are given free shares in state-owned industrial units and get direct payment as profits. But given that few industries are profitable to that extent, these payments are again funded by oil revenues. Further, the so-called shares are of course managed by the government; even though ironically classed as privatisation.

With just over six weeks to presidential elections, Ahmadinejad has not yet announced whether he will run again. But every indication is that he will indeed run for a second term. By leaving everything to the last minute perhaps he is trying to avoid serious debate with other candidates about his four year record.

Meanwhile, every speech that he or his ministers make is nothing short of a campaign speech in a full flare election season. They all follow the same pattern and on the way question not only the policies but also the integrity and patriotism of those before him. His speech on the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution in front of millions in Tehran was a list of several comparisons of what Iran was like in 2005 (not 1979) and what it is like now. Much of the statistics were flawed of course, but what is more damaging is the cocktail of mistrust and suspicion that is injected during his four years in office into Iran’s previously clear divisions of power.

There are other presidential candidates that have announced their candidacy along with relatively detailed plans. While they are so far almost completely ignored by state media, Ahmadinejad is effortlessly getting all the attention he needs; plus he has the means to prevent those few activities by his competitors from taking place. Whereas they must fight tooth and nail for donors, his budget is virtually limitless.

Those key figures from across Iran’s political spectrum, who are desperate to get rid of Ahmadinejad have one choice: To run en masse as candidates in order to create a two stage election. If they can prevent him from winning the first round, only then they may be able to attract enough support for a single candidate against Ahmadinejad in the second stage. But with Iran’s supreme leader and officials in charge of managing the elections, openly supporting Ahmadinejad, few can doubt what the next election will bring.

Mohammad Kamaali is board member of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII).

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