Sunday, June 19, 2005

Iran's choice: pragmatist or hardliner?

The Economist:
Defying expectations, Iran’s conservative but pragmatic former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—who has called for improved relations with America—is to face a religious hardliner, not a reformist, in the second round of the country’s closely fought presidential election. Reformists are crying foul. READ MORE

IN THE final days of the campaign for Iran’s first-round presidential election, opinion polls had suggested that the favourite, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—a pragmatic conservative who has relaunched himself as a cautious reformist—would be forced into a run-off against Mostafa Moin, an out-and-out reformist. The results, announced on Saturday June 18th, the day after voting, showed the pollsters were right only about the need for a second round. According to the interior ministry, Mr Rafsanjani got only 21% of the 29m votes cast, well below the 50% needed for outright victory. However, he will face not Mr Moin, who limped home in fifth place, but Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, a hardline religious conservative and former mayor of the capital, Tehran, who came from nowhere to achieve second place. On 19.5%, he was just a whisker behind the front-runner.

The election has turned out to be Iran’s most closely fought, and most lively, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, in which a pro-western monarchy was swept away by puritanical Shia Muslim clerics who despised America—“the Great Satan”. In recent days, Tehran’s streets have thronged with supporters of the seven presidential contenders and there were even roller-blading girls handing out campaign leaflets. State-controlled television gave reasonably even-handed campaign coverage and screened slick, Hollywoodised propaganda slots produced by some of the candidates (though not the strait-laced Mr Ahmadi-Nejad).

Iran today is a less stiflingly repressive place than in the early years following the Islamic Revolution. Young Iranians have more freedom in how they dress, in their contact with the opposite sex and in the music they enjoy. However, while the vigorous election campaign might suggest that Iran has become the sort of pluralistic and liberal democracy that President George Bush wishes to see across the Middle East, the underlying reality is rather different. During his two terms in office, the outgoing, moderately reformist president, Muhammad Khatami, has repeatedly had his liberalising laws approved by Iran’s elected parliament only to see them overruled by the country’s other, more powerful parallel government, an unelected theocracy topped by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. So it has been, and remains, unclear if the eventual result of the presidential election will make any difference.

Mr Khamenei and the senior clerics had been keen to see a strong turnout so they could claim popular support for continuing this dual system of government. On Friday evening, the authorities repeatedly extended the voting hours, claiming this was due to the “massive participation”, and finally closed the polling stations at 11pm. Afterwards, they said 63% of the 47m eligible voters had taken part—which just happens to be a higher proportion than in America’s presidential election last November. But the reformists, who had expected to do far better, cried foul. One of their candidates, Mehdi Karroubi, accused elements in the state machine of manipulating the vote. Indeed, vote-rigging in favour of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad cannot be ruled out, though it also must be said that Iran’s opinion polls do not have a reputation for reliability.

Mr Rafsanjani will now be hoping that the disappointed reformists will switch their votes to him in the second round. He has already been president, in 1989-97, as well as speaker of the Iranian parliament, and is widely regarded as the second most powerful figure in the land after the Supreme Leader himself. Liberal newspapers which dared to question his rumoured wealth and suggest his involvement in political murders—all of which he denies—have been closed down.

Besides promising to free up Iran’s heavily state-controlled economy, Mr Rafsanjani has argued for a fresh start in relations with America—though he is only too happy to denounce the Great Satan when it seems expedient. Many in the West see him as the only candidate with the clout to persuade the Supreme Leader to agree to such a rapprochement.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, by contrast, argues that improving relations with the West is “not the key to all our problems. If he did win his place in the second round by fair means, he may have done so by targeting his campaign at Iran’s poor and religiously devout. Though a layman, he is a former member of both the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij religious militia—two of the theocratic regime’s main enforcers. His fierce loyalty to the Supreme Leader will undoubtedly have been rewarded with Ayatollah Khamenei’s blessing of his candidacy.

The potential election issue that had most interested the outside world is Iran’s apparent attempts to learn the techniques for making nuclear bombs, and its continuing refusal to give international inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities. On Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had admitted it continued trying to produce plutonium until 1998, having earlier claimed to have stopped doing so in 1993. (The Iranians later quibbled with this, saying they had not significantly changed their story.) However, not even the reformist candidates dared to antagonise the Supreme Leader by calling for an end to Iran’s nuclear defiance. Indeed, the contenders barely mentioned the issue during the campaign, regarding it as too hot to handle.

The next Turkey? Or Ukraine? Or maybe North Korea?

For Iranians themselves, however, their sickly economy is likely to have been the issue of most interest. Growth is faltering, unemployment is officially at 11% (the true figure may be almost twice as high) and inflation has hit 14%. With half of Iranians under 25, the economy has not been creating anything like enough jobs for those joining the labour market each year. Since the Islamic Revolution, statist Iran has been greatly overtaken by liberalising Turkey, its big rival to the north-west. Freeing Iranians’ entrepreneurial spirit and making it easier for foreign firms to invest in the country’s colossal oil reserves would certainly do more to improve the lot of its citizens than building nuclear bombs. Mr Rafsanjani has talked of privatising inefficient state firms but if he wins the presidency he will have to overcome fierce resistance from the clergy.

Some Iranians, especially exiles, see in their countrymen signs of an unstoppable popular desire for liberty, and dream of a Ukrainian-style revolution to free their country from the mullahs’ grip. The more pessimistic fear a drift towards becoming the next North Korea—a regime that brandishes nuclear weapons at the outside world while its people slide into penury. For all the recent signs of liberalisation, the clerical regime is determined to hang on and can still crush its opponents with impunity. Even if Mr Rafsanjani regains the presidency and proves sincere in his promises of reform, he may have no more success than the hapless Mr Khatami in wresting power from the theocrats.