Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ahmadinejad Secures Landslide Win

The elections in Iran are a contrivance for settling certain policy disputes and personal rivalries within the ruling elite. Elections are not without meaning; if Ahmadinejad loses, it may result in more sensible economic policies and fewer loud calls for the destruction of Israel. However, Iran does not hold elections for supreme leader — Ayatollah Ali Khameini will hold that post for the indefinite future — and the failed presidency of Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005 reminds us that the power of a putative reformist is illusory. The Khatami years saw increased repression inside Iran, growing support for Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups, and the covert construction of the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. However, all calculations and predictions have been proved wrong as the hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a crushing victory in Iran's hotly-disputed presidential vote, according to official results today that triggered mass opposition protests.

Disappointment for Mousavi’s Supporters
There was enthusiastic middle-class support for Mousavi. In fact, Mousavi’s articulate middle-class and youth supporters were looking for avenues to repair Iran’s relationship with the West. There was a strong undercurrent in favour of a large measure of social liberalism, particularly an enlargement of women’s rights. Moreover, the modernist sections of Iranian society were never comfortable with the cultural idiom of Ahmadinejad. In their mind he was too much of an outlander and a storm-trooper for the theologians who have the final say over public policy.Although Mousavi had been approved by the theologians as a safe candidate, i.e. someone who was acceptable within the broad parameters of the Islamic Republic, it was quite clear that he was being propelled by those for whom “secular” statecraft held greater attraction. In short, regardless of Mousavi’s personal inclinations, his victory was calculated to trigger a movement for more fundamental changes in the way Iran is run.

Violence Erupts

Riot police were out in Teheran as thousands of supporters of his defeated rival Mir Hossein Mousavi, a veteran of the 1979 Islamic revolution, took to the streets shouting “Down with the Dictator” after final results showed President Ahmadinejad winning almost 63 per cent of the vote. The moderate ex-premier Mousavi cried foul over election irregularities and warned of the “dangerous scenario” the vote had created, as some of his protesting supporters were beaten by baton-wielding police. The Interior Minister said Mousavi had won less than 34 per cent of the vote, giving President Ahmadinejad another four-year term in a result that dashed Western hopes of change in the Islamic republic. Mousavi, one of President Ahmadinejad's three rivals in the most heated election campaign since the Islamic revolution, had earlier declared himself the victor, setting the scene for a tense power struggle.The international community has been keenly watching the election for any signs of a shift in policy after four years of hardline rhetoric from the 52-year-old President Ahmadinejad and a standoff over Iran's nuclear drive.

Several hundred demonstrators — many wearing the trademark green colors of Mousavi’s campaign — chanted “the Government lied to the people” and gathered near the Interior Ministry as the final count was announced. It gave 62.6 percent of the votes to Ahmadinejad and 33.75 to Mousavi, who served as Prime Minister in the 1980s and has become the hero of a youth-driven movement seeking greater liberties and a gentler face for Iran abroad. The turnout was a record 85 per cent of Iran’s 46.2 million eligible voters. Two other candidates received only a fraction of the vote.

Grassroots Movement for Change Unscored
The vote has unscored a grassroots movement for change after 30 years of restrictive clerical rule in a country where 60 per cent of the population was born after the revolution. Reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who came a distant fourth with less than one per cent of the vote after ex-Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai in third, also declared the result “illegitimate and unacceptable”.

Trouble erupted on the streets when Ahmadinejad partisans clashed with about 2,000 supporters of moderate former Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi, who had been staging a protest against the result of Friday's vote, a Reuters witness said. The scale of Ahmadinejad's triumph upset widespread expectations that the race would at least go to a second round, and his victory is unlikely to help unblock a standoff with the West over Iran's nuclear programme.

Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, Mousavi, has rejected the result as rigged and urged his supporters to resist a Government of “lies and dictatorship.” The clashes in central Tehran were the more serious disturbances in the Capital since the student-led protests in 1999 and showed the potential for the showdown over the vote to spill over into further violence and challenges to the Islamic establishment.

Setback for Superpowers

Ahmadinejad’s defeat would have probably be welcomed abroad as a sign that Iran is moving away from his policies, but Iran’s policies are not his — they are dictated by Ayatollah Khamenei and his supporters in the Revolutionary Guard and Basij paramilitary. Now the international community, led by the world’s superpowers, must again deal with Ahmadinejad, who has refused talks with six world powers over Iran’s nuclear programme. The three-week election campaign was marked by mudslinging, with Ahmadinejad accusing his rivals of corruption. They said he was lying about the economy. Inflation, officially put at 15 per cent, and unemployment were core issues in the debate.

The United States has had no ties with Iran, the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter, since shortly after the revolution. US President Barack Obama said his country had “tried to send a clear message that we think there is a possibility of change”.

However, the present verdict does not sound the death-knell of Iranian liberalism. There is a tremendous energy within middle-class Iran that feels stifled by rigid social taboos and the strictures on personal and intellectual freedom. However, the political expressions of these frustrations are stymied by the association of liberalism with the West, an association that raises both conservative and nationalist hackles. After all, despite what Obama said in Cairo, Iranian nationalism is at odds with the West over a dispute that is nominally over nuclear weapons but which translates on the ground as an issue of national self-esteem.

Influence of Ahmadinejad
There is little denying that the personality of the President does influence the tenor of Tehran’s engagement with the rest of the world. You just have to compare the last two men who held the job. Mohammad Khatami — president from 1997 to 2005 and an almost-ran this year — brought his country closest to a “grand bargain” when he used the UN platform to call for a dialogue among civilisations. However, in the end, Khatami’s tenure remained an era of lost chances, and the US must still wonder at the chances it lost while Iranians take stock of the slivers of reform that so quickly vanished with the end of his presidency.

However, this is a schism that Iran cannot afford to either suppress or allow to fester. President Ahmadinejad has a pugnacious style. He loves a good fight and this is the basis of his success. The drive for reforms would not have left the Spiritual Leader Khamenei unaffected. According to the present arrangement, the Spiritual Leader has control over foreign policy, the military (including the nuclear programme), law enforcement and justice. Although the elected President is Iran’s face in the world, his primary responsibilities are limited to the economy and education.

Ahmadinejad, who has made a spirited bid for re-election, was the surprise winner in 2005, defeating the bazaar-backed Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. His first term was a spectacle of provocation, as he made a pastime of needling the West with rough statements of Holocaust denial and jingoistic assertions of Iran’s nuclear programme.

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