Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Obama factor reaches Iran
Thursday's celebrations of Iran's nuclear power could be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's swansong
Tuesday 7 April 2009 20.00 BST Article historyA year after becoming president in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that the 20th day in the Persian month of Farvardin would officially be known as National Nuclear Technology day. On this day, which falls on Thursday 9 April this year, the government and people of Iran are to celebrate their country's nuclear achievements.
Ahmadinejad is not in charge of Iran's nuclear programme. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is. Nevertheless, he allows Ahmadinejad to use the occasion to inform the people of Iran about the technical progress made by Iran's nuclear programme during the past year. Last year, Ahmadinejad declared that "Iran was ready to install some 6,000 new centrifuges at the nuclear facility in the central province of Natanz".
This year, National Nuclear Technology day will have added importance for the president. While Ahmadinejad will be making his yearly speech about Iran's nuclear accomplishments, he will be well aware that from that day, only 64 days remain until the presidential elections, scheduled for 12 June.
The past year has been one of the worst for Ahmadinejad since he took office. He has suffered a number of embarrassing domestic defeats. One of them was parliament's unwillingness to pass the subsidies reduction clause in this year's budget, which called for the reduction of energy subsidies and to distribute the money instead to Iran's poor as cash handouts. Parliamentarians are worried this may further increase the level of inflation. Ahmadinejad has invested heavily in this clause. He has been promoting it since last year and parliament's resistance has damaged his credibility.
The other setback was the embarrassing dismissal of Ali Kordan, his interior minister, by parliament. Kordan was found to have had a forged doctorate degree from Oxford university. This created a large number of email and text message jokes about the former minister's credentials by offering degrees from "Aksford" and "Oxphord" university. The fact that Ahmadinejad backed Kordan until the last moment caused further blows to his standing.
Even football and its extraordinary popularity in Iran do not seem to have helped the president. During the last world cup qualifying match between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Tehran, Ahmadinejad made a surprise appearance in the stadium, 30 minutes after the start of the game. However, the fact that Iran lost 2-1 on home soil after initially leading their Saudi rivals 1-0 led to the popular belief that Ahmadinejad had 'ghadame shoor', a Persian expression that describes someone who brings bad luck.
This wasn't the first time Ahmadinejad made a surprise appearance at a major sporting event. The previous occasion was in early March when Iran made it to the finals of the World Wrestling Championship against Azerbaijan. Iran lost that match too.
In all likelihood, Ahmadinejad is going to make the most of this year's nuclear technology day ceremony to boost his falling popularity at home. Unlike the economy, the nuclear programme is one area which Ahmadinejad has not ruined. Many people believe that the only reason is because he is not in charge of it. Nevertheless, thanks to Ayatollah Khamenei, Ahmadinejad will gladly use the opportunity as a means to boost his position.
This will be the case even if Iran's nuclear programme has not made any spectacular gains in the past year. Ahmadinejad could quite possibly paint a picture that is rosier than the reality. He will have no other choice — this is his last chance before the elections. The Iranian electorate is unforgiving and he has to take every opportunity to reach out to them.
The international community, especially Israel and the US, may have a different perception on Ahmadinejad's nuclear technology day declarations. Any major announcement could be taken as a sign of antagonism, or threat. This would be logical. However, the international community should understand that promoting one's capability and leveraging power is a tried and tested negotiation method. In other words, there is also the possibility that forthcoming statements could be mere bolstering to improve Iran's position before the start of negotiations with the US.
This is one area which Ahmadinejad has no control over. In fact, negotiations with the US may make or break his presidency.
Until now, the supreme leader has offered unprecedented support to Ahmadinejad. However, new events on the ground may mean that for the next elections, matters may not be entirely in Khamenei's hands. The election of Barack Obama and his offer of unconditional talks with Iran have created new challenges for the supreme leader. With such a popular president at the helm in Washington, shunning America could be a costly mistake.
Khamenei realises that during the expected negotiations, Obama would prefer a reformist resident of the presidential office in Louis Pasteur Street in Tehran. This is why he is waiting to negotiate with Iran after the Iranian presidential elections. He does not want to improve Ahmadinejad's chances.
Although the supreme leader is under no obligation to compromise with Obama, shunning the US president would be damaging, both diplomatically and economically. Realising that the re-election of Ahmadinejad may be interpreted as a rebuff in Washington, it is very possible that Khamenei may decide that Ahmadinejad's removal may serve his interests far more than keeping him as president.
On nuclear technology day, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could try to take all the glory for Iran's nuclear programme. Despite that, the day after Iran's presidential elections, he may find himself the most prominent victim of the "Obama factor".
at 6:37 PM