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, Ahmadinejad 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 Saddam Hussein.
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 and “innovation.” He 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 his 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 cases.
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. Voting irregularities probably occurred, but not on a scale that could explain the vastly lopsided results. Liberal skeptics have 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 their misery. This, 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 lifted. 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. What’s more, 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.