Iran Reformist Warns Democracy at Stake
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; 3:22 PM
TEHRAN, Iran -- One of Iran's top reform politicians said Wednesday that demonizing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad _ such as in this week's Columbia University forum _ only strengthens hard-liners' hand as Iranians rally around their otherwise unpopular leader.
Even more damaging would be a military strike against Iran, which Mohsen Mirdamadi said would set back democracy a decade or more.
Mirdamadi leads Iran's largest pro-reform party, which has been working to make a comeback after being forced from power by hard-liners like Ahmadinejad who are close to the country's Islamic clerical leadership.
He told The Associated Press that Ahmadinejad should have little chance of re-election in two years because of increasing criticism that he has failed to fix the economy and has hurt Iran on the world stage.
But sharp criticism of the hard-line leader this week in New York _ including during his appearance at Columbia _ boosts his popularity, Mirdamadi said in an exclusive interview.
"The remarks by the Columbia University president were like an indictment against the Iranian president. Ahmadinejad's opponents don't support this," he said.
"The blistering speech against Ahmadinejad only strengthened him back home and made his radical supporters more determined," Mirdamadi said during the hour-long interview in his central Tehran office.
During Monday's question-and-answer session, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger gave a tough introduction to Ahmadinejad, including telling him that he resembles a "petty and cruel dictator."
Many Iranians found the comments insulting, particularly because in Iranian traditions of hospitality, a host should be polite to a guest, no matter what he thinks of him. To many, Ahmadinejad looked like the victim, and hard-liners praised the president's calm demeanor during the event, saying Bollinger was spouting a "Zionist" line.
Tensions are high between Washington and Tehran over U.S. accusations that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and arming Shiite militias in Iraq that target U.S. troops. Iran has denied both claims.
Fears are high in Iran that the U.S. or Israel will carry out a military strike on the country, which Iranian leaders have warned would spark retaliation against Israel and U.S. bases in the region. Washington has said it is addressing the Iran situation diplomatically, but U.S. officials also say that all options are open.
Mirdamadi said Western powers have to stop any talk of war if they want democracy to succeed in Iran. The threat of an attack "helps Ahmadinejad's political agenda," he said.
"Any U.S. military action against Iran will only boost radicals within Iran ... Military action will set back democracy in Iran for a decade or two," Mirdamadi warned.
Mirdamadi, leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, was a top lawmaker among the democracy activists who held a majority in parliament under Ahmadinejad's predecessor, pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami, from 1997-2005.
But in 2004, hard-liners in the unelected clerical bodies that oversee Iran's political system barred him and other reformists from seeking re-election, putting conservatives back in control.
The following year, Ahmadinejad was elected president. Reformists _ who want to loosen Iran's social and political restrictions and favor better relations with the U.S. _ were left demoralized and divided.
Since then, Ahmadinejad's star has fallen at home. Elected on a populist agenda, he failed to keep campaign promises to bring oil revenues to every family, eradicate poverty and tackle unemployment.
Housing prices in Tehran have tripled, and prices for fruit, vegetables or other basic commodities have more than doubled since last summer. Inflation further worsened after a 25 percent increase in fuel prices in May.
Last December, Ahmadinejad's allies were humiliated in municipal elections, with some reformists gaining seats. He was dealt another blow when a rival, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, was chosen as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a powerful clerical body, over a close Ahmadinejad ally.
Conservatives who once supported the president have increasingly joined in the criticism, saying he needs to pay more attention to the economy and that his inflammatory rhetoric has needlessly stoked tensions with the West.
Mirdamadi said democratic reforms still have a chance of success.
"Ahmadinejad's popularity has declined. Those who voted for him expected improvement in their living standards but it didn't happen. The honeymoon is over," he said. "If this trend continues, he will have no chance for re-election."
Associated Press writer Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran contributed to this report.