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Saturday, December 25, 2010
Economy, Not Politics, Is Worry For Iranians
By Parisa Hafezi from Tehran This article was published in Gulf Times on 26/12/2010
With Iranians feeling choked by foreign sanctions, broken promises and money worries, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces as much pressure on the economic front as from politics.
Ahmadinejad has cut fuel and food subsidies to save $100bn on the state budget and to make Iran less vulnerable to any sanctions on fuel imports. Critics say he risks stoking inflation and consumer unrest.
For many ordinary Iranians, the economy is their main headache. They are not concerned whether the Islamic Republic is covertly building nuclear bombs, as the US and its allies fear.
International sanctions and the government’s elimination of subsidies have led to a general fear that life will get worse. The US imposed new sanctions on Iran on Tuesday to increase pressure on Tehran over its nuclear programme, which the Islamic state says is only for peaceful purposes.
“People are worried about the economic situation. You can not care about politics when you are worried about not being able to pay your rent,” said Farokh Amiri, a political science teacher.
Analysts say that despite public disgust with the economy, the revival of anti-government unrest was unlikely as the opposition leaders no longer had the power to inspire people.
The 2009 disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad plunged the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter into its biggest internal crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution and exposed a deepening rift among the ruling elite.
“In the absence of coherent opposition leadership, mobilising unrest is almost impossible,” political science teacher Samad Hojjati said.
Students, merchants and clerics, who played a major role in mobilising unrest to topple the US-backed shah in 1979, have been either paralysed or sidelined since the vote, which the opposition says was rigged.
The establishment has neutralised its opponents and stamped out any expression of dissent, a senior western diplomat in Tehran said.
“Those who took into streets will think twice. The government has made any opposition very costly,” he said.
Thousands of people protesting against the conduct of the election were arrested after the vote. Most have since been released, though more than 80 people have received jail sentences of up to 16 years. Two people who were put on trial after the election have been executed.
“He played a very dangerous gamble to regain his legitimacy and popularity among Iranian grassroots...that is why he acts like a Robin Hood” said analyst Hojjati, referring to the monthly cash compensation of $40 per person which the government pays to the needy.
“Ahmadinejad needs lower-income Iranians’ vote to secure a 2012 parliamentary election victory.”
But frustration is simmering in the nation. Prices of most consumer goods have risen and many middle and lower-class Iranians already struggle to make ends meet.
“The monthly amount of $40 does not even take care of the electricity bill after the subsidy cut. How can I manage with a meagre salary of $500, when prices are rising,” said school teacher Hamid Maleki, 46, a father of three.
Thousands of Iranian truck drivers began strikes after an increase in the price of diesel fuel, opposition websites reported.
Courting confrontation both at home and abroad, Ahmadinejad also played a risky game by sacking his foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki. He was a close ally of parliament speaker Ali Larijani, a critic of Ahmadinejad’s policies.
Appointing Ali Akbar Salehi, an aide who heads the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation, as acting Foreign Minister despite his lack of diplomatic expertise had a clear but indirect message, a former official said.
“Ahmadinejad dislikes criticism. Only like-minded people can have positions at his cabinet,” he told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Ahmadinejad’s close aides have outraged many conservatives, including MPs, because of their “unorthodox” comments.
“Many lawmakers respect Salehi, who stands a good chance of overcoming the barrier of parliament’s required confidence vote for the post,” the former official said.