Monday, July 04, 2005

What to make of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

He's a fundamentalist, yes, and he may or may not have been involved in the 1979 hostage-taking of Americans in Tehran, but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's surprise victory in the recent Iranian presidential election -- as Kevin Drum reminds us, from an L.A. Times piece by Reza Aslan -- had more to do with the economy, and his own populist agenda, than with religion or anti-Americanism. Aslan:
Despite the shrill rhetoric coming from Washington, where officials are now wasting their time trying to determine whether the incoming Iranian president was or was not a radical student hostage taker 26 years ago, Ahmadinejad did not win because of widespread fraud or because reform-minded voters boycotted the elections (though both played small roles). He won because most Iranians, especially younger voters... who are the natural constituency of the reform movement, saw him as the only candidate willing to talk about what nearly everyone in Iran — regardless of class, degree of piety or political affiliation — is most concerned about: massive inflation, high unemployment and soaring housing prices...

While [former President Hashemi] Rafsanjani and the other half-dozen or so presidential candidates stumbled over each other with promises of social reform and rapprochement with the West, Ahmadinejad promised to stop corruption in the government, distribute aid to the outlying provinces, promote healthcare, raise the minimum wage and help the young with home and business loans. Amid all the talk of head scarves and pop music from the front-runners, Ahmadinejad's message had enormous appeal not just for Iran's poor, but also for the country's youth, many of whom were attracted to Rafsanjani's promises of reform but who ultimately voted with their pocketbooks for Ahmadinejad.

In fact, the crumbling economy — perhaps even more than the mass arrests and political repression — is to blame for Iranian's widespread disenchantment with the reform movement. After all, when nearly a third of the population is unemployed and about 40% live below the poverty line, it is nearly impossible to focus on social reform.

These days, Kansans may focus more on "values" than on their own pocketbooks -- which is why so many of them went for Bush even as they struggled with a sagging economy -- Iranians turned away from social reformers and moderate Westernizers like Rafsanjani and embraced what they saw as their only hope for economic revival. (See also the Times report here.) As the Times editorial on the election put it, "Ahmadinejad... offered a populist economic platform that implicitly challenged the cronyism and corruption of more than a quarter-century of clerical rule". Will he succeed? The Times rightly argues that it will be extraordinarily difficult for him to overcome "the ruling establishment".

Abbas Milani, also writing in the Times, goes further: Ahmadinejad's victory was masterminded by "a cabal of conservative mullahs and Revolutionary Guards who have absconded to ivory towers with their dogma and greed for power". Indeed, "[l]ast week's presidential election is only the most recent example of the tactical wisdom and strategic foolishness of Iran's ruling mullahs". Ahmadinejad's anti-Americanism is, needless to say, a huge problem, not least as the West tries to work out a solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions, but Iran's economic crisis, in Milani's (neo-liberal) view, requires free markets and investor confidence, not knee-jerk populism:
Ahmadinejad's presidency will force a crisis not only in Iran's political establishment but also, and even more important, in its economy. Only a huge infusion of capital and expertise, along with open markets, can even begin to address the country's economic problems, which include high unemployment, a rapidly increasing labor force, cronyism and endemic corruption.

Such an infusion requires, more than anything, security and the rule of law. It requires a fairly elected president who inspires the confidence of investors and governments around the world. Instead, through a dubious election, Iran's kingmakers propelled a man into the presidency who has publicly opined that the stock market is a form of gambling with no place in a genuine Islamic society.

I tend to agree with Milani here. Iran is a vibrant country with a rich culture and promising prospects for socio-political reform and rapprochement with the West. But we need to work to those strengths and to encourage Iran's participation in the community of nations. Instead of pointing a gun (or an arsenal of cruise missiles) at them, which only strengthens their resolve to go it alone, we should be working to open up their markets and to contribute to a sustainable economic revival.

Rather than relying on facile labels, we need to understand where Ahmadinejad is coming from and how he was able to come out of nowhere to win the Iranian presidency. He may not have the right answers to Iran's economic troubles, but his victory at least allows us to ask the right questions.

(See also the many posts on the election at Brooding Persian, one of the best Iranian blogs out there -- and one that links back to The Reaction in its blogroll.)

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