Friday, September 18, 2009

Ahmadinejad's Desperate Gamble

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This past weekend marked the arrival of what Iranians call Shab-e Qadr (the Night of Power). According to Islamic tradition, one of the odd-numbered nights in the last 10 days of the month of Ramadan corresponds with the first revelation of Qur'anic verse and is especially holy. Shia Muslims in Iran observe this on the 23rd of Ramadan. Additional commemorations are held on the 19th and 21st to solemnise the assassination of Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and first of the 12 Shia Imams. Since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, official state services for Shab-e Qadr have been held at the late supreme leader's Tehran mausoleum and attended by thousands of worshippers. This year, however, all services in Iran's capital were cancelled. It was rumoured that millions of protesters were planning to show up to demonstrate against the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The cancellation of such a religiously significant event signifies just how tense Iran's post-election political landscape still is. Although large-scale protests have been brought to a halt, the country has by no means returned to business as usual. Chants of "Allah-o Akbar!" still echo from the rooftops and security forces remain on high alert to squelch any protests that may take place. The Islamic Republic has witnessed protests in the past, but never before has it been confronted with a movement that refused to die down. Despite the regime's best efforts to repress the reformist opposition, public displays of defiance seem to increase daily.

What distinguishes this year's post-election unrest from prior demonstrations has been the protesters' success at disrupting the government's fiscal priorities. By forcing the regime to defend itself against the threat of reform, protesters have managed to make the government incur unanticipated costs while simultaneously struggling to maintain the social welfare programmes and infrastructure spending for which money has already been budgeted. The costs being borne by the Islamic Republic vary widely. At the lower end, the regime has been forced to clean up anti-government graffiti on buildings and monuments such as Tehran's Freedom Tower. At the upper end, security force numbers have been bolstered by paying new recruits the equivalent of about £120 per day – a small fortune by Iranian standards. (Read more...)