Deft Demagoguery in Iran

By Jackson Diehl
Sunday, May 7, 2006

TEHRAN -- The world may be focused on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declamations on the Holocaust and Iran's nuclear "rights," but as spring and its heat spread through this traffic-clogged city, the popular buzz is about the president's unlikely pronouncements on the rights of women. Having campaigned on a platform of restoring Islamic morality and won the endorsement of the country's most reactionary clerics, Ahmadinejad abruptly announced a couple of weeks ago that it was time to allow women to attend soccer matches. What's more, it would not be the business of his government to enforce dress restrictions. "Certain prejudices against women have nothing to do with Islam," the newly minted social liberal declared.

Mullahs were outraged: A couple issued fatwas that Ahmadinejad studiedly ignored. Liberals, closeted in their parlors since their exclusion from the political system, quietly gloated. After just nine months in office, they pointed out, the president had been forced to acknowledge Iran's dominant political reality: a population fed up with the strictures, corruption and economic failure of Islamic rule.

Maybe so. But the co-optation of middle-class women was also a demonstration of the deftness with which this militant is mobilizing public support behind a once-beleaguered regime as it prepares for a confrontation with the West. Ahmadinejad practices the populism of aggressive nationalism, made familiar by the dictators of the 20th century. He pours Iran's ballooning oil cash into wage and pension increases, cheap loans and debt cancellations for farmers. He barnstorms the provinces, mixing promises of prosperity, folksy jokes and fiery denunciations of the American and Zionist enemy.

While there is no reliable polling in Iran, even the bitterest of dissidents say the president's campaign is working. That's partly because their case is not heard: The government has banned independent reporting on the nuclear issue and closed all but a couple of opposition newspapers. The Revolutionary Guard recently began jamming foreign satellite and radio stations in Tehran and other cities; a campaign against dissident users of the Internet is planned. Intellectuals who attempt to address the West with a message other than defiance are quickly jailed like the philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, who tried to attend a transatlantic conference in Brussels 10 days ago and instead found himself in Tehran's Evin prison. By the end of last week he had been hospitalized, friends said.

The rabble-rousing serves Ahmadinejad less than it does Iran's real ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has managed to disarm the democratic movement that just three years ago still posed a serious threat to his power. This president is his faithful servant; what passes for political debate in Iran now occurs in the elite confines of Khamenei-controlled bodies such as the Guardian Council. There, moderate conservatives such as Iran's former nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, gripe that the confrontation with the U.N. Security Council is dangerous and unnecessary and that Iran should refreeze uranium enrichment in order to reopen negotiations.

For now, however, Khamenei has sided fully with his new national security chief, Ali Larijani, who argues that Iran's concessions to the West in 2003-04 only brought demands for further steps, and that the pressure would not cease until the Bush administration's objective of regime change was accomplished. Iran can check Bush's ambitions, officials here contend, by forcing the West to blink in the staredown over uranium enrichment.

The option of talks with the United States, floated by Larijani a month ago, appears to have been all but abandoned. "How can we talk about common interests in any place when we are talking about regime change in Iran?" said Larijani's deputy, Javad Vaeedi, when he met me in one of the security council's gilded salons.

The regime pounds the population unmercifully with its nuclear talking points. At Friday's main prayer service at Tehran University, hard-line cleric Ahmad Khatami rapped them out before a bused-in multitude of soldiers, workers and students. Iran has become "one of the few nuclear powers of the world," but Western colonialists are trying "to take revenge." The International Atomic Energy Agency "will never erase its record of shame" for its decision to support Western governments. Nor will the U.N. Security Council -- but "Iran will never back down from its righteous position because of resolutions that are unjust."

Is there no way to crack this solid front? Iranian liberals, including a couple of former ministers of the failed government that preceded Ahmadinejad, told me the opportunity will come when the president's populism begins to unwind. In spite of the oil revenue bonanza, that seems fairly likely. Wage increases and other pump priming are fueling double-digit inflation. A spike in the price of gold in the Tehran bazaar recently forced the government to intervene. A committee of the conservative-controlled parliament compiled a list of the promises Ahmadinejad has made on his provincial tours and concluded that most cannot be fulfilled. According to an official study, success in lowering Iran's official unemployment rate of 12 percent will require an annual growth rate of 8 percent -- something Iran could never reach if Western sanctions were imposed.

Women in the soccer stands will not stanch the roiling desire of Iran's under-30 population -- two-thirds of the country -- to join the 21st century. But the turn in opinion will take a while, if it happens -- a year, say the optimists. Until then, this will be Ahmadinejad's country.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company