Iranian poll result Policies are unlikely to be extreme

Mark Gasiorowski

Ahmadinejad’s government may undertake at least token crackdowns on dress code violations and gender mixing.

The landslide victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round of Iran’s presidential elections was largely a response to the populist campaign he had waged. His campaign emphasised the large gap between rich and poor in the country, the rampant corruption that exists there, and his own humble lifestyle. His victory was a rejection of the preceding era, under Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, when this poverty gap grew wide. It also represents something of a backlash against the social and cultural liberalisation over the past 15 years, especially the much more relaxed standards of dress for women and widespread public romantic activity and gender mixing. The gap between Iranians

who support and those who oppose this liberalisation largely parallels the rich-poor divide, so it is difficult to say how much the election reflects anger at liberalisation and how much at the gap between rich and poor. My guess is that the election outcome mainly reflects the latter, but the former certainly was important for some.

Ahmadinejad’s victory sho-uld not have surprised anyone, given the humiliating defeat of Rafsanjani, his second-round opponent, in the 2000 parliamentary election and the equally dismal performa-nce of Iran’s reformist faction in 2003/04. The magnitude of Ahmadinejad’s victory should also not be exaggerated. Only about 35 per cent of Iranians supported him in the second round. The results of the first round show that the Iranian public remains deeply polarised, with 38 per cent of the electorate supporting conservative candidates; 40pc-45pc supporting reformists, “holding their noses’’ and backing Rafsanjani, or boycotting the election; and perhaps 10 per cent enthusiastically supporting Rafsanjani as a centrist. In truth, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the main winner here. Like Khatami, Ahmadinejad will be very visible but not very powerful in the presidency, which has grown considerably weaker as an institution in the past eight years. Kham-enei’s main political rivals — Rafsanjani and the reformist movement — have been defeated, and he now controls all governmental institutions. The centralisation of power will be greater than at any time since the heyday of the last shah in the 1970s.

Iranians who strongly oppose Ahmadinejad are now in a state of shock and dismay, but I suspect that very few will be willing to risk a major confrontation with his supporters. They have maintained a posture of passive discontent in recent years and are likely to remain this way in the near future. So a Velvet Revolution or some other form of political upheaval seems unlikely any time soon. For one thing, the leaders of Iran’s security forces are jubilant about Ahmadinejad’s victory and will act decisively to stop any challenge to the new order. There is presently no capable leadership orchestrating a Velvet Revolution. Iran’s reformist leaders will need several months to assess the situation and regroup. With Khamenei rather than Ahmadinejad firmly in control, Iran’s domestic and foreign policies are likely to be less extreme than many have predicted. Although Ahmadinejad’s core supporters will be energised by the outcome, Khamenei is likely to restrain them out of concern that radical measures will antagonise Ahmadinejad’s opponents and the US and EU. Khamenei’s task will be a difficult one, given the severe polarisation and the possibility of foreign interference or regional conflict spilling over into Iran.

My guess is that Ahmadinejad’s victory will have the greatest impact on economic policy and the new government’s treatment of its political opponents. His campaign emphasised populist economic measures such as redistributive fiscal and monetary policies and a crackdown on corruption. Ahmadinejad’s opponents will face increased repression. Khamenei is likely to restrain the Ahmadinejad government on social and cultural policy, given how important this is to reformist and centrist Iranians, and especially to young Iranians. I expect Ahmadinejad’s government will undertake at least token crackdowns on dress-code violations and gender mixing. However, a reversion to the harsh standards of the 1980s seems unlikely. Iran’s foreign policy will also probably be less extreme than many observers have predicted. Khamenei will want to avoid triggering US interference in Iran’s domestic affairs. He also will want to maintain or expand Iran’s economic relations with EU and avoid a US-EU united front against Iran. It seems likely that Iran will try to string out negotiations with the EU over its nuclear programme. There is still some possibility that it will reach an agreement. In addition, Iran and the west have similar approaches towards Iraq, Afghanistan and al-Qaida, at least in the short term, so there is some chance of cooperation on these issues. Nevertheless, foreign policy will undoubtedly be more hostile toward the west under Ahmadinejad than if Rafsanjani had been elected.—The Guardian