Salehi’s interview, Ahmadinejad’s press conference, and protests in the Tehran bazaar: Could Iran’s crises reach critical mass?

In the last few days, a number of events in the Islamic Republic of Iran, including an interview by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) with the Iranian foreign minister, a press conference by the outgoing Iranian president, and a protest by the Tehran Grand Bazaar, reveal that the situation in the country may be reaching critical mass in the next few weeks to months.

On 01 October, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi spoke with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on a number of issues, above all Iran’s controversial nuclear program and what he called the Western “fear industry” targeting Iran and Islam. On the question of whether the region would be more stable if Iran had nuclear weapons, Salehi sounded particularly defensive, hinting that the Islamic Republic may be acting cautiously on the nuclear crisis:

“Had Iran chosen to go nuclear, in the sense of weaponization, that certainly would not be deterrent for Iran. On the contrary, it would — I don’t know what is the opposite word. It would attract more threat and invite more threat from the other side, because suppose we wanted to go nuclear and manufacture one or two rudimentary bombs. Who is on the other side? It’s not India and Pakistan. Seemingly, it is Iran and the U.S. Can we ever be on equal footing with the U.S. in this regard? Does any rational person will think to challenge U.S., a country like Iran, nuclearwise? Certainly not, because if you have one or two bombs, you want to use it against whom? Who is our enemy?”

On 02 October, outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held a press conference in which he responded to his critics within the regime in a manner so harsh as to be nearly unprecedented for any sitting Iranian president since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Speaking on Iran’s rapidly deteriorating economy and currency crisis, Ahmadinejad blamed International economic sanctions and individuals he labelled as “saboteurs” for the ongoing problems, and said that people should refrain from attacking his administration, which was doing its best to handle the situation. Some of the harshest attacks are coming from two potential candidates for the upcoming 2013 Iranian presidential election, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and Tehran mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf.

One reporter asked the president what he thought about Larijani’s recent comment that the currency crisis was only somewhat a result of sanctions and that it was mainly caused by the Ahmadinejad administration. The president responded by attacking Larijani, saying that if the crisis was only somewhat a result of sanctions, then the rest must be Larijani’s fault. The outgoing head of the executive branch opined that Larijani was well aware of the precipitous decline in Iran’s oil exports and the rapidly falling value of the currency, and that it was a shame that a news agency linked to security forces (referring to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) -backed Fars News Agency) had carried the interview in which the parliamentary speaker made these comments.

In the course of his press conference Ahmadinejad not only attacked parliament and the security forces, but also the municipality of Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), and the Islamic Development Organization (IDO), among others. While criticism and heated exchanges often occur between the Islamic Republic’s leaders, given the authoritarian nature of the regime this level of bickering at such a senior level is uncommon. By attacking the security services, IRIB, and the IDO, whose leaders are directly appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it at least looks as if Ahmadinejad is implicitly criticizing the core of Iran’s political system itself.

On 03 October, the tension within the Islamic Republic’s senior leadership over the worsening economic situation in the country was underscored by protests by Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, which went on strike by closing its shops and taking to the streets in a demonstration which was eventually quelled by the police. While the demonstration was limited to the bazaar and appeared to be in no danger of getting out of hand, it is significant because the bazaar, representing Iran’s mercantile class, was instrumental in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and has for decades been a key pillar of the regime.

IranPolitik’s eyewitness sources in Tehran report that at the time of writing the Tehran bazaar continues to be closed and that a large crowd has gathered there, potentially a sign that the bazaar strike continues and that there may be further demonstrations.

Salehi’s somewhat defensive interview, Ahmadinejad’s lashing out, and protests in the Tehran bazaar: With both the US and Iranian presidential elections on the horizons, it appears that events in the Islamic Republic may be reaching critical mass, and we could be in store for major convulsions in the weeks and months ahead.