During the eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran has become an increasingly dangerous place. That danger, however, is not posed by nuclear weapons – which remain an uncertain and, at worst, long-term threat – but more urgently from Iran’s own self-imposed collapse.
Far worse than Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comic-book sabre-rattling at Israel and the West, worse than his increasingly ineffective support of extremists and demagogues, has been his effect on his own country. A decade ago, Iran was a hopeful place, moving away from the excesses of its theocratic revolution and into the outer edges of normalcy and co-operative relations with the world. The Ahmadinejad era reversed that, plunging the country into self-isolation, poverty, mismanagement and paranoia.
That era is about to end. In four weeks, Iranians will decide on their next president, and the results could affect the fate of the world.
While far from a democracy – presidential candidates are frequently removed from the ballot by the unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Iran does maintain enough democratic institutions, including the term limit that prevents Mr. Ahmadinejad from running again, that its elections are both unpredictable and potentially transformative.
This time, Iranians will be voting out of anger. They’ve seen their fortunes plummet by their president’s policies and by his cold war with the West. The key question will be whether they aim that anger at Mr. Ahmadinejad or at the countries he has provoked into isolating Iran.
There are strong indications that Iranians have lost all patience with their clerical masters. We saw signs of that in the 2009 presidential election, when the Green Movement became a major force in mainstream politics, so much so that its success forced the Islamic regime to move to outright totalitarianism, crushing the movement and imprisoning its leaders. That crackdown and the palpable loss of freedoms that accompanied it (including a ban on YouTube) have added to the public malaise.
Every Iranian feels the pain of the Ahmadinejad years. Inflation is out of control, with basic staple foods and vegetables unaffordable to many working families. The rial, Iran’s currency, has plummeted in value. Unemployment is the norm, with little economic activity beyond the dysfunctional state- and army-controlled enterprises. The country’s heroin epidemic is considered the worst in the world. And crime, until recently extremely rare, has become a menacing phenomenon.
The state spends an inordinate share of its revenues subsidizing the price of gasoline and other commodities, and botched reforms to those subsidies have produced even more inflation. And despite being a major oil exporter, Iran, as a result of its shoddy refining capacity, is heavily dependent on expensive fuel imports – one of the reasons why its nuclear ambitions may not be entirely militaristic.
When the votes are counted on June 14, it might just be the economy, stupid. That was vividly apparent last weekend when former president and avowed reformist Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani surprised many by declaring himself a candidate just before registration closed. In response, the exchange value of the rial shot up 4 per cent.
Mr. Rafsanjani, though once a revolutionary stalwart, is known as the man who persuaded the ayatollahs to end the Iran-Iraq war and who modernized Iran’s economy in the 1990s. He is now an outspoken supporter of the Green Movement, and has the backing of its leaders.
He stands a decent chance. While Ayatollah Khamenei doesn’t seem to like him, he knows that any attempt to remove him from the ballot would create unwanted unrest. And the principlists, as Mr. Ahmadinejad’s conservatives are known, appear to be divided between at least two major candidates. The President’s power struggle with Ayatollah Khamenei means that even many moderate conservatives would vote for Mr. Rafsanjani.
Would a Rafsanjani presidency put an end to the nuclear program, recognize Israel’s sovereignty and agree to a co-operative relationship with the United States, as reformist president Mohammad Khatami tried to do 10 years ago (until he was rebuffed by George W. Bush)?
Almost certainly not. Iran is too deeply ensconced in its cold war. But his economic sense could achieve the same effect: No longer would militancy be an awkward alternative to economic success – just its ugly cousin, no longer needed. If Iran can stop threatening itself, it will stop threatening the world.