Not that bad
To millions of voters of modest means, Ahmadinejad symbolizes
resistance to the anti-democratic global free-trade elite with whom
the relatively secular reform movement has aligned itself
August 16, 2005
The prevailing spin on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rise to Iran's
presidency wrongly suggests that a win for his rivals could
have ushered a dawn of enlightenment. The mainstream press
has largely described Iran's competing factions as little more
than vote-rigging theocrats arrayed against tolerant modernizers.
In particular, strong support for Ahmadinejad among the Basij
militia and Revolutionary Guard corps has earned him a reputation
as a Muslim fanatic.
But there is a quite modern side to his
grassroots popularity, too, that stresses non-dependent national
development. Like the French and Dutch rejection of the proposed
EU constitution earlier this summer, Ahmadinejad's landslide
win was a vote for authenticity and against forced globalization.
At a time when rational science is trashed in America
by fundamentalist evangelicals tied to the White House,
won on a
platform promising to double the already exploding public
funding for advanced scientific research.
Those of us who chose to pay attention when last February
millions of Iranians braved a snow blizzard to celebrate the
anniversary of the Revolution of 1979 need not search for esoteric
explanations for Ahmadinejad's overwhelming victory in the
second and final round of voting.
The Basij and Guard forces
are known to many among the younger half of Iran's population
as breakers of student and worker protests. But a great many
citizens 30 and older remember these forces for their defense
of the motherland during the eight-year war with Iraq when
all regional and world powers abandoned Iran and many supported
The top vote-getter of the first round of elections, Ali
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has in recent years used his appointed
position as the head of the powerful Expediency Council to
champion opening Iran's economy to massive foreign investment
Rafsanjani is a business tycoon and Iran's
richest man who ran but failed to get enough votes for a seat
in the Majlis (parliament) in 2000. Ever since his two terms
as president from 1979 to 1987, Rafsanjani has been known as
a defender of property rights and IMF-style "adjustments" in
labor and banking laws.
The reform parties share Rafsanjani passion
for privatization, deregulation, and an end to multibillion-dollar
public subsidies. Eight years of reformist struggle to establish "the
rule of law" showed results last December and February,
when Iranian courts ruled in favor of US-based multinationals
Proctor and Gamble and Time Warner in trademark infringement
But the reform bloc distrusted Rafsanjani's late conversion
from a social conservative insider to a Western-style candidate
whose lavishly funded campaign featured fashionably dressed
youth and pop music in affluent neighborhoods. Nevertheless,
after Ahmadinejad's unexpected strong finish in the first round
forced a runoff vote, reform parties and university-based constituencies
rallied behind Rafsanjani as their default candidate.
irregularities probably occurred, but not on a scale that
could explain the vastly lopsided results. Liberal
forgotten that their favorite in 1997 -- the now-outgoing
President Mohammad Khatami -- ran against an
unyielding Islamist insider
and won, even though he was barely known outside Tehran until
the last days before the elections.
Few analysts based in Iran deny that a combination of the
country's rising oil revenue and market reforms has in recent
years widened disparities in wealth and opportunity. As in
the pre-revolutionary years of the 1970s, citizens at the losing
end blame the least pious players on the political stage for
That, and the Bush administration's veiled threats
against Iran, have saved populist religious ideologues from
losing considerable grassroots support. Significantly, the
reform faction's all-out effort to use "religious intolerance" as
a wedge issue did not prevent thousands of stylishly dressed
young women from voting for Ahmadinejad.
To millions of voters
of modest means, Ahmadinejad symbolizes resistance to the anti-democratic
global free-trade elite with whom the relatively secular reform
movement has aligned itself. Several leading reform figures
who eulogized the Pope John Paul II as a beacon of enlightenment
affirmed their appetite for the White House version of social
progress. But theirs was not the kind of "tolerance" that
most Iranians thirst for.
Ahmadinejad's constituency apparently does not buy his rivals'
argument that the best way to reduce unemployment is to stimulate
economic growth -- now about five percent annually -- with
enough concessions to Washington to have the US trade sanctions
Ahmadinejad insists on government loans to small
businesses and better distribution of wealth
as the primary engines of
job creation. His emphasis on economic justice contrasts with
the importance of social freedoms to the reformers. His proposed
welfare state is an answer to their "civil society."
The reform faction's declaration of the "end of ideology" over
a decade ago was apparently premature and its focus on elite
political prisoners has not resonated among the working majority.
Borrowing a page from American neocons, reformist intellectuals
blame Iran's lagging development on people's cultural habits.
According to this anti-populist school, public affairs are
best left to the "rational" educated class, whose
members are slowly daring to wear neckties again.
As in France (and the United States), Iran's movement against
neo-liberalism includes tendencies that are regressive. But
condemning the religious devotion of Ahmadinejad's grassroots
constituency without acknowledging its legitimate demands would
be the kind of short-sidedness that left Americans unprepared
for the Iranian revolution a quarter century ago. After all,
Islamist extremism did not gather momentum for over a millennium
until the age of Western conquest got underway.
in Iran, the mandatory women's shrouds spread with urbanization
and Westernization and were not a custom of the "backward" majority
rural population. Instead of the tired routine of blaming voters'
old-fashioned faith for restrictions on women's and journalists'
rights, we should insist on de-coupling such urgent rights
from the reformers' elitist, neoliberal agenda.
Rostam Pourzal writes from Washington on the politics of
human rights for Persian-language opposition journals in exile.