The victory of Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s presidential election last week is only somewhat of a surprise. While relatively unknown, Mr. Ahmadinejad is a religious conservative who enjoyed the backing of powerful like-minded groups within the country and, equally important, the support of many of working-class Iranians. His election reflects the convergence of three currents in Iranian politics: nationalism, Islamic conservatism and the desire for clean government. The new president’s challenge is very similar to that of his predecessor: reconciling the iron grip that religious groups have on the country with the popular demand for economic reform and an end to corruption. Mr. Ahmadinejad may find the presidency as frustrating as did his predecessor.
Iran has a two-step presidential election process. The first round is an open competition among qualified candidates. If no individual wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top vote-getters compete in a runoff. The contest is tightly controlled. Electoral gatekeepers disqualified virtually all the liberal candidates. On election day, there were numerous allegations of intimidation at the polls in which Revolutionary Guards and other religious groups forced voters to back conservative candidates, Mr. Ahmadinejad in particular.
Thus, the leading reform candidate, Mr. Mostafa Moin, former education and higher culture minister, never mustered enough votes to make the runoff. Instead, Mr. Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran, riding a wave of conservative support, won 19.5 percent of ballots to face off against former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who came in first, as expected, with 21 percent of the vote.
In the runoff, Mr. Rafsanjani took up the mantle of the progressive cause, but he was an unlikely rallying point for liberals. He served as president from 1989-1997 and his ineffectual rule paved the way for the election of President Mohammad Khatami, a genuine reformer who cannot run for a third term. Mr. Rafsanjani has become a wealthy businessman since leaving office. He is aloof and patrician. In short, he embodies virtually all of the flaws of the regime in Tehran. He emerged as the “reform” candidate only in comparison to his rival. While his history raises many question marks, he was thought to be pragmatic about engaging the West and it was assumed that he would not roll back the advances made under Mr. Khatami’s presidency.
That was not enough to sway voters. The official count gave Mr. Ahmadinejad 17.2 million votes, a landslide win over Mr. Rafsanjani, who garnered just 10 million votes. Given that the core conservative vote is estimated at between 7-10 million people, the president’s margin of victory comes from disaffected Iranians who rallied to his message of simplicity, purity and clean government.
What will the new president do with his power? In his first press conference after his win, Mr. Ahmadinejad said that he wants to create “an Islamic, exemplary, advanced and powerful nation” and issued a call for unity among all Iranians. That is in keeping with his campaign as a man of the people, the son of a blacksmith, a man above parties, who wants to protect the core values of the Islamic Revolution and help ordinary Iranians. He said he would not initiate Taliban-style policies.
He is a nationalist, and that is likely to spell trouble for Iran’s relations with other countries, particularly the United States and other nations with whom Tehran is negotiating over the country’s alleged nuclear-weapons program. In truth, however, any president is going to be a nationalist. And foreign policy is driven by clerics who are unelected; Mr. Ahmadinejad is unlikely to have any impact on them. During the campaign, Mr. Ahmadinejad said that Iran could not cut itself off from the world. But Washington’s criticism of the election for its improprieties and its ongoing hostility to any conservative government only make more unlikely any improvement in relations.
If Mr. Ahmadinejad promises more of the same on the international front, he may yet prove to be a wild card at home. His most important challenge is tackling the corruption that has strangled Iran’s economy. His targets in this are both the businessmen and the clerics who control much of society, who have become accustomed to their own privileges, and who protect them in the name of the revolution.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s simple lifestyle and call for purity is a threat to all of them. Failure to make progress in fighting those entrenched interests — a failure that marked Mr. Khatami’s tenure as well — would be the greatest threat to the Revolution that the new president so strongly believes in and supports. A conservative president in Iran does not mean the end of domestic turmoil in that country.
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