What does Ahmadinejad's victory mean?

Published August 5th, 2005 - 12:22 GMT

International Crisis Group briefing (DRAFT), Tehran/Brussels, 4 August 2005

The surprise election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who is being sworn in as President this week, has given rise to dire predictions about Iran's domestic and foreign policies and relations with the U.S. and the European Union.  There are reasons for concern.  Based on his rhetoric, past performance, and the company he keeps, Ahmadi-Nejad appears a throwback to the revolution’s early days: more ideological, less pragmatic, and anti-American.  But for the West, and the U.S. in particular, to reach and act upon hasty conclusions would be wrong.  Iran is governed by complex institutions and competing power centres that inherently favour continuity over change.  More importantly, none of the fundamentals has changed: the regime is not about to collapse; it holds pivotal cards on Iraq and nuclear proliferation: and any chance of modifying its behaviour will come, if at all, through serious, coordinated EU and U.S. efforts to engage it. 


Ideologically, Ahmadi-Nejad remains somewhat of a mystery, not so much because he conceals his beliefs as because they are strikingly abstract.  His campaign utterances, much like his mayoral tenure, were dominated by lofty phrases about economic justice, Islam, national dignity and the need to protect the national interest against foreigners.  Arguably the best indicator of his views are the positions of his allies -- the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the basij militia, and the Abadgaran movement, all of which have embraced socially conservative and internationally confrontational outlooks, and some of which have supported violent activity abroad. 


But presidential change is unlikely to signify fundamental policy change. Ironically, the same U.S. observers who before the election argued a reform victory would make little difference because unelected officials make decisions, have been quick to express alarm at a threatened rightward turn. Given Iran's political system, earlier assessments ring truer.  Domestic changes may come at the margins, not spectacular enough to provoke international opprobrium, albeit serious enough for those affected. On the foreign front, the style likely will be more confrontational and less appealing to Western audiences, and in the short run at least, Ahmadi-Nejad’s surprise victory is likely to aggravate tensions with Washington and perhaps with Brussels.  A diplomatic newcomer, Ahmadi-Nejad brings a less sophisticated approach than his predecessor; alone among the candidates, he did not broach improved relations with the U.S. during the campaign and, since his victory, has been at best indifferent about them. But bottom line positions -- on Iran's nuclear program, regional interests, Iraq policy -- almost certainly will not budge in the foreseeable future. 


The new President is dismissive of the need to improve relations with the U.S., and his election strengthened those within the U.S. administration who have long believed engagement would only further entrench a hostile, undemocratic regime and who wish to pursue a strategy of "delegitimisation".  But though both sides might take short-term comfort from continued estrangement, this posture is unsustainable.  On at least two burning issues – Iraq and the nuclear question – the U.S. and Iran inexorably must engage, collide or both.  While Iran has turned a page on the Khatami era, President Ahmadi-Nejad faces the same situation and President Bush the same dilemmas as before.


In short, and for all their flaws -- hundreds of candidates, including all women, were disqualified by an unelected body, and there were serious charges of irregularities -- the election clarified some core realities of Iranian politics, with significant implications that the West cannot afford to ignore:

o The current regime is not about to collapse, and any reform movement will need time to revive.  In an election that by regional standards was competitive, had strong participation, and offered a broad choice, Iranians voted on the basis of economic rather than political needs.  There is little doubt a vast majority wants genuine reform but at this point is more interested in its well-being, and Ahmadinejad spoke to that issue best. In contrast, the reform movement is in disarray, unable to find a way to participate in the political system without ultimately being stymied and discredited by it. Reformers are disorganised, lack a strong leader, have a desultory eight-year record and are failing to connect with voters' everyday concerns.  In other words, for all the dissatisfaction, the regime is not nearing collapse.  For the U.S. to assume that popular anger will translate into an organised opposition and that the regime is ripe for a fall would be a risky gamble that virtually nothing in Iran appears to validate. 

o Serious, coordinated U.S.-EU engagement with Iran on the nuclear issue is required to avert a full-blown crisis or, at a minimum, genuinely test Tehran’s intentions.  Renewed Iranian threats to resume work at a uranium conversion facility in Isfahan are only the latest indication that the current process is not working.  More creative proposals -- allowing Iran to operate a small enrichment capacity under strict international surveillance or joint Iranian/international management of nuclear sites -- should be put on the table, along with discussion of Tehran’s security concerns, before taking the uncertain step of Security Council referral. 

o On Iraq, Washington eventually must have a dialogue with Iran to maximise chances of stability. Even with enhanced regional cooperation, in particular from Tehran, the U.S. will continue to face a resilient insurgency and a tenuous Iraqi political process; without it, the tasks will be considerably more difficult.
o Engagement by the U.S. and the EU does not mean appeasement, and certainly not indifference to human rights abuses.  A first test will be the status of Akbar Ganji, a political prisoner whose health has deteriorated dangerously as a result of a hunger strike.  His release would constitute an important symbolic gesture by the Ahmadi-Nejad administration.



Of the eight presidential candidates authorised to run by the twelve-member Guardian Council, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad appeared among the least competitive until practically the end.  Until a week prior to the election, he had barely surfaced in opinion polls and was denying rumours of imminent withdrawal.  In the last week, most surveys predicted a three-man race between a centrist (former president Hashemi Rafsanjani), a conservative (former national police chief Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf), and a reformist (former Minister of Higher Education Mostafa Moin).    

Extrapolating from Mohammed Khatami’s landslide victories in 1997 and 2001, as well as the 2000 parliamentary elections, it was assumed only roughly 20 per cent of the electorate identified with the conservatives, and most desired a significant overhaul of the Islamic Republic.  For this reason every other candidate emphasized the need for political and social reform while many – again, not Ahmadi-Nejad -- also suggested the need for improved ties with the U.S.   Ahmadi-Nejad was given no chance to reach the second round (a runoff being necessary if no candidate won more than 50 per cent of the vote), let alone prevail.


Among reformers, media attention focused on Moin, who called for democratisation and greater respect for human rights, and, to a lesser degree, Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of the parliament who pledged to give every Iranian over eighteen $55 (50,000 toman) monthly, at an estimated annual cost of $30 billion.   Moin started slowly but appeared to finish strongly, igniting at least some enthusiasm among young, more well-to-do reformers. Among conservatives, eyes were on Ghalibaf and Ali Larijani, a former head of state television and broadcasting and a close advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Weeks prior, newspapers considered close to Khamenei urged Ghalibaf to withdraw in favour of Larijani; in conservative strongholds such as Qom, Larijani’s presence was the most visible.   


But much of the focus, domestic and international, was on Rafsanjani.  He announced his candidacy three days before the deadline, explaining the decision was “one of the most difficult of all my years of political activity” but he felt the need to run because of “the emergence of radical trends [in domestic politics]” and “sensitive regional and global conditions”.    While his decision was not unexpected, there were reasons for his hesitation. People close to Khamenei signalled lack of enthusiasm, viewing him as a potential counterweight and threat to the Supreme Leader's authority.  Rafsanjani’s reluctance also stemmed from his humiliating defeat in the 2000 parliamentary elections.   His entourage reportedly paid close attention to polls and began to express confidence only when he ranked at the top. His chief advisor, Mohammed Atrianfar, told Crisis Group weeks prior to the elections that victory was “certain” but the chance it would come in the first round was only “30 per cent”.   Broadly disliked and perceived as corrupt, he nonetheless appeared to be the default candidate, a potential bridge between conservatives and reformers and to the West.
In short, Ahmadi-Nejad was a dark horse, seemingly bereft of financial, institutional, and popular support.  The son of a blacksmith, he grew up in a devoutly religious family in a working class section of east Tehran.   As a student in the mid 1970s, he became active in Islamic, anti-Shah movements.  In the Islamic revolution's aftermath, he served in the basij, a militia that recruits teenage volunteers, mainly from rural areas or poorer sections of larger cities. During the Iraq-Iran war, he joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a body created by Ayatollah Khomeini to protect the revolution.   Subsequently, he was vice governor and governor of several north-western provinces and adviser to the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance.  After receiving his doctorate in traffic engineering, he took a position as professor at the Iran University of Science and Technology. In 1999, he unsuccessfully ran for the Tehran city council.


Ahmadi-Nejad first appeared on the national scene in May 2003 when the newly elected, conservative Tehran city council appointed him mayor.  His tenure had mixed results. Many lower-income residents applauded his economic policies, including low-interest loans to the economically disadvantaged and newlyweds.  Many in the middle and upper classes were wary of his conservative political and social outlook. Ideologically, his views have seemingly deviated little since 1979 and are typical of a new generation of religious conservatives: adherence to the purity of the Islamic revolution, denunciation of moral and material corruption and belief in faith’s power to correct these flaws and establish just government.  But few appeared to give serious thought to his candidacy until shortly before the vote.  


Nor was he noticed by competitors: Rafsanjani, Ghalibaf and Moin advisers failed to mention him as a serious rival.   Touring lower-income areas of south Tehran and traditional areas such as Qom, Crisis Group rarely heard him mentioned for much of the campaign.   With attention on Rafsanjani and Moin, conservatives appeared worried and divided, unable to decide on a single candidate.  Writing two days before the first round, Amir Mohebian, an influential conservative political advisor, concluded: “it’s over…we have no chance”. 



First round results, therefore, confounded expectations. Rafsanjani predictably came first with 21 per cent but Ahmadi-Nejad second with 19 per cent and Karroubi third with 17 per cent were genuine surprises.  The 62 per cent turnout also was significantly higher than anticipated and generated some controversy.


Ahmadi-Nejad's campaign picked up tremendous steam after the first round.  Seeking to reassure voters, he gave a highly effective television interview two days prior to the run-off, portraying himself as a social moderate and emphasising economic justice over other issues.  He won decisively, receiving 61 per cent (17.2 million votes) to Rafsanjani’s 35 per cent (10 million).  Despite further allegations of fraud from Rafsanjani’s camp, the margin of victory was too wide for them to discredit his election.   


In hindsight, several factors -- aside from the inherent unreliability of Iranian polling  -- help explain an outcome no Iranian expert had predicted.


A campaign that stressed economic issues. Reform candidates such as Moin stressed human rights, democracy and social liberalisation, with little attention to the economic and social issues of far greater urgency to most Iranians.  With high unemployment and inflation, economic woes, not democratic deficits, were uppermost on people's minds.   Ahmadi-Nejad focused on day-to-day problems. Style reinforced substance: Ghalibaf’s flashy campaign alienated traditional voters without appealing to urban youths. He used colourful, Western-style posters, Ahmadi-Nejad black and white photocopies; Ghalibaf’s campaign videos pictured him flying planes, Ahmadinejad’s depicted his Spartan home. Ahmadi-Nejad came across as a man of the people, in touch with everyday concerns. Touring in a small bus, he often spoke in mosques and prayer halls. While Rafsanjani and Ghalibaf’s campaign slogans were geared to the urban middle and upper classes, Ahmadi-Nejad focused on the poor, emphasising his humble background and simple lifestyle. Significantly, two of the more successful candidates -- Ahmadi-Nejad and Karroubi -- spoke to pocket-book concerns and attracted voters more with populist platforms than socio-political views. A degree of moral Puritanism arguably also helped in a country with growing drug addiction and prostitution.  


The failure of the reform movement. While Karroubi nearly reached the second round as a reformist candidate -- and might arguably have done so without alleged irregularities --  the decline in popularity from 1997-2001 is striking.  Iran's reformist movement has been in disarray, unable to find a way to participate in the system without being stymied and discredited by it.   With growing frustration at Khatami's incapacity to produce change from within and scant interest in fighting for change from without, disaffection with the movement and politics generally grew exponentially. In the words of a young Tehrani, “worrying about politics here is as futile as worrying about the weather. You may not like it, but you’re not going to change it.”  Emaddedin Baghi, a prominent journalist, religious reformer, and human rights activist, cited apathy and hopelessness as "the biggest enemy of democracy.  When people are passive the regime does anything it wants.” 


Reformers were disorganised, lacked a charismatic leader, and ran on a desultory eight-year record.  Most importantly, they failed to address economic concerns.  Amir Mohebian, an advisor to the Supreme Leader and a key conservative strategist, may have put it best:

The reformists rode the demographic wave. In 1997, when Khatami was first elected, their constituents were in their late teens or early twenties, and strived for a more open, liberalised society.  To some extent, they achieved it.  Now they are in their mid to late twenties.  Social liberalisation under Khatami helped them get the girl.  Now they want to marry.  But they lack the tools to do so: money, employment, or housing. 


As noted, the strong showings of Ahmadi-Nejad and Karroubi demonstrated that for most Iranians, economic hardship is the primary preoccupation, and the reform movement as a whole failed to address this. Despite soaring oil prices and rising GDP, the Khatami government had little success tackling inflation or unemployment.   Only half the nearly one million annual entrants into the labour market find jobs. According to a government-commissioned report, unemployment among fifteen to 29 year-olds will reach 52 per cent in less than two years.    It is worst in urban provinces, in places like Qom, Mashad, Shiraz, Isfahan, Arak and Rasht, where the most frequent complaint is not about the lack of political and social freedoms but the high cost of living and non-existent employment opportunities.  


Last-minute support from regime institutions. Ahmadi-Nejad’s strong first round showing also appears to have reflected a late decision by the regime’s leadership to throw its institutional weight behind him. The charges by some unsuccessful candidates -- voters being pressured by basij members at polling stations and duplicate or false identity cards (shenasnameh) -- are difficult to substantiate; neither Karroubi nor Moin, who both cried foul, pursued their claims.  What seems beyond dispute is that Revolutionary Guards and basij mobilized their constituencies for Ahmadi-Nejad. Basij members told Crisis Group they received phone calls from colleagues “persuading” them to vote for him and encouraging them to spread the word.   At the Friday prayer session on election-day -- when campaigning officially was banned -- Ahmadi-Nejad supporters were urging attendees and their families to vote for him.   Journalists reported calls by IRGC and basij representatives to vote for Ahmadi-Nejad.  To what extent encouragement became pressure, and pressure became intimidation, is a more difficult question; to what extent any of this accounts for the magnitude of Ahmadi-Nejad’s victory – and whether he would otherwise have lost -- is another matter still.


A flawed second-round opponent.  While Rafsanjani's campaign sought to project an air of inevitability and played on the presumed desire for stability, it could not overcome the candidate's overwhelmingly negative image and low popular standing, evidenced in the 2000 parliamentary elections and widely circulated rumours concerning his and his family's impressive wealth.  Politically, he was seen as neither a loyal conservative nor reliable reformer. Some in both camps saw him as the least undesirable candidate but few endorsed him enthusiastically. His campaign seemed only to make matters worse.  In fact, he virtually refused to campaign, calculating that people would choose him over the uncertainty represented by others.  His elitism only appeared to validate what had turned Iranians off from the start, reminding them of the dishonesty and cronyism they associated with his presidency.


Significantly, even in private polls he led, Rasfanjani was reported to have high negatives.   In a contest between “rich and poor”, some reformists argued he had no chance of winning and urged him to yield to Karroubi.   “People who feared Ahmadi-Nejad were far fewer than those who feared poverty.”   In a post-mortem, prominent reform journalist Mohammed Quchani acknowledged the strategy of “scaring” people into voting for Rafsanjani (or against Ahmadi-Nejad) was a mistake: "Some of Ahmadi-Nejad's criticisms against Hashemi [Rafsanjani] were similar to those levied by the reformists against him five years ago.…We could not justify in just three days why people should vote for the target of our past attacks".  Responding to accusations he had “ruined” the country by voting for Ahmadi-Nejad, a blue-collar worker said:

Things were already ruined here! We work morning until night only to go into further debt -- is this living?  I don’t have any illusion that Ahmadi-Nejad can come in and fix things.  But at least he’s not going to enrich himself while trying.   


Ultimately, there was much irony in Ahmadi-Nejad’s victory. Although favoured by the Supreme Leader, he portrayed himself as an outsider determined to fight the cronyism and corruption widely associated with the political elite, none more than Rafsanjani.   Although the electorate was reacting to the Islamic revolution’s failure to address their basic economic needs, it did so by voting for the candidate who was its most ardent defender.  More than a quarter century after a revolution that promised to erase social inequalities, the persistence of excessive inequalities delivered victory to that revolution’s true standard bearer. 




As Crisis Group described in past reports, Iran is governed by a complex set of elected and unelected individuals and institutions (including the Supreme Leader, the President, Council of Guardians, Expediency Council, Parliament and security and parastatal forces), a set of competing power centres inherently favouring continuity.  At the same time, with supreme leadership, presidency and parliament in conservative hands for the first time in years (not to mention other unelected bodies), some checks have been removed and Khamanei's power almost certainly consolidated.   As Iranian analyst Siamak Namazi says, “alterations of players in one power centre are unlikely to lead to rapid change, at least not durable change, though the new players do get a louder voice in the consensus-building process”.


Ideologically, Ahmadi-Nejad is still somewhat of a mystery, not so much because he conceals his beliefs as because they have a remarkably abstract quality.  His campaign utterances, much like his mayoral tenure, were sprinkled with lofty phrases about economic justice, the ability of a hardworking, trustworthy government to follow the true path of Islam, and the need to protect the nation’s interests and dignity against foreigners. To the extent such sentiments can be projected into policy, it must be assumed he will concentrate on economic rather than social issues and will rely on the state to end corruption and redistribute wealth – what, during his campaign, he described as "putting the oil income on people’s tables”. 


Even so, inconsistencies are surfacing, and the end result is likely to reflect the balance of power between Supreme Leader, President, and other socio-political constituencies more than anything Ahmadi-Nejad may have in mind.  For example, his calls for income redistribution have sufficiently worried the business community that he has had to offer reassurances. During the campaign he vowed to shut down the stock exchange, analogising it to gambling (which Islam prohibits), but he now says he “strongly supports capital markets.”  He has railed against “wasteful” government spending while calling for more government subsidies and characterised government as “too big” while denouncing current privatisation efforts.   His bold vow to “cut the hands off” the country’s mafia does not seem to extend either to powerful, tax exempt religious foundations (bonyads), which control billions of dollars in assets,   or the Revolutionary Guards, which increasingly are involved in economic activity. 


More liberal-minded Iranians worry Ahmadi-Nejad will roll back some social gains of Khatami’s tenure and impose further curbs on political freedoms. The anxiety is fed by both his rhetoric (with its heavy emphasis on Islam and the Islamic revolution)  and widely circulated albeit disputed reports regarding his tenure as mayor (including that he advocated gender segregation in municipal office elevators and universities and turned cultural centres into Islamic centres). During the campaign and since, he has sought to shed this reputation.  Social issues did not figure prominently in his campaign, where he stressed that other matters were far more important.   Seeking to reassure, he asserts that:

Moderation will be the main policy of the government of 70 million people. There will be no place for extremism….This government will be a government of friendship and compassion. This government will be a government of justice and fairness, in the service of the people...whatever views they have”. 


In describing him, friends and colleagues reflect this ambivalence, viewing him as “very intelligent and capable”, “not a fanatic”, but also “narrow minded” in his world-view.  Nasser Hadian, a childhood friend and a Tehran University political science professor with close ties to reformist groups, told Crisis Group the new President had a sober view of his mandate and level of support: "He cannot rule the country with a hard line, because the hardliners constitute only a small portion of society”. 


Changes may come at the margins, not spectacular enough to provoke international opprobrium, but serious enough for those affected.  While he would have difficulty reversing the bulk of Khatami's social and cultural reforms, he is unlikely to expand them. Khamenei’s recent appointment of former Tehran basij chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam to head the national police force (replacing Ghalibaf) suggests a possible hardening on social freedoms.  

Perhaps of greater concern to some Iranians than the new President is his entourage and most ardent supporters, a combination of religious extremists, military and paramilitary groups, including the Abadgaran, IRGC and basij.  Considerable attention has focused on figures such as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, his spiritual adviser (marja-e taqlid) and apparent political counsellor, who has stated that Ahmadi-Nejad plans to form an “Islamic administration”, and his victory is a “clear indication of the Iranian public’s support of Islamic governance”.
To a large extent, the new President owes his ascent to the Abadgaran (Etelaf-e Abadgaran-e Iran-e Eslami, Developers Coalition of Islamic Iran).  It is not a political party -- though it has now applied for that status -- but rather an alliance of hard-line conservatives who came together shortly before the February 2003 Tehran municipal elections.  Mehdi Chamran, one of its chief architects and a close Ahmadi-Nejad aide, described its origins:

Prior to Tehran’s second city council elections some like-minded friends got together to reflect upon some issues.  People were so upset with the first [reformist] council; its impact had been so negative that our hearts went out to them. It wasn’t even political; it was a reaction to the economic suffering people were enduring.  So initially it was more of [a] social than a political reaction.


The main problem [of the first Tehran city council] was that politics interfered with social issues. So we decided to create an independent group of experts who would stay above the political fray.  We decided they should be independent of known political parties, independent experts on urban issues or with suitable experience in related issues.  In coming up with a name, they initially suggested “Developers Coalition of Islamic Tehran”, but I suggested “Developers Coalition of Islamic Iran”, because I said one day we’d like to work for all of Iran, not just Tehran.


Little has been written about the group.  Self-proclaimed “fundamentalists”, the relatively young Abadgaran members proclaim their allegiance to the principles of the revolution and its original leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, espousing an amalgam of populist, state-centred, redistributive economic policies and a more pronounced pan-Islamic and anti-American creed.   (That said, Chamran downplayed the group’s populism: “the idea is not to hand poor people money, but to create employment for them so they can earn money for themselves”).  Many are veterans of the Iran-Iraq war and former members of the IRGC, with which they maintain close ties. 


The Abadgaran swept the 2003 Tehran elections, in which a mere 12 per cent of residents voted.  In May 2003 it appointed Ahmadi-Nejad as mayor.   The Abadgaran made its mark on city government, building roads, highways, and bridges, as well as parks on its poor south side, though it was criticised by some for applying ideological criteria to contracts.  Following its success, Chamran said, several conservative politicians requested use of the Abadgaran affiliation and chose to run on its platform in the February 2004 parliamentary (majles) elections when Abadgaran moved to the national stage, winning 29 of 30 seats in Tehran and  roughly 170 of 290 seats in the majles as a whole. 

Although vocal in parliament, the Abadgaran's influence is unclear. So far, it has not had discernible impact on major policy decisions,  the most visible case being inability to halt nuclear dialogue with the EU despite harshly denouncing it.   Still, it has made its presence felt on matters of consequence to its interests and those of its allies.  It achieved budgetary increases for paramilitary forces, religious foundations, state television and radio, as well as for the Guardian Council, which scrutinises all laws and political candidates.   It also helped block certain privatisations and steps designed to encourage foreign investment,  and, together with the IRGC, torpedoed a major foreign investment deal in telecommunications as a threat to national interests.  Chamran told Crisis Group, “it doesn’t make any difference to us whether or not foreign firms operate in Iran; it’s not a big priority for us. Lots of things can be done by Iranian firms and don’t require outside influence.”    


Another institution that contributed to and is likely to benefit from Ahmadi-Nejad's election is the IRGC.   For some time, reformists and intellectuals have voiced concern about gradual “militarisation” of politics, with harder-line factions and groups with military backgrounds being elevated to key economic and political positions.  While there are various explanations, security concerns prompted by the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with increasingly hostile U.S. rhetoric, certainly contributed to this political ascent. 


Created by Ayatollah Khomeini in May 1979 to “protect the revolution and its achievements” and act as a counterweight to the less reliable military, the IRGC is estimated at 125,000 strong.  Iranians generally view it as the most powerful (and intimidating) pillar of the Islamic Republic.  Closely tied to regime hard-liners and perceiving itself the revolution’s vanguard, it is constitutionally barred, as are all members of armed forces, from direct political involvement.   Until his death in 1989, Khomeini more or less enforced this prohibition.  But in recent years, the IRCG has become increasingly assertive domestically.  Four presidential candidates were alumni, as are, for example, the head of the broadcast monopoly and more than 100 of 290 majles deputies.  


A telling example of the IRGC’s enhanced clout and economic stake was the May 2004 closing of the new Imam Khomeini International Airport, in which it is assumed to have acted independently of the Supreme Leader.  The IRGC pointed to planned Turkish-Austrian management as an affront to national security and dignity; but while traditionally wary of foreign influence, it likely also sought to embarrass the Khatami government, whose accomplishments the airport was to have showcased, and to set a precedent for the Guards' say on important matters. The IRGC’s financial stake in running the airport was another factor.  A senior EU diplomat in Tehran called the move "hugely significant.  It sent a strong message about who was really in charge, and it involved the IRGC’s own economic interests”.  


Anxiety about the militarisation of politics may be exaggerated; the IRGC is unlikely to exercise autonomous decision-making and remains subservient to the Supreme Leader.  What is less doubtful, however, is the increased confluence of interests between Khamenei and the Guards, a relationship politically expedient for the former and economically beneficial for the latter.  IRGC-controlled front companies are more and more active in major economic sectors, notably telecommunications and trade. The IRGC also is thought to control over 70 ports, earning hundreds of millions of dollars from tax-free import/export.   An Iranian importer of security products told Crisis Group that rather than go through official channels (where the tariff is 35 per cent), he partners with IRGC-controlled importers who charge only 8 per cent. “I don’t like dealing with them but if I want to operate a successful business I have no other choice.”  Like the powerful religious foundations (bonyads) the IRGC stands to gain from an insular, closed economy and, indeed, from heightened international tensions.


On election eve, many Western observers – particularly in the U.S. – argued that a Rafsanjani or even reformist victory would not make much difference.  As Khatami’s frustrating eight years in office showed, decisions ultimately rested with the Supreme Leader and other unelected officials and they were not about to change.  On critical issues such as the nuclear program, therefore the election was not expected to be a turning point.  Paradoxically, once Ahmadi-Nejad won, many of those voices expressed alarm at a threatened rightward foreign policy shift.  


These contradictory reactions – positing the relevance of a presidential position not long ago dismissed as unimportant – reflect the challenges of assessing how decisions are made in an opaque system with plural power centres that enjoy shifting degrees of influence  Iran's foreign policy is a complex exercise in balancing, where decisions appear to be made by a small group of senior officials who are both relatively insulated from, and yet reflect, alterations in formal institutional structures (e.g., as a result of elections or personnel changes) and broader regional and international conditions.  Even prior to Ahmadi-Nejad's victory, the interaction of rising tensions with Washington and the U.S. presence in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan on the one hand, and the growing role of the IRGC, basij, and Abadgaran on the other, had led to a discernible shift toward harder-line positions. 


In other words, although Ahmadi-Nejad will not have a decisive voice in Iran's foreign policy,  his election, formation of a new government, replacement of key officials and strengthening of the IRGC, basij, and Abadgaran will all help shape the balance of power, particularly if the regional situation remains tense. The change will not be spectacular -- the Supreme Leader, the reflection of regime consensus, has a "survivalist mentality that will lead him to try to preserve the status quo”  -- but the centre of gravity likely will move toward the harder-line faction and a more confrontational approach.  Abadgaran members of the majles, for example, are prone to belligerent statements. 


But overall, and unlike Khatami who began by reaching out to the West, Ahmadi-Nejad has displayed little foreign policy interest. A newcomer to the diplomatic stage, he will bring a different, less sophisticated and, presumably, less conciliatory approach than his predecessor. However, he and his Abadgaran colleagues have little international experience. As members of the Tehran city council or majles, they largely avoided contact with EU diplomats.  During the campaign, he focused almost exclusively on domestic issues; when foreign affairs came up, he studiously adhered to well-worn official pronouncements and generalities.



For Europeans in particular, the election caused considerable consternation.  For them, in a way, the issue was less what Ahmadi-Nejad will do than what their preferred candidate, Rafsanjani, might have done.  Rafsanjani, they believe, might have brokered an acceptable nuclear deal  appeared interested in improving relations with the U.S. and, even -- though less clearly -- in altering Iran's stance toward the Middle East peace process.


Part of this might have been wishful thinking.  Even assuming he would have been willing to make dramatic changes, Rafsanjani probably would not have had the capacity to do so.  This is particularly true on the sensitive nuclear file where the current position -- insistence on the right to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program, including the right to an indigenous enrichment capacity -- almost certainly reflects the regime's bottom line, inconsistent with the stated EU, let alone U.S., stance.  Khatami, who began his presidency by praising “the great people of America” and urging a “dialogue among civilizations”, concluded with a warning that Iran will turn into a “burning hell” for any aggressor and “will resume [its uranium]  activities in Isfahan regardless of what the Europeans decide”.


That said, Rafsanjani would have been more influential than Ahmadi-Nejad, at least at the outset, with a power base relatively independent of the Supreme Leader.   His more conciliatory outlook might have made a difference particularly on the nuclear issue. Based on what his advisors said, a Rafsanjani presidency might have advanced creative proposals -- for example, agreeing to a small enrichment capacity and under strict international surveillance,  or (as detailed by Crisis Group) joint Iranian/international management of nuclear sites.   This does not necessarily mean a deal would have been struck -- an EU official said even a  small pilot program would be “unacceptable” because it would put Iran on the path of mastering the full fuel cycle  -- but the prospect of even raising such proposals now appears less likely.


During the campaign, Ahmadi-Nejad insisted on the need for Iran to preserve its dignity and downplayed the urgency of improved relations with the U.S. While he stressed the conventional position that Iran had an inalienable right to "peaceful nuclear technology",  many of his allies went further, defying the U.S. to bring the matter to the Security Council or urging withdrawal from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty.   The new President himself accused Iran’s negotiators of being “frightened” during talks with the EU.   An early indicator will be selection of key advisors and the nuclear negotiation team.  There have been insistent reports that he will replace the chief negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, a Rafsanjani ally  and the future of the team's other members -- UN Ambassador Javad Zarif, Mohammed Hossein Moussavian, and Sirous Nasseri, all praised by EU counterparts and also seen as close to Rafsanjani -- is in doubt.    EU diplomats reacted sombrely to Ahmadi-Nejad’s victory, predicting that negotiations were “likely will fail”  and “it is very, very difficult to see this ending anywhere but in the Security Council”  -- a forecast given additional weight by President Chirac's subsequent warning.


However dim the prospects of rapprochement with Washington, Ahmadi-Nejad’s election have made them dimmer still.  Of the candidates, Ahmadi-Nejad alone did not broach the topic during the campaign. Since his victory, he has been dismissive, saying “relations with the United States are not a cure for our ills”,  and “Iran is on a path of progress and elevation and does not really need the United States on this path”.  Chamran, his adviser, flatly remarked: "Bush shouldn’t speak with us. Every time he talks, he adds to the wall of mistrust between us that they have already built. There is no logic behind what they say about Iran, and they know that there is no logic behind this. It's just propaganda".  Unlike Rafsanjani, who deemed relations with the U.S. a “necessity”,  the new president sees more threat than opportunity: “The U.S. administration cut off ties unilaterally to lay waste to the Islamic Republic….They want to restore them today for the same reason”.  Again, the point is that Ahmadi-Nejad will not be a counterweight to the Supreme Leader's worldview, but rather a validator.  As an adviser to the regime put it,

The question of dialogue with the United States is now completely in the hands of the Supreme Leader for whom it is a personal issue.  He wants the Americans to accept the Islamic Republic and its constitution as a prerequisite.

Rather than look to the West, Iran is likely to enhance partnerships with China, India, and South Korea, a pattern already begun.  With growing energy needs and fewer qualms about Iran's nuclear program or human rights record, China and India in particular are counterweights to the U.S. and EU and potential allies in the event of an effort to isolate Tehran.  As Tehran mayor, Ahmadi-Nejad avoided important European capitals while visiting Shanghai, Beijing, and Tokyo.   


On other issues too, the pendulum may swing toward more hard-line elements, with the President and his institutional allies reinforcing each other during regime debates.  The rhetoric used by Ahmadi-Nejad and his allies on Israel, for instance, is often inflammatory, with frequent references to “Zionist influence” on the West.   Moreover, and as previously noted, Ahmadi-Nejad’s close IRGC ties arguably will further strengthen their influence at the expense of the more pragmatic foreign ministry. This may prove of particular relevance with regard to support for militant groups in Palestine, Lebanon  and, most recently, Iraq.                            


This mixed assessment of Iran's future foreign policy -- more hard-line than hoped, less hard-line than feared -- appears to be shared by foreign ministry officials.  Acknowledging they would have preferred Rafsanjani as both “more experienced” and more inclined to repair relations with the U.S., few seem deeply concerned that major changes are afoot, believing in the inertia of institutional decision-making and post-revolutionary pragmatism.  In the words of a senior, Western-based Iranian diplomat, “what Ahmadi-Nejad’s camp is saying publicly and what they really plan on doing are two different things. Their policies will not be radical; they can’t afford them to be".



In the short run at least, and although there is more reason to predict continuity than radical change, Ahmadi-Nejad’s surprise election is likely to aggravate tensions between Tehran and the West. The new President is dismissive of engagement with the U.S. and his victory strengthened those within the U.S. administration who have long held that nothing good could come from engagement. 


But although both sides might take short-term comfort from continued estrangement, the posture is unsustainable. On at least two burning issues – Iraq and the nuclear question– the U.S. and Iran must deal with each other, collide or both.  Ahmadi-Nejad’s election may diminish whatever slim appetite existed in Washington for engaging, but with the situation in Iraq as bad as it is and the government in Baghdad increasingly reaching out to Tehran, the necessity of direct or indirect coordination will only become greater. Even with enhanced regional cooperation, in particular from Tehran and Damascus, the U.S. will continue to face a resilient insurgency and a tenuous Iraqi political process; without it, the tasks will be far harder still. So long as relations with the U.S. are unchanged, "Iran is likely to view events in Iraq as part of its broader rivalry with -- and heightened suspicion of -- the U.S".


Likewise, the election may increase prospects of a breakdown in EU/Iranian nuclear talks, but under any conceivable scenario Washington will face difficult choices and the need to recalibrate its policy.  The EU may ask the U.S. to offer more tangible incentives to Iran before it concludes negotiations are stalemated; should the matter be referred to the Security Council, Russia or China could make the same demand or simply block action; should international action be taken to pressure Iran (for example, sanctions), there is no certainty the nuclear program would be slowed; and should Iran continue its efforts, the U.S. would face the uncomfortable dilemma of seeking a negotiated or military solution. Simply put, the absence of  U.S. engagement will make chances for a real nuclear resolution -- remote as they are in any event -- nil.  "If Iran is prepared to trade away military ambitions, only the U.S. can give it the political, economic or security compensation that it wants; and if Iran is not prepared to deal, then only rejection of a good faith U.S. offer will persuade the world".


The U.S. may simply prefer to wait, convinced this regime is unworthy of being dealt with and banking on increased popular disaffection and, eventually, regime change to resolve its problems. It is a position that, at first blush, the election did little to erode and likely strengthened.  Disqualification by an unelected body of hundreds of candidates, including all women, , coupled with apparent first round irregularities, confirmed in U.S. eyes the regime’s nature.  


The new president’s background, his IRGC, basij and Abadgaran ties, and the pronouncements of many of his allies hardened perceptions in Washington. 


Unsurprisingly, U.S. officials dismissed the entire electoral exercise, arguing it had been rigged from the start and put in place a leader inherently hostile to American interests and likely to be rejected by its people.   As a U.S. official put it, Ahmadi Nehjad’s election has only hardened the existing viewpoint that this regime is beyond redemption and by engaging it we would be legitimising it.  There’s a sense among many that the regime is ripe for revolution, that there’s a deep sense of disillusionment.  And, yes, some do believe that the regime could quickly collapse.  


But to form policy on the basis of such a development in the foreseeable future is a risky bet that virtually nothing in Iran appears to validate. The election carried important messages: 

o Iranians’ aspiration for greater social freedom is undiminished but their overriding concern is economic. Despite serious flaws, the election presented voters with real options, and they made a choice. Christopher de Bellaigue, an astute observer of the scene, remarked that, while far from “exemplary”, the election offered candidates from ultra-conservative to reformist, and “the result was the most pluralistic election campaign in Iran’s history”, with “a wide range of views and a wide range of votes”.  The message from Ahmadi-Nejad’s victory and Karroubi’s strong first round performance was clear on one count at least: for most Iranians, economic hardship is primary, and other issues await their turn.  The candidate they preferred did not promise socio-political reform, but more economic fairness. 

o For now, there is no organised movement that can channel popular frustration toward effective opposition politics. The election was a further blow to a reform movement that has lost support and already was in considerable disarray.   Ahmadi-Nejad’s victory may ultimately energise the opposition and end the division between reform-oriented insiders (khodi) and outsiders (ghayr-e khodi).  Following his defeat, Karroubi resigned from his positions in the Expediency Council and as adviser to the Supreme Leader and established an opposition political party, the National Trust (Hezb-e Etemaad-e Melli); he also plans a London-based satellite TV network.   Moin also has vowed to work with nationalist and secularist groups in the Front for Democracy and Human Rights (Jebhe Demokrasi va Hughughe Bashar). Even Rafsanjani, the quintessential insider, is trying to project himself as an outsider and supported establishment of the carefully named Islamic Moderation Front (Jebhe-ye Etedal-e Eslami).  But fundamental restructuring, however necessary, will come slowly, and there are scant indications of popular unrest. Since the 2003 student-led protests, Iranians have evinced little interest in activism, let alone real organised political protest. 


Even before the election, reform activist Ali Reza Alavi Tabar offered a sombre assessment:

I joke with my students that they are bourgeois revolutionaries. They want to change the government but they’re afraid of confrontation. I’m against bloodshed, but a crowd of 500 basij shouldn’t be able to intimidate a group of 5,000 students.  I tell them when I was seventeen revolting against the Shah, I figured myself Che Guevara in the Sierra Madre. We were ready to sacrifice ourselves for the cause, for Islam. But they are not organised and are too easily discouraged. They thought by gathering a few thousand people and chanting slogans and honking the horns of their cars they could bring down the government. I tell them, “you need to organize a crowd of 100,000 people to remove the Mayor [of Tehran], 1 million to remove the president, and 10 million to remove the Supreme Leader. Are you ready to do that?”


Popular fear of chaos and instability – if anything bolstered by events in Iraq --  an absence of political organisation and credible opposition leaders, at home or abroad,  general disillusionment with things political, and the regime’s harsh but judicious anti-dissent policy  significantly diminish the likelihood of an Iranian version of “velvet” or “orange” revolution. In the words of an EU diplomat, “the regime’s principal strength lies in the fact that for now there is no alternative”. 


The U.S. faces difficult dilemmas and the necessity of tough trade-offs. By eschewing diplomacy, maintaining pressure on Tehran and seeking to isolate the regime further, the U.S. hopes to weaken it -- what it calls a strategy of "delegitimisation" -- and, over time, embolden its opposition. Yet by doing so, it diminishes chances of greater Iranian cooperation on Iraq and of serious exploration of a nuclear deal beyond what already is on the table,   without necessarily getting any closer to its regime change objective.


For Washington, Ahmadinejad's victory has made engagement with Iran even less appealing.  But none of the fundamentals have changed: the regime is not about to collapse; it holds pivotal cards on at least two issues of vital interest to Washington and the wider international community; and any chance there is of modifying Iran’s behaviour will come, if at all, by discussing its security concerns. 


© 2005 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

© 2000 - 2022 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

You may also like