Judging by the front pages of Persian language newspapers neatly laid out at every Tehran newsstand, political scandal is in the air. President Ahmadinejad's closest aides, including right-hand man Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, are being accused of embezzlement, cronyism, collaboration with opposition forces, and even pagan rituals thrown in for shock value.
Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, recently re-elected by a wide margin to his
position by fellow members, asserted in public, "I wish for a strong Parliament"
— a barely coded attack on the executive branch and the President himself.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei discouraged the quarreling after an earlier rebuke
of the President, telling the Parliament that government officials should
"prevent differences of opinion and diversity in taste which result in challenge
and conflict." The President, seemingly confident and ascendant only months ago,
could end up a lame duck for the remainder of his term as his conservative
rivals in the Parliament seem to be planning to use the March 2012 parliamentary
elections to increase their checks on his power.
Most Iranians, however, seem unconcerned with the
political brawls among the revolutionary elite. They've seen these battles
before. And they will see them again. What occupies the ordinary citizen
nowadays is money. Next to the same newsstands in Tehran is a sparkling branch
of one of the eight new banks that have opened in the past year, with names like
City, Tourism, Tat, and Ansar Bank. These branches join an already crowded field
of consumer banking in Iran, competing for deposits by offering prizes such as
cars, trips to Dubai, and household appliances to new account holders. The
Iranian Central Bank dictates the interest rates of all banks, whether public or
private, so these businesses are forced to lure customers with what is
essentially a huge raffle. It might just be fitting that one of Tehran's leading
theater companies is opening a new Persian language production of David Mamet's
Glengarry Glen Ross this month — a play about the moral depths
individuals sink to when profit is pursued over all other considerations.
One account manager in an established public/private bank was not happy about
the new upstarts on most main streets. "There is too much competition now," she
exclaimed. But tens of millions of Iranians are presently receiving monthly
payments from the Iranian government, as compensation for higher prices due to
the reduction of the government's energy and food subsidies — and the money has
to go somewhere. For a few weeks in April the cash went into the gold market,
sending domestic gold prices in Iran soaring well above already astronomical
global prices. Housewives and speculators with free time tried their luck in the
boom market in gold coins — which Iranian families use as investments as well as
wedding dowries — until the Central Bank intervened and brought the price
Most individuals seem to be able to receive the
new government payments of $40 a month per person rather easily, though to be
able to do so they have to fill out paperwork. One retired woman preferred to
forego the process, uttering a sentiment occasionally heard by Iranians whenever
forms are involved: "If you want to get the payments, you need to fill out the
form and give the government all kinds of information, including your income.
And if you tell them your income, it won't be long until they come and tax it."
Nevertheless, it was reported in the local press that 2 million Iranians
residing outside the country are receiving cash payments. Even if this figure is
exaggerated, it symbolizes the relative accessibility of the economic program
for the citizenry.
The summer months will be a more serious test for the Islamic Republic's
energy reforms, as electricity bills will be far less subsidized than previous
years. Even more alarming for Iranians is that they are now expected to pay the
bills on time, upending a long-held custom of going months without paying for
utilities with little penalty or threat of switching off water and electricity.
Just as with the taxman, it is getting harder for Iranians to evade other
government bureaucracies as well.
Until the weather seriously heats up, Iranians can
allow themselves to be entertained by politics. While the headlines may be bold,
most Iranians have become accustomed to political infighting over the lifetime
of the Islamic Republic, including attempts by Presidents to save their
political careers by sacrificing close members of their cabinets and inner
circles. During President Hashemi Rafsanjani's administration (1989-1997), his
main advisor and Minister of Economy and Financial Affairs Mohsen Nourbakhsh was
impeached by a Parliament that was vociferously opposed to Rafsanjani's economic
policies. President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) watched as a close supporter,
the powerful former Tehran mayor Gholamreza Karbaschi, was tried for corruption
by the conservative establishment. And it is this very establishment, older but
no less formidable, that is now railing against President Ahmadinejad's
executive overreach and mishandling the country's economy over the past several
years. Revolutionary allies turned rivals is a repetitive drama in Iranian
Of course, when elites clash in Iran, and accusations of malfeasance and
corruption emerge, the public usually benefits from the brief moments of clarity
that arise when competing political factions leak and insinuate all sorts of
scandalous and titillating news to attack each other. If the President continues
to shake the hornets' nest by refusing to cede oversight and administrative
power to the Parliament, then the fireworks show will continue. For most
Iranians, however, this simply confirms what they already know about their
country's politics. If it touches their pocketbooks, however, that may be
another matter entirely.