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Politics

The Iranian Surprise

25 June 2005

The Iranian Surprise

By Gwynne Dyer

It doesn’t make sense. In the previous two presidential elections,
in 1997 and 2001, Iranians voted more than two-to-one for the reformist
candidate, Mohammed Khatami. It did them little good, of course, because
the Islamist clerics who have veto power over the elected parts of the
Iranian government blocked his attempts to liberalise the system. But it
seemed clear that younger Iranians in particular were fed up with clerical
domination of politics and the corruption, incompetence and oppression it
fostered.

Since the 2001 election, unemployment has got worse (officially 16
percent, but really about 30 percent) and the poor have got poorer. So why
have Iranian voters now elected the hardest of hard-liners, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, to the presidency with a two-thirds majority?

Iran is big, it’s right next door to Iraq, and its long-standing
confrontation with the United States has been sharpened by Washington’s
suspicion that it has secret nuclear weapons programme. Now it has a
president-elect who believes that it has “no significant need” for improved
ties with the US, defends Iran’s quest for nuclear technology as “the
demand of the whole nation,” and condemns the country’s negotiators as
“frightened” for seeking a compromise on the issue.

There’s no point in pretending that Ahmadinejad didn’t really win.
There may have been some stuffed ballot boxes in the first round of the
presidential election on 17 June, when half a dozen candidates were
running, but last Friday’s run-off was decisive: over 17 million votes for
Ahmadinejad and ten million for his opponent, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
They didn’t stuff that many ballot boxes.

Ahmadinejad is a staunch supporter of the Islamic state, an
instructor in the Basij, the voluntary youth militia that monitors people’s
dress and behaviour, and a close associate of the Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei. He is definitely not a “reformer,” though he does promise to
attack corruption. Why did he win?

Iran’s partial democracy first came under serious attack in last
year’s parliamentary election, when the ruling clerical elite concluded
that the reformers were growing too popular. The Guardian Council
disqualified 3,000 parliamentary candidates from running on the grounds
that they were not Islamic enough, including eighty sitting members of
parliament (out of 290). President Khatami’s feeble protests were ignored,
parliament fell under Islamist control — and Iranians who oppose the
regime began to lose faith in electoral politics.

The Guardian Council tried to pull the same trick with this year’s
presidential election, disqualifying all the reformist candidates, but the
opposition responded by threatening to boycott the election, which would
have reduced it to a farce. Ayatollah Khamenei intervened, and two
reformist candidates were allowed to run together with one “moderate”
(Rafsanjani, formerly president in 1989-97 and a cleric himself) and four
hard-liners.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was one of the hard-liners, but only three
weeks ago the opinion polls gave him a scant 5 percent of the vote. Then
suddenly, a miracle: he was ahead of all the other hard-liners and catching
up with Rafsanjani and the reformist candidates.

On 17 June, Rafsanjani came first, with 21 percent of the votes,
but Ahmadinejad came a close second with 19.5 percent. There may have been
some skulduggery at the polls, but the main reason is that the Islamic
authorities, fearing that no pro-regime candidate would make it into the
run-off, ordered their loyal supporters in the armed forces, the
Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia to swing all their votes, and as
many more as they could influence, to Ahmadinejad.

Appalled at the prospect of a radical Islamist as president, the
defeated reformers urged their supporters to hold their noses and back
Rafsanjani in the second round. Yet it ended in a landslide victory for
Ahmadinejad. What happened?

It was actually a very small landslide. Back when Iranians believed
that electing a reformist president could bring change, voter turnout was
huge, but it has been plummeting as they lost hope: from 83 percent in
1997 to 67 percent in 2001, 62 percent in the first round of voting this
month — and only 47 percent in the second round. Ahmadinejad’s
“landslide” was less than 30 percent of qualified voters.

His votes came from religious radicals, but also from the “pious
poor” who back him because he is devout but NOT one of the clerics who have
used their power to enrich themselves. He played up to their hope that he
would sweep the corrupt out of government while trying to reassure more
sophisticated voters by promising to concentrate on economics, not dress
codes — “The country’s true problem is unemployment and housing, not what
to wear,” he explained — but he is nevertheless the Supreme Leader’s
choice as president, and most people know it. That’s why they didn’t vote.

The hard-line Islamists now control every branch of Iran’s
government, appointed or elected, and for a while they will have their way.
But what really happened last week was that a majority of Iranians
abandoned the electoral path to reform as hopeless. At some point in the
future, therefore, they may try the path of non-violent revolution that has
succeeded in so many other places recently — and they might win.

The Islamist regime knows this. It also knows that the only thing
that could now restore its credibility is an American attack. It may be
tempted to provoke Washington in the hope of getting some American bombs
dropped on Iran.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Iran…boxes”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.