TOPICS : Embargo pain for Iran’s Robin Hood

If the UN Security Council imposes economic sanctions on Iran in coming weeks for its pursuit of nuclear capabilities, one figure in Tehran’s political scene would take the greatest blame — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That’s because many of his supporters feel betrayed. They voted for a Persian Robin Hood, not an embargo. In June 2005, in an election where only eight regime loyalists were allowed to run, Ahmadinejad campaigned with a distinct blend of populism and Persian nationalism.

His oratory castigated the ruling reformist and conservative elite for neglecting the socio-economic aspirations of the masses. He promoted the distribution of wealth. His campaign slogans faintly echoed the Marxist-Islamist sentiments of the early post-1979 revolutionary period. And his pledge was unmistakable: to empower the pious poor by breaking the dominance of the privileged Islamist aristocracy.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad’s campaign website was jampacked with affirmations about the greatness of the Iranian nation. “We can achieve anything we put our minds to,” it declared. The closest Ahmadinejad came to brandishing a foreign policy doctrine was when he declared that his government would foremost occupy itself with Iran’s 13 immediate neighbours.

Prior to his election, Ahmadinejad hardly discussed relations with the US or his intentions regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. But since taking office, his time has been dominated by these two issues, plus his detestable skepticism concerning the Holocaust. Independent polls are hard to come by inside Iran, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a vast majority of those 17 million who voted for him in the second round expected Ahmadinejad to focus on domestic affairs.

The hard reality is that socio-economic indicators point to no tangible progress made by Ahmadinejad’s government. Provincial governors and parliamentary deputies in Tehran are saying that the president’s ambitious plans are unilateral and undeliverable, leaving them in a politically awkward situation. Meanwhile, there has been an increase in the number of protests by dejected civil servants, teachers, bus drivers, and others, with each group complaining about poor pay and working conditions. To most Iranians, something is amiss with the government’s priorities.

Indeed, one of Ahmadinejad’s biggest “accomplishments” is convincing 14 of the 15 Security Council members that Iran’s nuclear programme should be curbed by economic sanctions. Such a measure, if comprehensive and fully implemented, will hurt the poorest

segments of society most, by depriving them of basic goods that are heavily subsidised. Although much of the public supports the nuclear energy programme, they are exasperated by the handling of the nuclear crisis and Tehran’s priorities. While Ahmadinejad and his officials portray the issue as a matter of life and death for their country, most Iranians simply have no desire to further isolate their homeland. — The Christian Science Monitor