Talk to Iran's so-called Khomeinist reformers and you are sure to hear how President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's political fortune is taking a dive.
"People's discontent is growing," says Hassan Rouhani, a mullah who was fired by Ahmadinejad as chief nuclear negotiator, as if people counted in the Khomeinist system.
"The present government is treading a dangerous course," adds Hashemi Rafsanjani, another mullah, and the man defeated by Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election.
Over the past two months, we have had a number of "emissaries" from Tehran peddling the fiction that "the reformists" are ready to make a comeback in next spring's general election. A similar message is spread by lobby groups sympathetic to the IRI in Europe and the United States
Those who claim that Ahmadinejad is losing, make four demands:
* There should be no military action against the IRI,
* The United Nations should impose no new sanctions
* The major democracies should not support the anti-Khomeinist opposition, for example by condemning the torture of trade unions, the repression of ethnic and religious minorities, and the oppression of women,
* The UN must accept the IRI's nuclear strategy as it is, and invite Tehran to negotiations without the precondition of suspending IRI's uranium enrichment programme.
The "reformists" claim that any tough action against the IRI would strengthen Ahmadinejad's position. In other words, if you want to get rid of Ahmadninejad the best thing to do is to surrender to him.
This is precisely the argument that many, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, used in support of their appeasement of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Just days before he flew to Baghdad for his infamous accord with Saddam Hussein in 1998, Annan asked this reporter at an informal chat on the margins of the World Economic Forum at Davos , whether or not it was possible to make the Iraqi dictator " cooperative by not pushing his back to the wall."? When it was suggested that Saddam was the type who would not stop unless stopped, Annan produced a diplomatic sneer. He did not realize that Saddam was behaving as he did precisely because he had convinced himself that there would be no serious consequences.
Now let us see what would happen if the same policy were adopted vis-à-vis Ahmadinejad.
There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad has radicalized the Khomeinist regime's domestic and foreign policies to a degree not known since the early days of the IRI in 1981-83.
At home, he has launched a massive crackdown, which has included:
* The arrest of almost a million people over the past six months. (This includes individuals who were held for a few hours to be cautioned on their anti-Islamic appearance.)
* The highest number of executions since 1988.
* The disbanding of independent trade unions and the jailing of hundreds of their leaders and activists.
* The imposition of a new "Islamic" dress code, and the revival of the ban on private musical concerts and other cultural events.
* The abolition of state subsidies on gasoline, something that Ahmadinejad's predecessors mulled over for 15 years but lacked the courage to implement.
* Massive privatization of state-owned enterprises, mostly sold to the personnel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). (Again, this was something that Ahmadinejad's predecessors had promised but dared not apply.)
* Shutting down scores of newspapers and magazines and disbanding two independent news agencies. (The current media crackdown is the biggest since 2001when then President Muhammad Khatami carried out a major purge.)
* The use of force against ethnic Kurdish, Baluch, and Arab dissidents, including military intervention against Kurdish rebels' strongholds in the Iraqi Kurdistan.
* A massive purge of leadership aimed at strengthening the position of the IRGC as the effective ruling elite. (By some estimates, more than 500 high officials have been replaced since 2005.)
All this does not look like the record of a leader afraid of imposing his agenda.
Ahmadinejad's performance on the foreign policy scene is even more impressive, and includes:
* The IRI was invited to the summit of the Shanghai Group something that Ahmadinejad's predecessors coveted but failed to achieve. The group consists of Russia, China, Kazakhstan and the four Central Asian republics.)
* Ahmadinejad has hosted the summit of the Caspian Sea states in Tehran, again achieving something that his predecessors failed to obtain.
* Ahmadinejad has just played host to President Vladimir Putin, the first Russian head of state to visit Tehran since Nikolai Podgorny in 1971.
* The emergence of a pro-IRI axis in Latin America, consisting of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua is also a success for Ahmadinejad, something his predecessors failed to pull off.
* It seems likely that Ahmadinejad will secure the leadership of the so-called Nonaligned Movement (NAM) and transfer its headquarters to Tehran, thus buttressing his claim of being "the leader of the global front against Western Imperialism."
* The IRI's controversial nuclear enrichment programme, which gives it the raw material to make atomic bombs, has been resumed after a suspension of two years during which the Khatami administration failed to develop a framework for resolving the dispute with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
* In recent months, the IRI has dramatically heightened its profile in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza and emerged as the leader of an un-announced Rejection Front.
* Ahmadinejad has radicalized the IRI's diplomatic discourse and broken some taboos of international life without serious consequences. Instead, his discourse has earned him support among radical movements outside Iran, something that none of his predecessors achieved.
* Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at Columbia University, thus establishing the fact that positions that many regard as weird, if not actually criminal, can be aired as if they were legitimate opinions worthy of debate in a Western democracy.
Ahmadinejad's "reformists" critics who, incidentally, are unable to say which reforms they ever proposed let alone implemented, point to the fact that some of the sanctions imposed by the US Treasury have begun to bite. This, they say, is the price that Iran is paying for Ahmadinejad's "excesses." And this is precisely what they want to do away with so that Ahmadinejad can do as he pleases without risking even such mild sanctions.
In any case the US Treasury's sanctions have so far persuaded some Western banks to cut their ties with the IRI without affecting the estimated $38 billion in trade with the European Union. The IRI banks have managed to render the sanctions meaningless by operating through Malaysian and Turkish banks, which, in turn, work through the Western banks that have severed ties with Tehran. This means that IRI's international transactions cost a bit more. However, with oil prices heading for $80 per barrel, this is something that Tehran can well afford.
The "reformists" do not understand that Ahmadinejad will not stop unless he is stopped. He has been probing his way carefully: each time he realized that he could say or do something even more radical and outrageous without risking punishment he did it.
Whether anyone likes it or not, Ahmadinejad has achieved the profile of a winner. He has done exactly what he said he would do and paid no price, either at home or abroad.
So, why should he stop?
This was what Annan did not understand almost a decade ago about Saddam Hussein, and many do not understand about Ahmadinejad today.