Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s overwhelming victory in Iran’s presidential election disappointed many who had hoped for a president who is not an international embarrassment and loose cannon. That is the image portrayed in the western media, and with such an image, many find it possible to explain such a victory only by fraud and intimidation. But we need to accept that the Iranian revolutionary regime, after 30 years, is solidly entrenched and has real popular support.
Now, it’s true that he’s an egregious anti-Semite and holocaust denier. And it’s probably true that he intends to acquire nuclear weapons, notwithstanding Iran’s repeated assurances that they seek only peaceful uses for nuclear energy. And it’s true that Iran since the revolution has been a theocracy dominated by a reactionary brand of Shi’a Islam. But it is not necessarily true that an election whose outcome we don’t like had to be fraudulent.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has, in fact, a quite credible electoral system, in the minimal sense that the votes get counted accurately. Credible evidence to the contrary regarding this most recent election has not yet been produced. The issue isn’t fraud, it’s the systematic structure of control that is built into the republic’s constitution.
System, Not Election, Rigged
Ahmadinejad didn’t need to fix the election. Candidates for any office (including the presidency) are vetted by both the Council of Guardians (all committed to the reactionary Islamist vision of the regime), and by the Supreme Leader, Ayatolllah Khamenei (whose authority far exceeds that of the president). None of these people are popularly elected, but they exercise ultimate political control.
It’s not that the elections were fixed; rather, the ballot itself was systematically stripped of serious reformers. Even if Ahmadinejad had lost, the experience of his reformist predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, suggests that no serious change of direction will be tolerated. Iran is a theocracy that has honest elections among pre-approved candidates. The available political spectrum is very narrow.
There’s another, more substantive reason that Ahmadinejad won. Like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Ahmadinejad is a serious populist in a society where the overwhelming majority of the people, urban and rural, are poor. And he has made sure that the poor have gotten benefits from Iran’s oil-based economy. So on a purely bread-and-butter basis, it’s not surprising that huge numbers of poor people voted for him.
But what about the polls that suggested that he would lose? Polling in Third World countries like Iran almost inevitably has a bias toward the big cities, because it is extremely expensive to reach a random sample of voters in rural areas. Moreover, if the polling is done by telephone, most of the poor won’t be reached because they don’t have phones. Many villages might have no phones at all, or just one for the whole town.
Careful study of the returns will probably show an electorate sharply divided on class lines, with urban, educated, middle class voters going heavily for Mir Hussein Moussavi, while much larger numbers of the rural and urban poor supported Ahmadinejad.
Why are the poor so reactionary? George W. Bush might well ask, “Don’t they love freedom?” Well, no. They have no reason to trust educated, sophisticated politicians who have never helped them in the past. They do have reason to trust Ahmadinejad, who has indeed helped them (even if he’s ruined the economy in the process). And for many of them, the certainties of dogmatic religion are a great comfort in a world largely beyond their control.
There is one final thing to keep in mind. Iran, even more than the rest of the Middle East, has nearly a century of experience with Western intervention and manipulation. They have not forgotten how the British put the Pahlavi dynasty in power, and kept them there. They have not forgotten that the CIA organized the overthrow of the popularly elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953, and restored the Shah to power. They have not forgotten that the United States stood with the Shah to the bitter end. So whenever the West expresses a preference, Iranians will tend to defy it.
What Can the US Do?
We need to come to terms with the fact that Ahmadinejad is the legitimate leader of the country, however much we may dislike his policies. We need to deal with Iran like adults, looking for areas where our interests may overlap (e.g., Afghanistan, where Iran certainly wants to avoid a Taliban/al-Qaeda victory). The same could be said about Pakistan: Iran has to be concerned about the threat of a Talilban takeover in that country, because of the intense hostility between Shi’a fundamentalism in Iran, and Sunni fundamentalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
You wouldn’t know it from the American press, but Iran actually provides far more opportunities and freedoms for women than most other Middle Eastern countries. Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt probably do better than Iran in this area, but Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are incomparably worse. The US ought to recognize this.
There will surely be conflicts of interest, most notably on nuclear weapons. The US must credibly deter Iran from using such weapons, but we are hardly in a good position to demand that they not have them, when we have thousands of them.
It’s time to get real, and deal with the real Iran.