The landslide victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad in the second round of Iran’s presidential elections came as a blow to the reform movement and to the Iranian civil society that elected Mohammad Khatemi to the presidency eight years ago.
Ahmadinezhad is a new face on the political scene to most Iranians and foreign analysts. He is the first non-cleric to hold the position of president since 1989, yet he is seen by many as more fundamentalist than his main opponent, Hashemi Rafsanjani. In a campaign where Rafsanjani advocated better ties with the United States and the European Union and more civil liberties, Ahmadinezhad ran for president on a populist platform with no clear foreign policy, but with plain isolationist tendencies. He criticized Iran’s acceptance of World Bank loans and the emergence of private banks which through high interest rates have created a gap between the urban elite and the rural poor.
Ahmadinezhad has also spoken of holding officials to account in order to eradicate corruption and has insisted on more equitable redistribution of national wealth. However, his economic prescriptions are vague: he has been pointing out problems without offering any real solutions.
The big question is whether Ahmadinezhad’s domestic and foreign policies will be very different from those of his predecessor. There is no doubt that, with Ahmadinezhad as president, ultra-conservatives now have a monopoly on power, controlling all of the elected and appointed institutions that govern Iran.
Moreover, the new president and his government will face many challenges in order to bring prosperity and peace to Iranians. The most important is to overcome the high rate of unemployment, especially among youth. Unemployment numbers are not very reliable: the official figures stand around 15 percent, but can be assumed to be well over 30 percent. As a result, fully half the population lives in difficult economic conditions. Ahmadinezhad needs to take positive economic steps that don’t rattle the nerves of Iranian investors.
Then, too, regarding Iran’s foreign policy Ahmadinezhad will surely be less extreme than what many observers predict. A sudden reversion to the revolutionary standards of the 1980s seems unlikely. He will certainly think twice regarding the Islamic Republic’s attitude toward the problems of the Middle East.
It is no secret that the new president has very little experience in foreign policy matters. No doubt his foreign policy task will be a difficult one, given the severe polarization within the Middle East and between Iran and the West, and in view of the possibility of foreign interference or regional conflict spilling over into Iran. He has ruled out improving ties with Washington in the near future, stating that Iran does not really need the US.
The Bush administration, knowing that the victory of Ahmadinezhad effectively blocks any move toward a new working relationship between Tehran and Washington, questioned the legitimacy of the entire election. Contrary to the Americans, who seem to be the least shocked by the results, most of the EU countries, especially France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, seem to have been taken by surprise, mainly because they had previously argued that, with Rafsanjani as the new president, the Iranian government would be ready for a comprehensive dialogue with the West.
Things are now different, but the EU members hope that Iran will continue negotiations with them aimed at convincing it to permanently give up sensitive uranium enrichment activities. Germany, the UK, and France are even offering Iran trade incentives and help with its peaceful nuclear energy program. The question now is whether the future Iranian government of Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad will be willing to cut deals with the Europeans and eventually with the Americans.
We need to wait and see how the new president will deal with the parliament, with the military elite and with the country’s religious leaders. One way or another, if there is a real return to the rhetoric of the first years of the revolution, it could set alarm bells ringing in many capitals in Europe as well as in neighboring countries. Ahmadinezhad’s Iran holds many doubts and uncertainties concerning the degree of centralization of power and the role of religious ideology in foreign policy.
As long as oil prices hold up, Ahmadinezhad can work on his "technopopulism" without rocking the boat too much. But if oil earnings collapse and the new president’s assault on civil society and private businesses augments the rising temperature of confrontation with the West over the nuclear program, then his four year term will take a turn for the worse.