Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an Islamic conservative and former revolutionary guard, has been elected president of Iran. Amid bitter allegations of ballot rigging by his rivals, he won a decisive 62 to 36 percent victory over Rafsanjani in the second-round run-off, on a turnout of 60 percent.
Ahmadinejad’s triumph stunned most western leaders, who expected – and hoped – that the ‘pragmatic’ former two-term president, Rafsanjani, would win. European leaders are alarmed by the prospect of sharpened conflict with Iran over its nuclear policy and role in the Middle East – especially as the Bush regime appears to welcome the election of a hardliner as a new excuse for confrontation with the Tehran regime.
The new president’s threat to tighten state control of Iran’s massive petroleum industry, moreover, sent a shock wave around global financial markets – especially as oil was already topping $60 a barrel.
In the first round on 17 June, there were seven candidates, all vetted and approved by the clerical establishment. Reformist candidates, like Mehdi Karrubi (17.3%) and Mostafa Moin (13.8%), made a weak showing. This reflected deep disenchantment with the reformist government of the previous president, Khatami, who failed pathetically to carry out his promises. There was some liberalisation on dress code and social issues, but as much from pressure from women and young people as Khatami’s measures.
His free-market liberalisation policies failed to satisfy business and the middle class, while life for most people worsened, with around 30% unemployment and growing poverty. Khatami was not prepared to challenge the clerical rulers, Khamenei and the Guardians’ Council, and was terrified of mobilising rebellious youth to force through radical change.
So the second-round run off on 24 June was between the ‘pragmatic’ conservative, Rafsanjani (first round: 21%), trying to pose as a reformer, and the religious hard-liner, Ahmaninejad (19.5%).
Rafsanjani - corrupt
Most western leaders – but not Bush - wanted Rafsanjani because
they calculated he would move towards an accommodation with the western powers and open up Iran’s economy to the multinationals. A ‘moderniser’, he favours privatisation and neo-liberal policies.
Western commentators, however, completely failed to see just how discredited he has become. Most Iranians see Rafsanjani as an opportunist Khomeini follower who, as president from 1889-97, is a pillar of the ruling elite. His recent attempt to steal the reformists’ clothes was not convincing.
Most damning, Rafsanjani has accumulated vast personal wealth from his business interests and is seen as thoroughly corrupt. His last-minute effort to bribe the electorate with promises of share handouts from privatised utilities didn’t work.
Ahmadinejad – populist appeal
Paradoxically, Ahmadinejad was widely perceived to be the only candidate standing in opposition to the increasingly discredited clerical regime, despite his long-standing connexions with the Khomeini-Khamenei religious establishment.
Undoubtedly, he played down his well-known religious-conservative views. He attacked the corruption of Rafsanjani and other leading figures of the post-1979 political hierarchy. Above all, Ahmadinejad highlighted his call for a crack-down on foreign companies and to give preference to domestic firms in the oil industry. “I will cut the hands off the mafias of powers and factions who have a grasp on our oil, I stake my life on this. People must see their share of oil money in the daily lives.”
He retreated from his earlier threat to close Tehran’s ‘ungodly’ stock exchange, but promised to cut interest rates and give the poor large holdings in state companies.
This populist message undoubtedly had a powerful effect on workers, small traders, rural poor and young people.
A change of direction?
Will Ahmadinejad’s victory mean a sharp change in direction for Tehran, with populist economic policies at home and sharper confrontation with the US and other imperialist powers? Or is his populist appeal merely electoral demagogy?
In his first press conference, the new president took a tough line – but then tried to tone it down. Iran would continue with its nuclear energy programme – but would continue negotiations with European leaders. Iran didn’t need relations with the US – but he would talk to Washington if they stated their policies transparently. “In domestic policy, moderation will be the policy of the government.”
“He tempered his answers with conciliatory phrases, as if to present a reassuring face to the world and the nation,” commented the New York Times (27 June). “His pattern … was to first take a tough line, then quickly follow up with a modest offer of compromise.”
Ahmadinejad is playing a dangerous game. He is appealing to the poor masses, deeply discontented with the clerical regime, while at the same time trying to act as spokesman for the regime.
The regime has reached a dead end. It has an economic crisis at home, despite enormous oil reserves. Grappling with domestic problems, the regime, under Rafsanjani and Khamenei, has tried to manoeuvre out of the isolation resulting from the 1979 revolution. Ahmadinejad’s ‘conciliatory’ tone reflects pressure from the top to continue this policy.
The ayatollahs, moreover, have accepted steps towards privatisation, including in the oil industry, a retreat from the Khomeini’s regime’s position after 1979 – and now opposed by Ahmadinejad.
With the presidency in the hands of a hard-line conservative, the clerical leadership now controls all branches of government – the supreme Islamic authority, the clerical judiciary, and the parliamentary leadership. They will be forced to take responsibility for the state of the country, no longer able to hide behind a reformist presidency.
How much independent power will Ahmadinejad have? State power is still in the hands of Khamenei and the Council of Guardians, who control the army, police and the rest of the state machine, including the clerical judiciary. The history of previous presidents, Rafsanjani and Khatami, suggests that Ahmadinejad will not have much room for political manoeuvre within the existing structures.
Growing problems at home and abroad, however, have led to factional divisions within the regime. Will internal differences give the new president more scope for populist economic policies and a nationalist confrontation with US imperialism? Is it possible that he will have the audacity to move towards distributing oil profits to the toiling people, following a similar path to Chavez in Venezuela? That would arouse enormous mass support, opening up a sharp class polarisation in society. Such a turn in Iran would have a dramatic effect on the whole Middle East.
But it’s early days.
The new president has already promised a lot. Today, Iran is more than ever like a pressure cooker that is ready to blow. Unless Ahmadinejad delivers on his promises, there will be a massive movement against the clerical regime, and the younger generation especially (65% of the population are under 25) will seek sweeping social changes in favour of workers and the poor.
Who is Ahmadinejad?
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (aged 49) is a religious hard-liner, though he’s the Islamic Republic’s first non-cleric president. A professor of civil engineering, he was a politically obscure figure until being appointed major of Tehran in 2003. During the campaign he played up his humble origins as the son of a blacksmith and his simple life-style to appeal to workers and the rural poor.
During the 1979 revolution, Ahmadinejad supported the Ayatollah Khomeini, and was allegedly involved in the seizure of the US embassy. From 1986 he fought with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Opponents allege he was personally involved in the repression of political opponents under the Khomeini regime. The Islamic Basiji militia forces still provide him with political support. According to reformist rivals, the militia actively intervened in the elections to intimidate opponents and mobilise support for Ahmadinejad
Ahmadinejad’s views reflect his close links with Iran’s ruling clerical elite. As mayor of Tehran, he reversed reforms carried out under reformist mayors, insisting that male council employees wear beards and on separate lifts for men and women in municipal buildings.
He has promised to resist “Western decadence” and build a “powerful modern Islamic state.” Opponents often quote his remark: “Iran did not have a revolution in order to have a democracy.” Asked during the campaign whether, if elected president, he would release political prisoners, he said: “Which prisoners? The ones in the United States?”
Ahmadinejad belongs to a group of second-generation Islamic radicals, known as “Developers,” who are trying to grapple with the growing problems facing the autocratic clerical regime, now headed by the Ayatollah Khamenei. With the undermining of its authority among wide sections of the population, the clerical elite needs the appearance of legitimacy provided by elections.
During the campaign, in fact, Ahmadinejad played down fears that he would reverse the liberalisation of recent years. “People think a return to revolutionary values is only a matter of wearing the headscarf. The country’s true problem is employment and housing, not what to wear.”
Describing himself as the “people’s friend”, Ahmadinejad attacked government and business corruption. He stressed populist economic policies: raising the incomes of low-paid workers and tightening state control of the oil industry, “putting the petroleum income on the people’s tables.”