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Ali Ansari: Just when Iran's moderates make some progress, Blair wades in

The poor are discovering the real cost of the rhetoric

Last week Tony Blair called for an alliance of moderate Arab states to confront the strategic threat posed by Iran. This seemed to be yet another nail in the coffin of the Baker-Hamilton report. No sooner was the report published than the Bush administration and its supporters hastened to bury it. Blair's speech, qualified as it may have been, was likewise a reiteration of the Manichean world-view which has characterised the neoconservative approach to international politics. As many have pointed out before and since, the world is rarely so simple as to suit the required sound bite. Despite the Persian roots of Manicheanism, Iran's politics have proved frustratingly effective at defying such easy labels. Thus Blair's call to arms came days after the government of President Ahmadinejad, fresh from another exercise in provocation, received a significant setback at the polls, as the Iranian electorate proved less than impressed with its president's obsession with the Holocaust.

Ahmadinejad has thrived on a heady mixture of provocative rhetoric and cultivated crisis. Yet for all his self-belief, he too has fallen victim to the arrogance of power, and the unforgiving judgement of an Iranian electorate that is increasingly uninterested in religious dogma and more in the material advantages of life. The President and his hardline allies were in many ways trapped by an electoral inconsistency which they sought to deny. They had risen to power by mobilising their core constituency. But this core remained a fraction of the total electorate. They could win therefore by either ensuring a low turnout, or fraud.

Their march to power utilised these strategies to good effect, but popular legitimacy consequently eluded them. Ahmadinejad's populism was intended to square this elusive circle. But if his vulgar nationalism fooled some, his reckless squandering of the country's oil reserves has simply served to fuel inflation. While the rich can draw on hard-currency bank accounts, the poor are discovering that the cost of rhetoric in real terms amounts to a 40 per cent hike in the price of basic foods. Still, if worst comes to worst, one can rely on the trusted method of cheating along with the repression of dissenting voices.

That Ahmadinejad nonetheless came off worse, despite his access to the financial and coercive tools of the state, is testament to both the determination of his opponents and the continued dynamism of a bruised civil society. Cheating is less easy when your opponents are alert and, more importantly, united. For the first time since 1997, reformists and moderate conservatives, symbolised by former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani, provided a united front in the elections. But more striking than the defeat of the hardliners in the election to the Assembly of Experts is that the municipal elections - with an unusually high turnout of 60 per cent - resulted in a sweep for the moderate conservatives and reformists who had all but been written off 18 months ago.

Ahmadinejad's domestic base has been significantly undermined. Now perhaps is the time to emphasise the "international crisis". Blair's clarion call was nothing if not opportune. One can always depend on other beleaguered leaders in times of need. If sanctions are to be applied, it should be with a scalpel, not a blunderbuss. Western policymakers must understand that Ahmadinejad's real weakness comes from within, not without.

Ali M Ansari is director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St Andrews University, and author of 'Confronting Iran'