Hardliners reinvent themselves

Saloumeh Peyman

Promising a better life to the society’s downtrodden, the son of a blacksmith and mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad, has stunned Iran by beating an establishment figure to become the nation’s new president. While Ahmadinedjad’s promises of “fighting corruption, poverty and discrimination” appealed to the minds and hearts of millions of jobless youth and underpaid public and private sector workers, some analysts here say the slogans really provided a cover for the former revolutionary guard commander and other “hardliners” to seize back the presidential office and consolidate their hold on the Islamic state’s organs.

His opponent in Friday’s run-off contest, Hashemi Rafsanjani, 72, was formidable — chairman of the State Expediency Council, a two-term former president and a practised politician who was able to position himself as a “reformer” in an election that began with eight candidates, at least one of whom had more genuine reformist credentials than the former leader.

His educated supporters ranged from those in the lower middle class to the rich, all of whom were eager for more cultural freedom as well as more open and stronger ties with the United States and western countries in general. Wielding secular jargon and icons, Rafsanjani reduced the contest’s issues to dress codes and permissiveness in society in general, and to resuming ties with the United States — broken after the 1979 Islamic revolution — particularly to settle a simmering dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme.

On the other hand, Ahmadinedjad’s campaign was managed by grassroots volunteers — including those from the ‘basij’ (volunteer militia) and other low paid government employees — and, perhaps, by rank and file members of the guard. His slogans, handwritten or in calligraphy, dominated the poorer areas of downtown and south Tehran, a sprawling urban area of about 15 million people. “Fighting with mafia in the ruling establishment” and vowing to “return Iran to the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution” was how the mayor’s camp painted its efforts.

Ahmadinedjad pulled into second behind Rafsanjani by a very narrow margin in the first round of voting Jun. 17, but caught everyone by surprise in the run-off, obtaining 62 percent of nearly 28 million votes cast. Sixty percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the second vote, according to the Iranian government, slightly lower than the 63 percent who voted the first time. Prior to the run-off, Ahmadinedjad warned voters about looking to Washington for solutions. At the same time, Rafsanjani appeared to be sending conciliatory signals to the administration of US President Bush in pre-election interviews with ‘USA Today’, CNN and the ‘San Francisco Chronicle’, among others.

Secular intellectuals and pro-western political activists believe, on the other hand, that Ahmadinedjad’s Achilles heel is his hard-line version of Islam and his so called “reactionary and fanatic reading of culture”. But Shirin Ebadi, a human rights activist and the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, and Shahla Lahiji, a well-respected publisher of books on Iranian women, insisted in interviews with British and Japanese media after Friday’s vote that the Iranian people will not allow their freedoms and liberties to be reversed, no matter who occupies the presidential office. — IPS