WASHINGTON — If the UN Security Council imposes economic sanctions on Iran in coming weeks for its pursuit of nuclear capabilities, one figure in Tehran's political scene would take the greatest blame – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
That's because many of his supporters feel betrayed. They voted for a Persian Robin Hood, not an embargo.
In June 2005, in an election where only eight regime loyalists were allowed to run, Mr. Ahmadinejad campaigned with a distinct blend of populism and Persian nationalism.
His oratory castigated the ruling reformist and conservative elite for neglecting the socio-economic aspirations of the masses. He promoted the distribution of wealth. His campaign slogans faintly echoed the Marxist-Islamist sentiments of the early post-1979 revolutionary period. And his pledge was unmistakable: to empower the pious poor by breaking the dominance of the privileged Islamist aristocracy.
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad's campaign website was jampacked with affirmations about the greatness of the Iranian nation. "We can achieve anything we put our minds to," it declared.
The statement was a rallying call to combat poverty and corruption, and raise living standards. It wasn't a foreign policy motto. In fact, the closest Ahmadinejad came to brandishing a foreign policy doctrine was when he declared that his government would foremost occupy itself with Iran's 13 immediate neighbors.
Prior to his election, Ahmadinejad hardly discussed relations with the US or his intentions regarding Iran's nuclear program. But since taking office, his time has been dominated by these very two issues, plus his detestable skepticism concerning the Holocaust.
Independent polls are hard to come by inside Iran, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a vast majority of those 17 million people who voted for him in the second round – against Hashemi Rafsanjani, who to so many Iranians epitomized the worst, self-serving aspects of the Islamist regime – expected Ahmadinejad to be focused on domestic affairs, or simply cast a vote of protest without thinking through the consequences.
The hard reality is that socioeconomic indicators point to no tangible progress made by Ahmadinejad's government, notwithstanding a handful of populist gestures, such as when his government promises to hand out cash to newly married couples.
Provincial governors and parliamentary deputies in Tehran are openly saying that the president's ambitious plans are unilateral and undeliverable, leaving them in a politically awkward situation.
Meanwhile, there has been an increase in the number of protests by dejected civil servants, teachers, bus drivers, and others, with each group complaining about poor pay and working conditions.
Last week, Iranian media reported that some 800 textile workers at the historic Rahimzadeh factory in the city of Esfahan have not been paid by the government for six months.
This is not an isolated case. And it came to light in a week when the authorities began confiscating TV satellite dishes as part of a highly unpopular campaign to purportedly cleanse society from the decadent influences of Western programs. To most Iranians, something is amiss with the Ahmadinejad government's priorities.
Indeed, one of Ahmadinejad's biggest "accomplishments" so far is convincing 14 of the 15 Security Council members that Iran's nuclear program should be curbed by economic sanctions. Such a measure, if comprehensive and fully implemented, will hurt the poorest segments of society most, by depriving them of basic goods – bread, rice, and gasoline, for example – that are heavily subsidized by an economy dependent on oil exports.
There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad's ability to dictate foreign policy is limited, with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and his protégé, Ali Larijani, the head of the Supreme National Security Council, as more influential over foreign affairs.
But a majority of Iranians seem to believe that Ahmadinejad's routine of demagoguery and in-your-face, belligerent approach toward the West has erased sympathy from the developing states and sped up a sequence of events where the possible outcome is painful economic isolation.
Meanwhile, Iran's pious poor are still waiting to be empowered, and the Islamist political elite that Ahmadinejad promised to confront remain largely untouched.
The last time Iran experienced grave economic conditions was during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Then, the country faced a foreign invader and an existential threat. Iranian nationalism swelled, and the people strongly supported the government.
But the looming UN sanctions would be welcomed differently. Although much of the public supports the nuclear energy program, they are exasperated by the handling of the nuclear crisis and Tehran's priorities. While Ahmadinejad and his officials portray the issue as a matter of life and death for their country, most Iranians simply have no desire to further isolate their homeland.
• Alex Vatanka is the US-based security editor of Jane's Information Group. He was in Iran during Ahmadinejad's presidential campaign.