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Falling into Ahmadinejad’s trap | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not lying when he predicted that the price of a barrel of oil would rise to one hundred and fifty dollars. Indeed the market has already recorded a new record high, with prices reaching one hundred and twenty dollars per barrel. This followed Ahmadinejad’s condemnation of the Gulf States and the Bahraini government, in which he warned of the consequences of what he called the “Saudi- UAE invasion of Bahrain” and put himself forward as the defender of Bahrain’s Shiites.

Iran’s economic situation is deplorable, due to declining government revenues and the adoption of a harsh austerity policy – in order for Iran to complete its nuclear project – which comes at the expense of citizens’ living standards. Therefore raising the price of oil would bring additional financial gain [to Iran]. On top of this, Ahmadinejad’s game of threats has been uncovered, thanks to Bahrain and the Gulf states, which entered into a public confrontation with Iran and raised the level of tension between the two sides to the highest levels for more than twenty-five years.

More important than money, for Ahmadinejad, is the political surge from Shiites in the Middle East. The crisis in Bahrain, along with Ahmadinejad’s condemnation of the Gulf States, has granted him unprecedented popularity amongst Iran’s own Shiite community, not to mention the Arab Shiites in general. Ahmadinejad has appeared as a savior to the Arab Shiites, somebody to rescue them from the clutches of the Sunnis, who were being portrayed as barbarians setting upon the Bahraini Shiites camped in Pearl Square, committing terrible massacres against them which were ignored by the international community.

A few weeks ago Ahmadinejad faced a renewed popular uprising in Tehran, prompting him to exploit the world’s preoccupation with the revolution in Egypt to besiege his enemies [Grand Ayatollah] Montazeri and [Mir Hossein] Moussavi in Tehran. Public anger was growing against him after he lifted subsidies on vital goods, and raised the price of diesel and gasoline, which increased the misery of ordinary Iranians.

Thus Ahmadinejad switched strategy and abandoned his former slogans; such as the threat of Israel, his pan-Arab discourse, and victory in the interests of Islamic groups, both Sunni and Shiite. He decided instead to ride the wave of sectarianism and announce his defense for the Arab Shiites, particularly those in Bahrain.

His stock increased among the Gulf Shiites and the Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon, as he portrayed himself as the protector of Shiites. Ahmadinejad claimed he no longer wanted to lead the pan-Arabs, or defend them, specifically the Sunnis and groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, and did not return to his constant discourse of confronting Israel, which usually gains the support of most Sunnis. Ahmadinejad, like others, has noted that the Arab revolutions had produced a sectarian discourse in Bahrain and Syria, and it seems that the Iranian president – who is besieged in his own country – has realized that he can exploit this for his own benefit. Thus, he adopted a sectarian Shiite discourse. His affiliates in other Shiite leaderships, like Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah have noted this new strategy and have raised their threatening rhetoric. It seems that the Gulf States were provoked by this, thereby falling into Ahmadinejad’s trap by responding to this discourse, and widening the debate and controversy, which is exactly what he hoped for. This has increased his domestic popularity for the first time since the elections, which he won by fraud. I expect Ahmadinejad’s propaganda campaign to intensify in the coming days because he is aware of its value in the present environment, regardless of the negative consequences this has on the Bahraini [political] opposition, or Iran’s relations with the Gulf States. The main concern for the [Iranian] president at this point, is to gain popularity among the Iranians, and to a lesser extent among the Arabs Shiites.

Ahmadinejad is detested by a large group of Iranian citizens, and most of them are Shiite, and is extremely hated by most of the Iranian political leadership who came to power with the founder of the Iranian Revolution thirty years ago. Therefore it is only natural that he would try to exploit this situation and ride the wave of sectarianism to break from his [political] isolation, and avoid the dangers of the revolutions burning close by.