The new man in Iran

New Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has signalled a readiness to confront the west by naming a hardline cabinet. Christopher de Bellaigue profiles the Islamic ideologue who wants to develop his country's nuclear programme

Iran's June presidential election, which ended in triumph for Islamist ideologue, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, raised important questions. Had Iranians, by electing a hard-line conservative, turned their backs on the ambition of encouraging the rule of law and promoting the pluralism that was pursued by the outgoing president, Mohammad Khatami?

Since voters favoured a candidate who promised to set up a pure "Islamic government", has the prevailing American view of Iran's politics, as a struggle between a freedom-seeking people and their repressive clerical rulers, been exposed as false?

The answer to both these questions is yes – but only up to a point.

I know of no Iranian active in public life or in journalism, let alone a foreign diplomat or reporter, who predicted Ahmadinejad's win.

Most political commentators expected the next president to be one of three men (in descending order of probability): Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who presented himself to the electorate as a moderate in all things; Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative who said he favoured modernising the economy, and whose expensive campaign was aimed at attracting young voters; and Mostafa Moin, a former higher education minister who was viewed as Khatami's ideological heir.

Ahmadinejad's chances were considered so remote that he spent much of the campaign deflecting pressure from allies to step aside to help unify the conservative vote.

Popular discontent was a strong factor in the election. Many Iranians that I spoke to during the campaign said that they would not vote because the president, although he is Iran's highest elected official, is humiliatingly subordinate to the unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During his eight-year presidency, Khatami has struggled in vain to take over some powers from Khamenei and from the officials Khamenei appoints; the prestige of the president's office has declined as a result of his failure to do so.

These Iranians said that they regarded holding elections as a fig leaf to protect an authoritarian conservative establishment made up of unelected clerics who guard their authority to dictate binding "national" policies on matters such as Iran's contentious nuclear programme.

Some analysts predicted that barely 40 percent of the electorate would vote, and that the Bush administration would have an easy time deploring the shortcomings of Iranian democracy.

As polling day approached, Mostafa Moin seemed to be doing well. He held a successful rally in a large stadium in Tehran. On the next-to-last night of campaigning, the northern section of Vali-Asr Avenue, the capital's main north-south artery, was thronged with young Moin supporters, some of them arguing volubly with Rafsanjani supporters.

I spoke to many people who said that, having originally decided to boycott the election, they would, in fact, vote for Moin. They seemed to be animated less by enthusiasm for Moin than by a desire to preserve the limited liberty of expression and social freedoms – to mix with members of the opposite sex, for instance – that have been tolerated under Khatami's presidency.

A few days before the election, Ayatollah Khamenei's representative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the best-equipped and most ideologically conservative part of the armed forces, publicly urged guardsmen and members of the Basij, a militia controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and estimated to have between four and six million members, to vote for a conservative candidate who "puts himself sparingly in the public view while campaigning, and who refrains from extravagant spending".

The supreme leader's message was unmistakable: The basijis should vote neither for Rafsanjani nor for Qalibaf. A few days later, according to the same Rafsanjani adviser, Basij officials began a "massive and concerted" campaign, mostly by telephone, to persuade basijis to vote for Ahmadinejad.

The first reaction of many westernised Iranians to the election was embarrassment. Ahmadinejad is a professor at Tehran's University of Science and Technology, but his special subject, traffic planning, does not promise imaginative leadership.

These Iranians contrasted the president-elect's short stature, dreary clothes, and occasionally coarse language with Khatami's good looks, refined manners and impeccable mullah's robes.

Khatami's conciliatory rhetoric in foreign affairs, his attentiveness to attractive women, and his admiration for western writers have impressed many of the foreigners who have met him, especially Europeans. What, the westernised Iranians wondered, would the Europeans make of this new man, a self-proclaimed "servant of the people" who created a controversy when he proposed turning municipal spaces in Tehran into graveyards for fallen soldiers in the Iran-Iraq war?

Painful though it is for some to accept, Ahmadinejad may broadly reflect Iranians' collective desires.

After the first round of voting, I borrowed two videos of Ahmadinejad's campaign speeches. One of them was a speech that he had delivered in the company of clerics in the seminary town of Qom. Before Ahmadinejad began his speech, a professional narrator of religious stories sang homilies to Zeynab (the sister of the third Shiite Imam), whose birthday it happened to be. Young men in the segregated audience clapped and waved green flags that had Koranic verses on them. The women swayed demurely.

Once the audience had been warmed up, Ahmadinejad got to his feet and delivered a series of millenarian and vague promises which, in effect, dismissed most of the efforts toward political reform of the last century. He took no account, for example, of the Constitutional Revolution of 1909, when democratic forces toppled the despotic Mohammad Ali Shah in the name of parliamentary democracy, or of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh's nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, in the face of opposition by the then shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Such events apparently did not interest him.

Ahmadinejad believes that the two key developments in Iranian history are the advent of Islam and the revolution of 1979. He uses them as rhetorical references, ignoring other events that are tainted with western notions of democracy.

If he were not so clearly an earnest religious zealot, you might accuse him of manipulating history and of treating his constituents like simpletons. But from all appearances, Ahmadinejad is sincere and, for many of his constituents, that quality validates his message, which is pious, reactionary, and seems genuinely unsophisticated.

He repeatedly used the word "justice", which reminds Shiite Iranians of the five-year caliphate of Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, and the first Shiite Imam. (Shiites regard Ali's caliphate as the most fully realised example of Islamic rule.)

"If we return to the culture of Islam", he predicted, "you'll see tomorrow what kind of heaven this place becomes".

The Islamic Republic has become polarised – between a middle class keen on acquiring consumer goods and the conservative poor; between city residents and migrants from the villages. According to United Nations figures, Iran's rural population has been dropping since 1996, while the urban population is rising by three per cent a year, with dramatic social and economic consequences.

Of the ten million people who voted for Rafsanjani, many did so because they believed that, under his presidency, they would stand a better chance of preserving the upscale lives that they have enjoyed since the oil price hike of 1999 led to a dramatic rise in foreign exchange receipts. Some feared that, if Ahmadinejad became president, he would live up to his conservative reputation, segregate the sexes in universities, and order baton-wielding basijis to discipline any young woman who dressed daringly.

Many of Ahmadinejad's supporters feared that a Rafsanjani presidency would benefit a privileged few. It is not that Iranians are becoming worse off; most statistics show that poor Iranians are becoming less poor, better fed and better educated. But life is hard for the millions who live on the edges of Iranian towns.

For those who recently came from villages, urban customs can seem shockingly irreligious and frivolous while they struggle hard to make a living. Life is a brutal assault on their traditions and their dignity. And it is dignity, not democracy, that Ahmadinejad has promised them.

During a campaign speech in Tabriz, he declared, "We didn't raise a revolution to institute democracy. Democracy was insignificant next to our goals in this revolution".

The real victor of the 2005 elections was the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Having spent the past eight years trying to obstruct Khatami's reform movement, he can now reassure himself that, besides the institutions – such as the Council of Guardians and the judiciary – that are directly answerable to him, the government and parliament, which are elected by universal suffrage, are also in conservative hands.

Before the elections, George Bush was Khamenei's main adversary. Khamenei is known to be incensed by Bush's disdain for Iran's semi-democracy, and he is reputedly sensitive to taunts that the supreme leadership is not an elected position.

Before the elections, Iranian conservatives worried that a low voter turnout would validate Bush's criticisms and that more countries would come to agree with him. If only a small proportion voted, they feared that Bush's hand would be strengthened in his effort to muster support for referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council because of its refusal to abandon its ambitions to produce nuclear fuel – an ability that Iran could, if it wanted, exploit to make bombs.

Khamenei helped ensure that the turnout was respectable. A month before polling day, the Council of Guardians issued the names of candidates that it had barred from standing. Mostafa Moin, the main reformist candidate, was among them.

Khamenei does not always sit comfortably on top of the conservative establishment. My guess is that he will advise Ahmadinejad to avoid exacerbating the existing divisions between traditional and westernised Iranians, and to concentrate on fighting corruption and distributing Iran's oil revenues more equitably.

Since his election victory, Ahmadinejad has distanced himself from suggestions that he plans to tighten dress codes – an issue that, in any case, he hardly mentioned during the campaign.

During the campaign, Ahmadinejad spoke disparagingly of western-style NGOs and approvingly of traditional foundations and charities. It is unlikely, furthermore, that Ahmadinejad will undertake the structural reforms that the economy needs. Although he claims to favour the private sector and foreign investment, he comes from a political tradition that is paternalistic, distrustful of foreigners and dirigiste in economic policy.

Few people think that Iran's policy toward Iraq will change under Ahmadinejad. They have cultivated to varying degrees all major Shia groups, including the secular ones, as well as the two major Kurdish factions of northern Iraq. Iran has considerably more influence over Iraq than it did when that country was being run by Saddam Hussein.

Most western governments, especially those involved in the current nuclear negotiations, had hoped for a Rafsanjani victory. As a veteran statesman and the head of an influential mediating body, Rafsanjani has considerable influence over Iran's negotiating positions. He would, it is thought, favour Iran's developing a nuclear fuel cycle, but not at the cost of having its case referred to the Security Council.

The appointment of Ahmadinejad's cabinet, and in particular his choice of foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, a conservative, indicates an intention to harden Iran's stance over its nuclear programme. This may see the balance may tip in favour of radicals who regard a nuclear fuel cycle as an indispensable shield against American aggression.

Although Iranian presidents do not have much influence when it comes to formulating nuclear policy, Ahmadinejad can be expected to add his voice to those of the radicals – in favour of principle, against expediency. Ahmadinejad, whatever else he is, is a man of principle. p

© 2005 New York Review of Books