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11.23.10

Ahmadinejad's Days Are Numbered

Iranian lawmakers—including former supporters—have moved to impeach President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for law violations that could land him in prison. Reza Aslan reports on the bombastic leader’s flagrant missteps.

There is a joke one hears a lot in Iran these days. A foreign journalist hops into a cab. As the car careens through Tehran's streets, they come to a clogged intersection where a brand new highway is being built. The journalist asks the driver, “What is the name of this new highway?” The cab driver proudly responds, “This is Shaheed Ahmadinejad highway,” meaning literally, “Ahmadinejad the Martyr” highway.

Of course, the bombastic president of Iran is still very much alive. But from the moment in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn into office last year, Iranians have been placing bets on just how long into his second term he will last.

It is not just a matter of the stolen election that returned Ahmadinejad to power, or the massive, months-long demonstration that followed. It is a sense among most Iranians—even among Ahmadinejad’s allies—that with the protests having died down and the “Green Movement” having been (for the moment) contained, the alliance of convenience that had formed among Iran’s feuding conservative factions would fracture, taking Ahmadinejad down with it.

The bombastic president of Iran is still very much alive. But from the moment in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn into office last year, Iranians have been placing bets on just how long into his second term he will last.

I reported on this very possibility last month, noting that a number of high-profile members of Iran’s parliament—many of them Ahmadinejad’s former supporters—have threatened the president with impeachment.

Omid Memarian: So Long, AhmadinejadNow comes word from Iran that the country’s right-leaning parliament did in fact attempt to impeach Ahmadinejad on 14 counts of violating the law, including illegally trading 76.5 million barrels of oil valued at approximately $9 billion and withdrawing nearly $600 million from Iran’s foreign reserve fund without parliamentary approval. These are serious charges that would lead not only to impeachment but, possibly, to arrest and imprisonment. However, according to reports from a number of conservative newspapers in Iran, lawmakers were kept from bringing the impeachment charges to a floor vote through direct interference by none other than the supreme leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The latest row between the president and the parliament comes at a time in which Iran's economy, already reeling from the steady success of President Obama’s targeted sanctions policy, is bracing for what many predict will be catastrophic consequences of Ahmadinejad's plan to end government subsidies for fuel, food, energy, and basic goods like milk, cooking oil, and flour. For decades, Iran’s presidents—from Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Mohammad Khatami—have tried to amend the subsidies system, valued at about $100 billion a year. But they were repeatedly deterred by the threat of massive protests. After all, in a country that has been isolated from the outside world for three decades, government subsidies are the sole means of survival for millions of poor and middle-class Iranians. According to a study by the International Monetary Fund, a typical Iranian household making about $3,600 a year receives an average of $4,000 a year in subsidies.

Although the subsidies program has yet to be fully terminated, the cost of basic goods and services in Iran already has skyrocketed. According to the Los Angeles Times, the price of a kilo of ground beef has jumped from $6, when Ahmadinejad began his first term as president, to $14.50 today. Meanwhile, as I reported last month, the cost of electricity has soared by as much as 1,000 percent for some Iranian households.

The irony is that Ahmadinejad is unquestionably doing the sensible thing in pushing ahead with the removal of government subsidies. Subsidies account for approximately 30 percent of Iran’s entire annual budget. That is simply untenable for an economy that just last month saw the value of its currency drop by a staggering 13 percent against the dollar. Iran’s oil industry, its most lucrative source of revenue, is in shambles after the recent departure of four oil companies— Shell, Total, ENI, and Statoil. The carpet industry, once valued at $500 million, has disintegrated thanks to increased sanctions. The government claims that 22 percent of Iranians are unemployed (experts say the number is closer to 40 percent), three-quarters of them under the age of 30. Some 40 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. Inflation is officially at 10 percent, though many economists believe it to be more like 24 percent. With the price of oil remaining stable and Iran’s international isolation increasing, the government simply cannot afford to keep paying out nearly a third of its entire budget in subsidies.

But while what Ahmadinejad is doing may be the right thing for the country, it is the way he is doing it—by virtual fiat—that has parliament up in arms. In order to alleviate some of the economic hardships that Iranians will no doubt face, Ahmadinejad is personally doling out millions of dollars to families in need. According to the Iranian newspaper Payvand, some 60 million people (out of a population of 75 million) will receive about $40 a month to offset the inevitable rise in prices.

Not only has Ahmadinejad’s decision to pass out cash to Iranians further hindered economic growth (the IMF estimates that the Iranian economy will grow by a mere 1.8 percent this year), his insistence on doing so unilaterally and without any guidance or oversight from parliament has created a sense of panic among Iran’s merchant class. That’s because no one trusts the president on economic matters any longer, not after his constant and deliberate misrepresentations of the country’s economic situation. Responding to the rosy government statistic about the health of the economy that Ahmadinejad continually touts as proof of his economic stewardship, the Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi spoke for most Iranians when he said the government figures “contradict what people see with their own eyes.” Last September, Rafsanjani publicly rebuked Ahmadinejad for continuing to treat the sanctions that are devastating Iran’s economy as, in his words, “a joke.”

All of this has many Iranians wondering how much longer Shaheed Ahmadinejad will be with us. And while it seems that, for the moment, the president can rely on the supreme leader for protection, his enemies in parliament are feeling increasingly emboldened by Ahmadinejad’s fading popularity. Indeed, on Monday, lawmakers started circulating a petition to begin openly debating his impeachment. They need 74 signatures to proceed. Thus far, they have received 40, and counting.

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism. His new book is Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.