Day Three: Telling Jokes in Iran

If you think Jay Leno is hard on George W. Bush, you should hear some of the jokes going around Tehran these days about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—often passed around by cell-phone text message. "He has constipation of the brain, but diarrhea of the mouth," goes one of the latest jibes. A common theme is to compare the Iranian president with the equally despised Bush. "Mr. Bush is your Ahmadinejad," cracked Mohamed Atrianfar, head of the editorial board of the quasi-independent Hammihan newspaper, as we sat in his spacious top-floor office the other day. In one edition of his magazine, Today's Citizen—which Atrianfar began putting out when his newspaper was briefly banned—he laid out pictures of Bush and Ahmadinejad side by side and compared their alleged faults: simple-mindedness, arrogance, a tendency to wisecrack and use common language unbecoming of a president and a habit of pandering to their conservative political bases while shrugging off what the world thinks of them.

Above all, many Iranians—especially those from upscale North Tehran, where contempt of the populist Ahmadinejad runs deep—believe that both men cynically use religious fervor for political ends. Hence another joke heard around town: "Well, we finally managed to export our revolution—to the U.S.!" That's a reference to Bush's regular invocation of the Almighty to justify his policies ("Freedom is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to mankind" used to be one of his favorite phrases). To Iranian ears, this sounds very similar to the kind of rhetoric they hear from the mullahs about Iran's role in spreading the word about Allah. Bush and Ahmadinejad are simply seen as two extremists ranting at each other, with ordinary Iranians (and Americans) "caught in the line of fire," as Mohammadreza Behzadian, head of the Tehran Chamber of Commerce, puts it.

In case you're wondering how Iranians get away with this in a country that supposedly puts dissenters in jail, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. As long as no one crosses certain known "red lines"—like openly criticizing the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—the mullah state doesn't ruthlessly crush political opponents. Instead, the government seeks to intimidate offenders, or play cat-and-mouse with them. If your newspaper goes a bit over the line—which usually means questioning the clerics—the authorities will ban it for a few months. If the Ministry of Justice or the Ministry of Intelligence thinks Iranian public figures are lining up against Ahmadinejad or his policies, they'll simply disqualify them from running for office. You won't be arrested in the dead of night and taken to a secret prison; your application will just be mysteriously denied. But when it comes to Ahmadinejad personally, Iranians are surprisingly free with their opinions. "The press today can criticize the government in the harshest terms," insists Atrianfar, a handsome, graying man with a ski-slope nose. Recently he took on Ahmadinejad's oafishly offensive comments about the Holocaust and Israel with a cover story picturing the president over the headline WHEN WE TALK ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST, WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT? The piece, which ran for 20 pages, featured many photographs of Nazi atrocities.

Many Iranians recognize that Ahmadinejad has badly deepened their country's international isolation. But oddly enough, most of the criticism in Tehran focuses on his mishandling of the domestic economy. According to several Iranian experts I talked to in recent days, he has strong-armed the central bank into driving down interest rates artificially, risking hyperinflation; shifted back to a command economy by slowing privatization, and misused much of the nation's $60 billion to $70 billion windfall oil revenue. "This hurts a lot more than the international sanctions," which are generally seen as a nuisance that merely drives up the cost of doing business, says Saeed Shirkavand, a Tehran University economist. Shirkavand was one of 59 economists who recently signed an open letter to Ahmadinejad criticizing his policies.

The upshot is that while Americans are focused on who will replace Bush in the 2008 race, Iran's next presidential election in 2009 is equally up in the air. And Ahmadinejad, whose approval ratings dipped to near-Bush levels at 35 percent late last year (according to Iranian state TV), is facing a tough re-election fight by most accounts. In Tehran, some people I talked in the last few days think that the hostile U.S.-Iran relationship has little chance of being resolved until both men are gone from power. And that's no joke.

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