Faced with growing unrest, the Ayatollahs of Iran offered up the
"reformist" Khatami in 1997 in order to let Iranians
vent their anger. But the few social relaxations introduced by
Khatami did not help the increasingly unpopular regime. Come September
11 and Bush, through his "war on terrorism," altered
the whole scenario, tilting the balance of forces in favour of
the Ayatollahs. First, Bush removed the two hostile regimes Tehran
had in its neighbourhood (the Taliban and Saddam). Baghdad was
now handed over to a Tehran-friendly Shia-dominated government.
At the domestic front, increased oil revenue owing to the unprecedented
hike in oil prices caused by the Iraq war helped the Ayatollahs
gain new confidence. Building on this help lent by Bush, the Ayatollahs
decided to regain the ground they had lost in o the "reformist"
period. Hence, this time the establishment staked on Ahmadinejad,
who should thank Bush for his help in creating a conducive atmosphere.
Despite a win, Ahmadinejad is no winner. In fact, there were no
winners in the Iranian elections.
The most eminent loser, as in previous Iranian elections, remains
democracy. The Guardians Council had already booted it out in
the nomination process, excluding all but seven out of the 1,014
presidential candidates (including 89 women).
The election criteria excluded women en masse. According to Article
115 of the Iranian Constitution, a presidential candidate must
be from among the rejal. Rejal, an Arabic word, connotes men but
in gender-neutral Persian, it may imply both men and women. In
practice, nevertheless, the Guardians Council has interpreted
rejal as male candidates only. A Council spokesman in October
last year publicly stated this interpretation. The Council has
consistently rejected all female candidates. During the 1997 presidential
elections, Azam Taleghani, a known activist, was disqualified.
In 2001, the Guardians Council, an unelected body of 12 clerics,
disqualified all forty-seven women.
Iran's election laws also discriminate on a religious basis. Therefore,
this time too, the candidates on the ballot were all Ayatollahs'
men: former education minister Mostafa Moin, Vice President Mohsen
Mehralizadeh, former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Tehran
mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former police chief Mohammed Baqer
Qalibaf, former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai, former
radio and television chief Ali Larijani and former parliamentary
speaker Mehdi Karrubi.
Three were so-called conservatives, while the other four were
"reformists." The comeback kid of Iranian politics,
Rafsanjani was an "independent" (read opportunist).
After democracy, the most eminent loser was not Rafsanjani but
the reformist block. Karrubi, among the reformists, bagged maximum
votes but still finished third. He promised a tax cut: sixty dollars
per month for every Iranian. This transparent attempt at bribing
the voters won him two million rural votes. It also explains Ahmadinejad's
victory. He promised distribution of oil wealth while Rafsanjani,
Iran's richest man, symbolised concentration (through corruption)
of oil money in a few hands.
It's interesting that nobody seriously considered economic issues
to be an issue in the election. The real issues confronting any
society are: who owns the wealth and how it is distributed. Anything
else is ultimately a distraction.
In a way, there is a clear parallel between Ahmadinejad and Mossadegh,
who also promised the distribution of oil wealth. It will be this
call instead of the nuclear issue that should concern the West.
The West also ranks high among the losers. This result has caught
the West off guard. While The Washington Post reports "the
upset victory by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has alarmed" US and
its European allies, The Guardian reports a more interesting situation:
Rafsanjani's senior advisers "are believed to have held pre-election
talks with British embassy officials in Tehran as part of plans
for greater rapprochement with the west."
But should Ahmadinejad's victory scare the West? Is the office
of president really an important office in Iran? The answer is:
No. In March 2001, towards the end of his first term as president,
Mohammed Khatami admitted that he was "powerless" and
could not help the five "reformist" publications banned
by the courts. He was also "powerless" in intervening
for the release of jailed activists.
If the president was so powerless, why has Rafsanjani spent $5
million campaigning in a sham election for a phoney position?
It's the economy. Right from the beginning, the Ayatollahs' regime
has had two broad tendencies relating to their economic policy.
One tendency has been aiming to "normalise" relations
with the West. The other favours state ownership and trade barriers.
The president is merely a spokesperson for either tendency.
Rafsanjani represented, in this election, the former tendency.
He has shown his readiness to make deals. In 1995, he approved
a $1 billion contract with Houston 's Conoco that would have let
it develop Iranian oil fields. But the deal was wrecked by Bill
Clinton, who imposed an embargo on business dealings with Tehran.
While these two tendencies have been struggling against each other,
the economic situation has been deteriorating. None of the problems
that led to the 1979 revolution have been resolved. Annually,
around one million youth enter the job market and in the next
five years a $20 billion in investment will be needed to provide
all the necessary jobs.
With unemployment around 22% (officially 11%) and inflation at
14%, the only thing averting another deep economic crisis has
been the vast revenues from the oil and gas sector. Even here,
the problems are mounting. The National Iranian Oil Company estimates
that over the next ten years $70 billion will be needed to modernise
the dilapidated infrastructure. The regime is looking towards
international capital to provide approximately three-quarters
of such massive investment.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory means that, after a reformist pause,
conservatives again have a monopoly on all institutions governing
economy as well as politics. The victory of one block over the
other is however a defeat for both blocks, since corruption, illiteracy,
poverty and joblessness remain the major problems facing the Iranian
people. This despite the fact that the Ayatollahs have the world's
third-largest oil reserves at their disposal for the last quarter
of a century. The Ayatollahs' Iran is a sharp contrast with Chavez's
Venezuela, where distribution of oil wealth has improved living
standards for millions despite a US-backed opposition blocking
End Note: Iran personifies a "true Islamic state" that
MMA, Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida or Gama al-Islamia want to build.
After a quarter of a century, life for most Iranians is no better
than in not-so-Islamic states. When Ahmadinejad campaigns against
corruption or Karrubi promises tax cuts, both being part of the
same regime, it is an indictment of the Ayatollahs' failure. Iran
definitely has lessons for the rest of the Muslim world.