Hope for regime change in Iran

Simon Tisdall

Elements of Iran’s ruling clerical and political elites are enjoying the west’s financial implosion.

It has deflected attention from the country’s internal troubles and its increased international isolation. And as the campaign for next June’s presidential election gathers pace, capitalism’s travails handily illustrate the supposed superiority of Iran’s unique system of collectivist Islamic

republicanism. Leading prayers in Tehran last week, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami declared that US-promoted liberal democracy was collapsing under the weight of its moral contradictions.

“It started with an ethical downfall and has now reached an economic failure... See how sad the funeral is! Even the undertaker is crying! They tried to create a crisis for us [through UN sanctions] but God created a crisis for them.”

Such triumphalism is unlikely to last long or be widely shared among a population enduring 30 per cent inflation, high unemployment, and the continuing failure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to share Iran’s oil wealth and boost family incomes as he promised. Ahmadinejad, elected in 2005, is expected to run again. But unease over his confrontational nuclear policies, his Holocaust denial, and threats against Israel are all additional reasons why he may be denied a second term.

Recent developments have driven home the weakness of the current regime. Ahmadinejad’s government has had to back off at home after a 3 per cent sales tax provoked widesprea protests. More significantly in terms of the coming election, the sudden halving of the global oil price has damaging implications for Iran’s foreign earnings, for badly needed oil and gas investment, and for an impoverished domestic economy as a whole.

The president’s unpopularity does not automatically mean defeat. He retains the support of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards and the ubiquitous Basij militia. He has a strong following among the less educated, rural poor. And as usual, the broadly defined “reformist” opposition, consisting of numerous rivalrous individuals and factions, is badly divided, lacking a common standard-bearer. Mohammad Khatami, the former two-term president who disappointed many supporters with his cautious approach in office, is nevertheless most frequently mentioned as the reformists’ likely candidate.

Jahanbakhsh Khanjani of the Executives of Construction party warned recently that the reformists could win but only if they stuck together in a coalition. Ahmadinejad may yet face a more potent challenge from moderate conservatives such as Ali Larijani, the former nuclear negotiator whom he forced out of the national security council, or Muhammad Bagher Qalibaf,

a former Tehran mayor known as a moderniser.

Lurking in the background, as ever, is Hashemi Rafsanjani, another former president and veteran conservative power-broker who was runner-up in 2005. Yet as Iranians look for voluntary regime change next June, all the likely candidates share one major drawback: overfamiliarity. The biggest obstacle to change is apathy among an electorate where a majority is under 35. Many younger voters may think Iran, should take a leaf out of the Great Satan’s book and seek a “transformational figure” — not another regime retread.