In two weeks, Iran’s presidential election will determine whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains in office and whether his country continues its drive to become a nuclear power.
The stakes could scarcely be higher, but it is the lowly potato that has been grabbing attention.
The Iranian government is handing out 400,000 tons of free spuds in rural towns. It says that it is merely distributing the surplus from a bumper crop, but Ahmadinejad’s opponents accuse it of bribing the poor. “Death to potatoes,” they chant at rallies.
The spat is instructive. To much of the world, the election is about the nuclear ambitions of a pariah state. To most Iranians, the economy is the main issue. Ahmadinejad’s rivals are savaging the record of a president who took office promising to give all Iranians a share of the oil wealth.
Iran has enjoyed revenues in excess of $300 billion, but the poor are worse off than before. By spending those revenues as if there were no tomorrow he has sent inflation, rents and property prices spiralling upwards while failing to tackle rampant unemployment.
He is seeking to divert attention from the economy by focusing on Iran’s nuclear program, a source of pride to most Iranians, and his refusal to bow to Western demands that he should suspend it. He has compared Iran’s critics to dogs, declaring: “If you retreat, they attack. If you attack, they retreat.”