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21 3 THE AXIS OF EVIL AND THE GREAT SATAN America is the Great Satan, the wounded snake. —Ayatollah Khomeini States like [Iran, Iraq, North Korea] constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. —President GeorgeW. Bush Spoken two decades apart, the epigraphs to this chapter sum up the troubled history between Iran and the United States. Nietzsche once said,“There are no facts, only interpretations.” His observation holds true about the manner in which Tehran and Washington remained preoccupied with each other in the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first. Almost thirty years after the overthrow of Iran’s autocratic ruler and America’s policeman in the oilrich Persian Gulf, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the legacy continues to haunt the two countries. No significant event in Iran could go without repercussions for relations with the West. The presidential election of June 2009 was no exception. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative incumbent, was seeking reelection after four turbulent years. A range of internal and external peculiarities affected the 2009 campaign, which was both exciting and unique. In a country of more than 70 million people, nearly two-thirds were under thirty years of age, and the rate of Imperial Designs_13448.indd 21 3/12/13 2:44 PM 22   IMPERIAL DESIGNS literacy exceeded 75 percent.1 Iran’s economy, facing ever-tightening sanctions since the 1979 revolution, had suffered a steady decline. Oil revenues had failed to benefit the population. The downturn in the world economy had affected Iranian oil exports particularly badly, and its balance of payment difficulties were acute. Iran’s financial reserves were low.2 Inflation had risen to more than 30 percent in 2008, when the Central Bank intervened to limit lending to prevent the expansion of money supply. In 2009 inflation had come down, but still hovered around 24 percent. Unemployment was 17 percent, about a third higher than it was in 2005, when Ahmadinejad became president. The chorus of criticism of Ahmadinejad for economic mismanagement grew louder as the election approached, not only from his political opponents but sometimes from onetime supporters. The Islamic Revolution Devotees Society,a grouping of revolutionary veterans cofounded by the Iranian president,accused him of launching huge state-funded projects while Iran’s poor suffered, and his stated goal of social justice was undermined.3 A number of senior Iranian clerics were outspoken in their criticism of Ahmadinejad, including a leading traditionalist conservative,Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavikani, a former prime minister:“We shift problems and fault onto others and in order to say we are innocent we blame others. . . . In my meeting with Mr Ahmadinejad I told him not to use us [clerics] as instruments. We were combatants before the [1979] Revolution.We fought against corruption and what was against religion .”4 Ahmadinejad routinely dismissed such complaints. He said they were a product of intervention by hostile media.He blamed“secret networks”for rising house prices. Ahmadinejad had a doctorate in engineering, but he often made light of complaints about the economy by telling jokes. He told members of the Iranian parliament to visit his grocer to find out the truth about the rising price of tomatoes . He then suggested that he often took advice about the economy from his local butcher, who knew all the economic problems of the people. And he said that he prayed to God that he never learned about economics. The electoral system of Iran was by no means perfect. In other countries in the region—for example, Saudi Arabia, small gulf emirates, and Egypt—elections were either nonexistent or held under extreme restrictions. Rigging was widespread . But these states were ruled by America’s allies. In the 2009 presidential election,Ahmadinejad faced three challengers. Mir-Hossein Mousavi was seen as the leading opposition candidate. He had been Iran’s last prime minister (1981– 89) before a presidential form of government was introduced.5 Three others had been rejected by the Council of Guardians, which vetted all candidates. Former Imperial Designs_13448.indd 22 3/12/13 2:44 PM THE AXIS OF EVIL AND THE GREAT SATAN   23 president Mohammad Khatami, a relative liberal, announced his candidacy but later withdrew and declared his support for Mousavi. Another ex-president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, often described as a centrist-pragmatic conservative, was known to be unhappy with the state of affairs.6 A high percentage of young voters, economic decline, and restlessness among influential Iranians encouraged...


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