Iranian elections: no throwback to ’79

Today's Islamic 'hardliners' are capitalising on the deficiencies of reformist elites.

Nicholas Frayn

Topics Politics

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the surprise victor in the 24 June Iranian presidential election. This mayor of Tehran was considered a political outsider and a ‘hardliner’, in contrast to the reform movement that has worked to liberalise the theocratic state for the past 10 years.

The result invoked some animus from the USA and the UK, with a UK Foreign Office spokesman claiming: ‘our analysis is this guy appears to be a throwback to the early 80s and that cannot be a good thing.’ (1) A Guardian editorial claimed: ‘This is a frightening state of affairs….[t]he consequences for both Iranians and for the rest of us are likely to be serious….’ (2) Meanwhile, the Washington Post argued that Ahmadinejad’s victory ‘completes the domination of Iran’s elective offices by the religious fundamentalists…’ (3).

Commentators tend to divide Middle Eastern societies into black-and-white categories of traditionalists and modernisers, ideologues and pragmatists, or pro- and anti-Western. But the reality is more complicated.

Ahmadinejad’s victory actually says more about the stale nature of the reform cause in Iran, than about Iranians’ desire to return to 1979. Ahmadinejad’s final opponent was the apparently more liberal Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – yet he is a cleric and member of the religious establishment, and is widely believed to have amassed his personal fortune through the abuse of state power (4). Against this reformist leadership, Ahmadinejad played the populist card – for example, appearing with street sweepers in the run up to the election (5). Rather than being a fundamentalist throwback, he has exploited the failure of the reformist movement to bring about noticeable change in people’s lives. His spokesman claimed: ‘A gap has emerged between different social classes and we have to find a solution. Access to opportunity and privilege is not available to all the people.’ (6)

Of course, the sabre rattling of the USA has improved the fortunes of Iran’s conservatives. Western pressure over its nuclear programme has produced justifiable indignation from the population, which may have benefited the less cosmopolitan candidates. Yet all candidates in the election said that they would support the nuclear programme – and it is unclear after his first press conference whether Ahmadinejad will adopt a particularly belligerent attitude toward the West. One nuanced New York Times article had the title: ‘Iran’s new leader takes tough line, and then softens it’ (7). The Economist plays on Ahmadinejad’s statement that ‘relations with the United States are not a cure to our ills’, but this actually seems to be an eminently sensible position (8). The new Iranian leader has also underplayed his reputation for social conservatism, proclaiming: ‘In domestic policy, moderation will be the policy of the government…. We will confront any kind of extremism.’ (9)

Ahmadinejad is typical of today’s Middle Eastern Islamists. Critics of the Bush administration’s policy of encouraging democratisation often warn that, given a free vote, many Muslim populations would elect religious politicians. That might be the case, but those politicians bear little resemblance to Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb (the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood), or Osama bin Laden. In fact, recent election successes of Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon underline how mainstream these parties have become.

In general, new Islamists represent a pragmatic and unsullied alternative to corrupt and moribund elites. An informative article on Hamas by the veteran reporter on Palestinian affairs, Graham Usher, points out that ‘Hamas has gone mainstream, moving from a movement of parallel or alternative political authority to the existing PA/PLO political system to one of participation and integration within it’ (10). Likewise, another old Middle East hand, Helena Cobban of the Christian Science Monitor, points out that the Islamist government of Turkey has been ‘much more flexible than all its secular predecessors in diplomacy over the 30-year dispute with Greece over Cyprus’ (11).

Yet this very flexibility suggests a lack of vision. Ahmadinejad or Islamists elsewhere have no long-term agenda; they only represent popular disillusionment with the elites. As with Lebanon’s anti-Syrian ‘Cedar Revolution’ in February 2005, this is a platform that people unite behind briefly – but there is no programme that can turn short-term support into a sustained project for change (12). In the case of Lebanon this was illustrated by the anti-climax of the recent elections, held after the Syrians had left. The victor was Saad Hariri, son of murdered prime minister Rafik Hariri, who immediately promised: ‘Nothing will change. All the institutions established by our father will continue….’ (13) So the budget deficits, political censorship, corruption and unemployment remain, but at least the Syrians are gone.

The region still has some dynamism, though – these are developing countries, undergoing significant social and economic changes. Iran’s GDP, US sanctions not withstanding, is growing at the relatively high rate of 6.3 per cent (which was above India last year) (14). Saudi Arabia has huge new infrastructure projects afoot, investing billions of dollars in petrochemicals, mining, transportation and oil production, while also attempting to increase employment. More Middle Easterners than ever are living in cities, travelling abroad or attending universities. Contrary to general expectations (and in a sorry contrast to the situation in the West (15)), almost 50 per cent of Iranian engineering students are now women (16). Of course, the lives of many in the region remain frustrating and precarious, and the impact of such developments is ambiguous in the short term. But these shifts will eventually require changes from the arcane and entrenched institutions in power today.

Western politicians and the liberal elite seem blind to these changes. Instead, they only see the Middle East as the site of a Manichean struggle between the forces of reaction and those brave souls of reform. This simplification encourages us to take sides in an unhelpful, or even potentially destructive, fashion. Recent events in Georgia, the Ukraine and Lebanon have shown that groups all over the developing world can be adept at presenting their cause to the West. But this does not make them representative, and such exploits can destabilise existing political arrangements.

On the other hand, actors such as Ahmadinejad are demonised, and condemned for rejecting the norms of contemporary civil society. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be swept into the morality play that is being made of Middle East politics.

(1) UK fears return to the bad old days in Iran, Guardian, 27 June 2005

(2) Wing and a prayer, Guardian, 27 June 2005

(3) Hard-Line Tehran Mayor Wins Iranian Presidency, Washington Post, 25 June 2005

(4) Profile: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, BBC News, 17 June 2005

(5) Hard-Line Tehran Mayor Wins Iranian Presidency, Washington Post, 25 June 2005

(6) Hardline Iran hails a devout working class hero, Guardian, 21 June 2005

(7) Iran’s New Leader Takes Tough Line, and Then Softens It, New York Times, 27 June 2005

(8) Victory for a religious hardliner in Iran, The Economist, 27 June 2005. Of course the real issue, they argue, is the lack of open markets and continued state interference in the economy, totally ignoring Iran’s relatively impressive GDP growth rate (see below)

(9) Iran’s New Leader Takes Tough Line, and Then Softens It, New York Times, 27 June 2005

(10) The new Hamas, Middle East International, 23 June 2005

(11) US should support all democracy, no matter whom it brings to power, Christian Science Monitor, 9 June 2005

(12) For more on the Cedar Revolution see No Beirut Spring, by Nicholas Frayn

(13) Quoted in Lebanon: an illusion of unity, Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2005 (available to subscribers only)

(14) CIA World Factbook

(15) The average figure in the US is closer to 20 per cent. See for instance: Getting it right, Prism Online

(16) IEEE officers find Iranian engineering students ready for 21st century, Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers

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Topics Politics


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