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Eight days after Barack Obama delivered his much-touted speech in Cairo, Iranians are going to the polls to vote for their own president. Although reelection for incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemed to be guaranteed just a few weeks ago, there now appears to be growing potential for an upset victory by challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been running a campaign as the candidate of change.
Mousavi is no new-comer to the Iranian political stage. He held the now-defunct post of Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989 (which was, at the time, an executive position much akin to the current presidency) during Iran’s brutal eight-year war with Iraq. Currently the president of the Iranian Academy of Arts, the trilingual Mousavi – Farsi, Arabic, and English – served as a presidential adviser from 1989 to 2005 and held a position on the Expediency Council, Iran’s highest arbitration body.
In the American and European mainstream media, Iranian supporters of Mousavi are routinely referred to as “more educated,” “better off,” and more “pro-Western” than their counterparts who support Ahmadinejad. The Iranian economy, which has seen rising inflation and slowed growth in the past four years, has become a major point of contention during the campaign process and recent debates. The President has been blamed for three rounds of UN Security Council sanctions, diminishing Iranian prestige and reputation internationally, and Mousavi even chided him as arrogant and driving Iran toward “dictatorship.”
Ahmadinejad’s detractors point to all these factors as proof of his failed leadership; however, a closer look into the accusations may reveal a different story – or, at least, a different perspective.
Ahmadinejad is a populist who is seen as having “a deep sympathy for the poor” and has worked very hard to redistribute wealth across the wide range of socioeconomic tiers of Iranian society. He has helped the poor and lower middle class by increasing pensions (sometimes by more than doubling them), loans, and government workers’ wages, also increasing and maintaining financial support for the families of those killed or wounded during the Iran-Iraq War. The New York Times reports that Ahmadinejad “has also handed out so-called justice shares of state firms that are selling stock to the public, and provided low-interest loans to young married couples and entrepreneurs.”
Still, opponents claim that his focus on redistribution, rather than creation, of wealth within Iran has harmed the Iranian economy and has resulted in increased unemployment, especially in Iran’s vast young population. Nevertheless, his supporters disagree. “Who says Ahmadinejad created unemployment?” twenty-five year old market worker Hamid Nassiri told the Times. “It’s not true at all. He is from the people, and he attends to the people’s needs.”
In fact, even though discussion of the Iranian economy seems to be working against Ahmadinejad, Kelly Campbell of the U.S. Institute of Peace has thoroughly debunked many of the myths about Iranian economic turmoil, explaining that the country has “actually performed well in aggregate terms, with a moderate rate of growth in the last ten to fifteen years, including healthy GDP and per capita growth in investment. In the last three years, Iran’s actual growth rate has averaged 5.8 percent.” Kelly continues,
Nor do economic indicators support assertions by some observers that inflation is much higher than the rate stated by the Iranian government. In the last fifteen years, the consumer price index (CPI) has increased by a factor of forty-two; if the inflation rate were actually twice the reported rate, the CPI would have increased by a factor of 950. Prices have increased by a factor of five in the last ten years, not twenty, as some claim. While this rate of inflation is cause for concern, it is in line with the depreciation of the exchange rate.
[Another] myth is that Iran suffers from widespread poverty and rising inequality. The poverty rate actually declined throughout the 1990s and continues to fall, and is low by international standards—especially when compared to that of other developing countries. Government public service and social assistance programs have helped to reduce poverty, particularly in rural areas. In addition, economic inequality throughout Iran has remained fairly stable and does not appear to be increasing.
Over the past few years, Ahmadinejad has also courted economic alliances with a number of Latin and South American nations, promising $1 billion to help develop Bolivia’s oil and gas sector, opening a trade office in Ecuador, and entering into various agreements with Nicaragua, Cuba, Paraguay, Brazil and, of course, Venezuela. Surprisingly, however, not all of these overtures have to do with oil trade. In 2007, Nicaragua received a loan of over $200 million from Iran to build a hydroelectric dam and, in August of last year, Ahmadinejad donated $2 million for the construction of a hospital. The Council of Hemispheric Affairs‘ Braden Webb reports that “Venezuela and Iran are now gingerly engaged in an ambitious joint project, putting on-line Veniran, a production plant that assembles 5,000 tractors a year, and plans to start producing two Iranian designed automobiles to provide regional consumers with the ‘first anti-imperialist cars.’”
Ahmadinejad’s inroads into Latin and South American, in order to act as “counter-lasso” to the United States, have certainly upped his anti-imperialism credentials – so much so, in fact, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the strong relations “disturbing.”
Mousavi, on the other hand, has set his sites closer to home, attacking Ahmadinejad for focusing on the Americas rather than “investing in Iran’s neighboring countries…the President has obviously failed to get his priorities right.” Mousavi, on the other hand, favors increased privatization and foreign investment. “We should create an economic revolution to fight inflation,” he said during a televised debate. “The private sector is a vital part of our plans to revive the country’s economy.” Believing that Ahmadinejad squandered excess oil revenue while in office, Mousavi insists, “The oil industry should improve. Right now our economy is solely restricted to oil exports without realizing that the oil industry is dependent on other economic sectors” and that “stable economic policies will help Iran to attract foreign investment.”
As a self-described reformist, Mousavi has rallied a strong following by calling for more freedom of the press, freedom of information, more professional opportunities for women, the abolition of the so-called “Morality Police,” as well as noting that “blinkered attitudes and false interpretations of Islamic teachings do not satisfy public interests and only trigger the country’s backwardness.” He wishes to push for more personal freedoms, lifting the state ban on private television stations, and also believes that the supervision of police and law enforcement forces should be handed over to the President, rather than remaining in the hands of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As to Mousavi’s claims that Ahmadinejad is dictatorial, the fact that Ahmadinejad has no control over Iran’s military, doesn’t have final say on foreign policy matters, has no power over the nuclear energy program, and has often been challenged by both the Majlis (Parliament) and Judiciary, quickly exposes those accusations as campaign rhetoric and name-calling. In fact, the Iranian legislature rejected more than two-thirds of Ahmadinejad’s recommendations for ministers which resulted in it taking almost a year before his Cabinet was fully staffed. Hardly the trajectory of a tyrant.