No Iranian spring

The fall of the rial won't lead to a public uprising against the Ayatollahs.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (black background) 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (black background) 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
The international media got it wrong again.
In early October, when a handful of Iranian merchants and money changers protested over the collapse of the rial, several commentators were quick to announce the imminent coming of an “Iranian Spring”. True, international sanctions are having an impact.
But the domestic situation in Iran is far more complex – and a sweeping Arab-style uprising against the regime of the Ayatollahs is not in the cards.
One of the reasons for this is that Iran’s woes are, to a large extent, a result of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic incompetence.
Much of the domestic criticism, therefore, is aimed at him personally, and not the regime as such. We should not overestimate the importance of the demonstration in the Tehran bazaar either. The merchants were protesting against dwindling incomes. Their beef was economic not political. It fizzled out within a few hours, and the most significant opposition leader today, Reza Pahlavi, the deposed Shah’s son, failed to capitalize on it. When he expressed his backing, his own people asked how could he support rich bazaar merchants in a non-political protest? More importantly: The fiercest criticism of Ahmadinejad’s handling of the economy comes from groups within the regime, bent on replacing him as president. For example, Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, the Majles, and one of the leading candidates to take over as president when Ahmadinejad steps down next summer, is one of his most vociferous economic critics. Several Iranian politicians have even accused Ahmadinejad of deliberately undermining the rial to leave scorched earth behind him. In other words, for many Iranians, it is Ahmadinejad’s policies, as much as the sanctions, that are destroying the economy.
Opposition to Ahmadinejad intensified when he acknowledged during a recent media conference that sanctions were indeed having a negative impact, and then went on to accuse his political rivals of undermining the economy. This led to charges in the Majles that he was dividing the radical camp and giving succor to the enemy.
Some delegates even raised the possibility of impeachment, a rare step taken only once before, soon after the revolution, against Abolhassan Bani-Sadr in 1981.
Clearly, Ahmadinejad’s inability to steer the national economy is exacerbating the crisis. A few years ago he dismantled the national economic planning and budget department, declaring himself an engineer who didn’t need help with economic planning. He fired economic aides as “lazy purveyors of useless advice,” and sacked three Central Bank governors before appointing his own man, Mahmoud Bahmani.
Iranian economists published two petitions warning that Ahmadinejad’s policies would ruin the economy. Most of the signatories, including Fariborz Raees-Dana, Iran’s premier economist, are now in jail.
In his seven years as president, Ahmadinejad never submitted a single realistic budget to parliament. When legislators invariably accused him of presenting false data, he retorted that he had no time for Western economic methodology. Pervasive economic corruption is also having an incremental effect. In one case, $3 billion in state funds went missing. Some people were sentenced to death, others to long prison terms. Most Iranians, however, believe that they were all small fry, and that the real culprits still hold very senior positions.
All this is not to deny that sanctions are biting. Oil revenues have dropped by around 75 percent, more and more shipping and airline companies have stopped doing business with Iran, and a naval and air blockade seems to be taking shape. Iran is facing severe across-the board budgetary pressures and even the Commander in Chief of the Iranian armed forces, Hassan Firouz-Abadi, has spoken of a possible 10 percent cut in the defense budget.
But for sanctions to become crippling, they need to be significantly strengthened. The Iranian regime will only give up its nuclear programs when it feels its very existence is threatened. And that is the option that, one way or another, needs to be developed.
Menashe Amir, former heads of Israel Radio’s Persian Service, is an expert on Iranian affairs.