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Iran: A New Generation And The Drift To The Right

Mahmud Ahmadinejad (file photo) The 24 June second round of the Iranian presidential election pits two individuals with very different backgrounds against one another -- Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani versus Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

The former represents an older generation that opposed the monarchy and has 2 1/2 decades experience in national leadership. The latter represents a younger generation whose formative experience was the Iran-Iraq War and which wants a greater say in the country's affairs. That older generation appears to be losing control to the younger one, and this election represents a high point in a continuing political struggle.

The 70-year-old Hashemi-Rafsanjani's involvement with politics dates to the early 1960s, when he began his association with the dissident cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. After the 1979 revolution, this relationship and Hashemi-Rafsanjani's political skills led to him becoming one of the country's most powerful figures. He served as speaker of parliament from 1980-89 and president from 1989-97. More importantly, while president he became chairman of the Expediency Council, a body tasked with adjudicating in legislative disputes between the parliament and the Guardians Council, that also advises the supreme leader. The council, furthermore, is involved with constitutional revisions.

As chairman of the Expediency Council, Hashemi-Rafsanjani is already one of the country's most powerful individuals, and being president at the same time would strengthen his hand immensely. He is very influential informally, too, through the patron-client relationships and personal networks that result from his lengthy involvement in politics, through his extended family, and through his clerical ties.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani's position on most issues is well-known in the West because he has made an effort to be accessible to media outlets such as the BBC, CNN, "The New York Times," and "USA Today."

The 48-year-old Ahmadinejad has not received as much public attention. According to his website (, he is the fourth son of an ironworker who had seven children. He earned a doctorate in civil engineering at the University of Science and Engineering in Tehran in 1997. In 1986, he joined the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and served in its intelligence and security apparatus, participating in operations around the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and in the western part of Iran. Ahmadinejad went on to serve as governor of Ardabil Province. In April 2003 Ahmadinejad was appointed mayor of Tehran by the capital's municipal council, which is dominated by the hard-line Islamic Iran Developers Coalition (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami).

Ahmadinejad is a member of the central council of the hard-line Islamic Revolution Devotees' Society (Jamiyat-i Isargaran-i Inqilab-i Islami), according to his website. The Devotees, however, publicly endorsed another candidate in the 17 June first round of the presidential election. After his loss, that candidate complained of betrayal by his supposed supporters. In some of Ahmadinejad's public statements, furthermore, he has appeared to identify himself as a Developer. Both the Developers and the Devotees represent a younger generation of revolutionary Iranians, particularly those with a background in the Revolutionary Guards and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Ahmadinejad's candidacy, therefore, represents the rise of a new generation, as well as a rightward drift in Iranian politics.

Stepping back from the machinations of party politics, it is difficult to understand Ahmadinejad's seeming popularity across the country and his ability to secure more votes than better-known candidates, such as former speaker of parliament Mehdi Karrubi or former national police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. They and the other candidates have been in the national spotlight for many years, and they campaigned throughout the provinces. Although Ahmadinejad has been politically active, it was only after he became Tehran mayor that he became nationally known. He did not campaign as aggressively as his competitors. Indeed, he only carried 10 of the provinces, including Tehran. Alleged electoral interference by the Basij and the Guardians Council on his behalf may explain an otherwise inexplicable rise in his political fortunes.

The Candidate's Stand

Some of the contrasts between Ahmadinejad and his rival were borne out in a in a 19 June television program. Ahmadinejad's representative took a swipe at the children of the wealthy, and he said that although the names have changed the rule of the pre-revolutionary Thousand Families (the pre-revolutionary aristocracy) continues. He promised that Ahmadinejad's cabinet would include young people. When Hashemi-Rafsanjani's representative said the country needs evolution rather than another revolution, Ahmadinejad's representative retorted that the country's current management has grown rigid and unresponsive and a revolution is necessary. When the two argued about Basij involvement in the election, Hashemi-Rafsanjani's representative said the Basij must not intervene in politics.

Ahmadinejad has taken a populist stand on domestic issues. He referred to the problems of the underclass in an 8 June state television interview. Ahmadinejad said resolution of the unemployment problem requires financial support from the state, land distribution to farmers, and promotion of small workshops. He went on to say that the state should employ people directly, rather than using contractors, and state employees should receive housing and good wages. He called for use of 1 percent of the state budget to create a Young People's Fund that would, among other things, create jobs.

In a 7 June interview on state television, Ahmadinejad said Iran is the target of a destructive Western cultural onslaught. It intends to undermine the self-confidence of Iranian managers and influence the young. He said teachers must have greater access to resources.

Ahmadinejad said during a campaign visit to Yasuj, Boir Ahmadi va Kohkiluyeh Province, that the gap between rich and poor is increasing, "Kayhan" reported on 6 June. As Tehran's mayor he was behind a crackdown on social freedoms in the capital and he banned billboards with the picture of British soccer player David Beckham, "The Guardian" and "The Independent" reported on 20 June.

Turning to foreign affairs, Ahmadinejad said in the 8 June interview on state broadcasting that he promotes relations with all other countries on the basis of respect, IRNA reported. In order of priority, he said, relations with immediate neighbors are the most important, followed by countries that were once part of the Persian Empire. Then come Muslim states, and last but not least, states that are not hostile to Iran. Turning to the United Nations, Ahmadinejad said its structure is "one-sided, stacked against the world of Islam." He described nuclear energy as an achievement and a right of the nation, adding, "No one can deprive the Iranian nation of this right."

He does not seem friendly towards the United States. "America's unilateral move to sever its ties with the Islamic Republic was aimed at destroying the Islamic Revolution," he says on his website. "And it is for the same reason that America is trying to reestablish relations with Iran." He said Iran should resume relations with the United States only after careful consideration of its interests.

Implications Of Ahmadinejad Victory

Ahmadinejad's statements, his background and experience, and his associations give a strong impression of what one can expect from him as president. He is likely to get more cooperation from the hard-line-dominated legislature than President Mohammad Khatami did, and given the alleged Guardians Council support for his presidential bid, he will not encounter any resistance there. For the international community, the implication is that an Ahmadinejad presidency will result in a greater focus on Third Worldism in Iranian foreign policy. And if Iran seemed uncooperative on the nuclear issue so far, it will just get worse under Ahmadinejad.

See also:

Ex-President, Hard-Liner Win Spots In Iran Runoff

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