Monday, June 27, 2005

Discontents and Dangers

The Times UK:
Elections in Iran are windows through which the regime’s internal struggles can be glimpsed; they are not open democratic contests. The vote is given to all; but the choice offered to voters is much more rigidly circumscribed than outsiders tend to realise. READ MORE

Would-be candidates must first pass muster with the powerful Council of Guardians; and in this year’s presidential elections, it barred some 1,000 hopefuls, including all women with the temerity to apply, from running. The survivors must then be endorsed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the revolution’s viscerally conservative “Supreme Guide”. Five of the eight candidates this year, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the populist firebrand Mayor of Tehran who unexpectedly emerged as victor, were current or past members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

To interpret this triumph for Iran’s ultra-conservatives, therefore, as a slamming of the door on reform opened eight years ago by the victory of the cleric Mohammad Khatami is to overstate the extent of reform that was ever on offer. Reform, social as well as economic, was what voters overwhelmingly wanted; but Mr Khatami never came close to challenging the grip of Iran’s unelected leaders on real power. The conclusion drawn by many Iranians, particularly the urban middle classes chafing for wider freedoms and an end to international isolation, is that reform from within is impossible.

Whether Mr Ahmadinejad obtained a genuine mandate at all is open to some doubt. Interventions by Revolutionary Guards and the Basij religious militia contributed to high votes for him in regions remote from Tehran where his name was virtually unknown. The disillusioned young stayed away in droves. But, however perverse it may seem in the light of his call for “a return to revolutionary values” and his contemptuous assertion that “we did not have a revolution to have a democracy”, insofar as he does have a mandate, it still goes under the rubric of reform.

His opponent in the final round, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, may be thought of abroad as a “pragmatist” who stands for market reforms at home and at least some degree of reasonableness abroad, but in Iran they have another name for him: “The Shark. This arch-manipulator of the system embodied to many voters the corruption and nepotism of the mullahs who are seen to have betrayed the revolution by their indifference to soaring unemployment and inflation, and miserable living standards among the poor, in this could-be-wealthy country. Mr Ahmadinejad is, his supporters say, a “shark hunter. A non-clerical religious radical of working-class origins and austere habits, he presented himself as the people’s “little servant and street sweeper” who would sweep the rot from the revolution. The message has undoubted appeal.

Anxious Western governments will naturally focus on Mr Ahmadinejad’s loathing of America and Israel, his intransigence on the nuclear issue and his identification with the religious irredentists who believe in exporting the Islamic Revolution to a corrupt and god-forsaken Middle East. But it is not his powers that should concern them – he has few – but the absence, with his election, of a moderating counterpoint to Ayatollah Khamenei. Iran’s intentions should now be easier to read; but they are likely to make grim reading.