Accessibility links

Iran: New President Represents Second Generation Of Islamic Revolutionaries

  • Charles Recknagel --> Iran's new president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, is 48 years old and a generation younger than his defeated presidential rival Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, age 70. As RFE/RL reports, that makes Ahmadinejad's victory in some respects a "changing of the guard" in Iran between two generations of Islamic revolutionaries.

Prague, 26 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Many of Iran's senior leaders still belong to the generation of Islamic radicals that overthrew the Western-leaning Shah in 1979.

By contrast, President-elect Mahmud Ahmadinejad represents a new generation of hard-liners whose values were forged in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

RFE/RL regional specialist William Samii says the difference is an important one.

"Ahmadinejad and the people closely associated with him represent what I think of as the second generation [of Islamic revolutionaries]," he said. "They may also have been involved with the [1979] revolution but their real formative experience was the Iran-Iraq War, when hundreds of thousands gave their lives defending the country. And those people now believe that they are entitled to not only a share of [living] in the country but to have a stake in determining its future."

Ahmadinejad, who is of humble origin, fought in the war as part of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps. He later went on to become a civil engineer and most recently mayor of Tehran.

In his political career he has always sought to appeal to the huge numbers of Iranians who have not seen their living standards improve despite their war sacrifices.

Ahmadinejad directly appealed to poorer Iranians in his presidential campaign by promising to give them a greater share of Iran's oil wealth. He also has called for greater state control of the economy, for job-creation programs, and land distribution and is seen as no friend of privatization and private wealth.

Samii says that often Ahmadinejad's language echoes the rhetoric of the Islamic Revolution's first generation.

"Interestingly, he is coming back to the same sort of discourse that was promoted by [founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini at the time of the revolution, that we have got a dispossesed class in the country and it is suffering and making sacrifices while there is a very rich and wealthy elite who are benefiting from access to all the state resources," Samii said.

For many of Ahmadinejad's supporters, long-term politicians like Rafsanjani represent that new elite despite their impeccable revolutionary credentials. Rafsanjani is widely believed to have amassed enormous wealth for his family and associates while holding public office -- including the presidency from 1989 to 1997.
"In terms of intellectual and press freedom, those things, I think, will be rolled back somewhat, or at least will meet greater resistance from the state." - Samii

But if Ahmadinejad calls for radical change in Iran, he remains very much within the structure of the ruling establishment.

Samii says he expects Ahmadinejad's generation of hard-liners, which also won control of Iran's parliament last year, to come into conflict with its elders. But that conflict will be muted by a desire by both sides' desire to maintain an overall sense of unity.

"He is going to come into conflict with that group but I think the way we are going to see that played out is not so much through formal state institutions but through the informal ones," Samii said. "And, in the effort to maintain what the regime calls unity, I think a lot of those conflicts will play out behind the scenes. Or, if they do something like dividing shares in a factory among the people, it will be very much portrayed as something the whole state apparatus approves of. I don't think you will ever see one state institution really disputing the actions of another one the way we did during the [reformist-leaning Mohammad] Khatami presidency."

Power in the Islamic Republic is distributed among unelected bodies and elected bodies, with ultimate decision-making authority reserved for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The supreme leader's position is intended to guarantee that competition between political trends is managed and does not endanger the continuity of the Islamic Revolution.

But if the new hard-line generation's conflicts with its elders will be managed, its conflicts with Iran's reformists could sharpen.

The reformists made early gains under outgoing President Khatami, including winning greater press and social freedoms. Many of those gains were later rolled back by the judiciary and other conservative-dominated bodies opposed to Khatami but some still remain.

Samii says he expects the new president to try to further restrict the press and to try to tighten public observance of such "moral" values as the strict Islamic dress code for women. But he says the Iranian public has shown it wants greater freedom of expression and it would be hard now to roll that back completely without fanning resistance to the regime.

"In terms of intellectual and press freedom, those things, I think, will be rolled back somewhat, or at least will meet greater resistance from the state," Samii said. "But these are things that are natural to people, they want to be able to express themselves, and if they can express themselves in the media, for example, then it is less likely that they would want to express themselves by going out onto the streets and demonstrating against the regime. Some of these things will have to continue."

In comments broadcast over state radio yesterday, Ahmadinejad said his aim is to make Iran an Islamic model for the world. Just what that means will only become clearer in the weeks ahead.

See also:

Iran: A New Paradigm And New Math

Iran: Foreign Ministry Says New President Won't Change Policy

For RFE/RL's full coverage of Iran's elections, see "Iran Votes 2005"