“HELP, help, help!” screams a cartoon Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, dropping his watering can and running for dear life as a giant dollar sign threatens to crush him.
Attacks like these are multiplying as criticism mounts over the mismanagement of Iran’s economic plight. With the rial plummeting against the dollar, accusations that the president is manipulating Iran’s foreign currency reserves — hence the watering can — reflect discontent among ordinary people.
Ahmadinejad has been mired in controversy from his election in 2005, a populist figure who has been both publicly backed and privately vilified by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Islamic republic’s hardline clerical establishment.
Only last week, as Ahmadinejad was addressing the UN general assembly, his own media adviser was arrested.
He also faced angry criticism over the 140-strong entourage that accompanied him to the UN. But his speech in New York lacked the familiar fireworks, and an interview with one US newspaper sounded almost conciliatory on the burning question of Iran’s nuclear programme — the reason for some of the toughest international sanctions ever imposed.
Economists agree that the currency crisis has been triggered by financial sanctions which, on top of a huge reduction in oil revenues from the EU, make it harder for Iran to carry on injecting petrodollars into markets to keep exchange rates down.
“What is making it worse is that the country is plagued by a power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei,” says one Iranian analyst, “so instead of handling the crisis the president is preoccupied by the arrest of his press adviser and the central bank seems completely undecided and shifts from one policy to another.”
Ahmadinejad, banned from standing for a third term, is widely seen as yesterday’s man. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who claimed victory in 2009, remains under house arrest. In March’s majlis elections, Khamenei loyalists swept the board.
The president has severe image problems in the West, but he has been more pragmatic than Khamenei on the need to ease tensions. No surprise that he is at loggerheads with the Revolutionary Guards, who seem to welcome an attack by Israel or the US.
Western governments appear to be hoping that the sanctions will encourage popular unrest and a policy shift. But repression has been successful and there seems little appetite for mass protests. Media outlets have been officially ordered to avoid “bleak” reporting about the economy.
“What is happening now is that anyone who resorts to protests can be easily labelled as damaging national security,” warns a veteran Tehran-watcher. “So this tactic by the big powers of encouraging a popular uprising effectively forces Iranians to shut up.”
Ali Ansari of the University of St Andrews argues that the Iranian government has now lost all credibility on economic management with its people, not least because there are no independent means of accounting and auditing.
“Iranian politicians have been quite lucky — especially Ahmadinejad,” he says. “But all of a sudden there are no more miracles around the corner.” — The Guardian, London