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Farhi: New Iranian Majlis Will Be Critical of Ahmadinejad on Domestic Issues

Interviewee: Farideh Farhi, Adjunct Professor, University of Hawaii
Author: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 18, 2008

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Farideh Farhi, an Iranian-born expert on Iranian politics, who contributes to blog on global affairs, says even though Iranian conservatives have won March parliamentary elections, the next Majlis will be quite critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s domestic policies. Specifically, they are concerned about his populist economic policies and erratic management style, she says. Conservatives do support his strong anti-American stance, however. Farhi suggests that strong U.S. rhetoric on Iran has allowed conservatives to consolidate power.

Iran has had its parliamentary [Majlis] elections. The results were a bit preordained since many of the so-called reformist candidates were barred from running in the elections. How did it come out?

It came out as expected in the sense that the conservative candidates essentially won, in part due to the number of candidates they were allowed to run. Alternatively, the reformists—given the fact that they were essentially barred from running in two-thirds of the seats—did as well as they could do in that context.

The reformists, however, did not win in every constituency where they were allowed to run. Of course the reformists argue much of that has to do with the fact that they could not run with their best candidates, because often they had been disqualified. Nevertheless, there was a degree of competition in many districts, especially since there was also competition among conservatives themselves. Furthermore, there were many candidates running that one could not identify in terms of their affiliation. Let us not forget that you had an election for about 290 seats and there were close to 4,500 candidates running.

Let me ask you about a quotation from Ami-Ali Amiri, saying the results should not be interpreted as a victory for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because “the majority of the new parliament deputies will be critical of the government.” First of all, who is he and does what he says make sense?

He is a spokesman for some conservative candidates who ran on a platform critical of the government. Even in the current parliament, you have a large number of conservatives who have been critical of the president, in terms of his economic policies and erratic management style.

His argument that in this parliament you will have a larger number of people in general critical of Ahmadinejad is a correct assessment. There will be a stronger reformist presence in the new parliament or Majlis; you will also have conservative candidates that ran on platforms emphasizing more pragmatic approaches to economic management than the current government. Much will depend on who will lead this parliament and whether or not the leadership of the parliament is willing to challenge Ahmadinejad on those issues more than they have been willing to do in the past.

The Western press has focused on Ali Larijani, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator with the West, who won decisively in the city of Qom, which is a holy center in Iran. Does he stand a chance of becoming the parliamentary speaker even though he has been critical of Ahmadinejad?

He has been critical. He said he is not in disagreement with Ahmadinejad on principles but they have disagreements on questions of management and policy, obviously.

Who decides the speaker?

Members of the parliament. There shall be a vote and it will be a secret vote. Traditionally, the list leader in Tehran is generally chosen as the speaker of the parliament and that person, Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, has been the speaker for the past parliament. His relationship to Ahmadinejad has generally been supportive, until the past few months when parliament and the executive branch have engaged in a row over executive privilege. He has forced Ahmadinejad to back down on several important issues. I would say he is a front-runner for the speaker. But certainly Mr. Larijani would also be in contention.

The question of whether or not this new parliament can produce an effective leadership that can, in effect, stand against Ahmadinejad’s economic policies and erratic management style is an important one. The previous parliament, despite the fact that it took several important steps against Ahmadinejad—notably when he was first elected and it refused to confirm several of his candidates for minister—has ultimately been accused of being a weak parliament in relationship to a president that has acted in a very bold and erratic manner, both in terms of his populist policies as well as in reorganizing the economic decision-making process.

To most Americans the only real issue they hear about is Iran’s nuclear enrichment process. That’s not been an issue in this campaign, I take it, because foreign policy is controlled by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, right?

True. If there has been an issue as a backdrop to some of the reformist criticisms of the current government it is that the Iranian government has taken an antagonistic approach or a not-helpful approach to foreign relations. But the conservatives were able to make the argument that the hard-line stance taken by Ahmadinejad’s government has actually been an asset to him. Ahmadinejad has not been criticized on foreign policy, at least within his own ranks, in the way that he as been criticized in terms of economic policies. He is considered in Iran to have basically been successful in terms of his foreign policy, insofar as Iran’s intransigence stance has shown the world that it is serious about the nuclear issue. There has been some criticism of his rhetoric even among the conservatives and whether or not some of the issues that he has brought into the discussion were useful moves.

Such as his comments about Israel being removed?

Exactly, and that the Holocaust did not exist, and so on. He has been supported on the nuclear issue by the parliament. I think it will continue to do so.

Let’s talk about the economic policies. What is the main criticism of the president’s economic policies?

There are actually two. One is the general criticism about his expansive, populist policies which have led to increased government expenditures as well as drawing down on what is called the “oil fund” in order to pay for current expenses of the government and subsidies. That has created inflationary pressures and there is a rising inflation rate in Iran. That is a worrisome issue for most conservatives and even for the supporters of Ahmadinejad himself because the inflation rate, which is now officially at 20 percent—and that is probably a low estimate—obviously cuts into the Ahmadinejad’s own base of support. That issue has created tremendous amounts of concern. Many of the conservative candidates who are current deputies in the parliament have publicly admitted that they are sorry for their inability to control Ahmadinejad’s budgetary policy.

When you say populist, does that mean he is giving money or help to poor people?

Yes, for example, one of the most important expenses that actually brought quite a bit of press in the past year has been increases in subsidies that were given for importation of gasoline. Gasoline had been sold at very low prices before the government was forced to go through a rationing process. That forced the government to continuously withdraw from what is called the “oil fund.” This oil fund was created by the previous government as a source of investment. So this fund was continuously raided for consumption purposes as opposed to investment purposes. Despite the fact that the parliament continuously complained about this, it ultimately gave in at every junction. That is one set of concerns, that the government policies have not been very constructive in terms of long-term investments.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has also engaged in what many consider to be erratic management acts. For example, one of his first acts when he came to power was to change the daylight savings time, without much idea about whether that was something that was good or not. Initially the parliament gave in, but after a year or so, they changed the time again. He also has gotten rid of many independent economic organizations, for example the Management and Planning Organization that had existed in Iran since prior to the revolution [of 1979] and has been a very important part of the budget-making process. He brought that organization under the auspices of the executive branch and that created tremendous dissatisfaction and concern. In fact, the former head of the organization has resigned over this issue. He is now the president of the University of Tehran and gave an interview saying that he made a mistake resigning, that he should have essentially stayed on and fought this decision because of its serious effects.

In general, Ahmadinejad is accused of essentially relying on a small number of his advisers to make decision. The Iranian political system has traditionally relied on the coordination of a variety of factions and individuals in decision-making.

There has been a lot of discussion in this country, primarily stimulated by human rights organizations, about protests in the universities, protests by women’s groups, all of which have been put down very harshly. Has there been a deterioration of the human rights situation over the last couple of years?

The government has reacted to domestic groups by effectively not allowing them to be active in civil society. The government behaves in very proactive ways, which is to say that even before there are demonstrations, it is on the watch to prevent any kind of political activity or open political activity. When they do happen, like they have happened in the past month at the University of Shiraz over issues that have very little to do with broad political concerns and more to do with specific dissatisfactions that students have about housing and food and so on, it has reacted harshly.

The government has paranoia about outside forces trying to overthrow the Iranian political regime. Some of that paranoia can conceivably be said to be justified because external pressures on Iran have increased, but obviously this is not a legitimate position to take in relationship to political activities or opposition activities in Iran. The government even constantly accuses the reformists of being in the pocket of outside forces and being supported by the American government. One could say that outside forces have given a good excuse to the Iranian government to crush legitimate dissent inside the country. But it is certainly not a justified position.

It has been no secret that President Bush’s administration has been extremely hostile to Iran. Are Iranians very attuned to what’s happening or what’s said in the United States? Are they hoping for or expecting a big change with the next elections in the United States?

The Iranian leaders follow what goes on in the United States and certainly take note of every single statement that is made. Over the last few years, as the Bush administration’s antagonism towards Iran has increased, the government has effectively used the language that is used by the Bush administration as a reminder to the Iranian population that the United States takes sides in Iranian politics, [and] that it wants to undermine the Iranian political system. In the process, the conservatives have been able to use that rhetoric to close the political system more effectively and also attack the reformists by suggesting that they represent the interests of the United States in Iran. The kind of rhetoric that the Bush administration uses has helped the conservatives to consolidate power in Iran .

The Iranian leadership is watching the American elections very carefully but it understands the problems the United States has with Iran cut across political parties. Therefore they do not necessarily expect a major change in terms of Iran. They certainly expect some sort of change of rhetoric but they understand the issues that Iran and the United States have are much more fundamental. Unless there is a strategic reassessment in the United States insofar as Iran is concerned, they do not believe there will be much of a difference in the future.

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