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    Middle East
     Aug 2, 2005
Ahmadinejad: The second Rajai
By Mahan Abedin

The surprise election victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in June has been subject to widely different analyses and interpretations. Ahmadinejad, who will officially take over the presidential office on August 3, has been described as everything from a right-wing conservative to a closet socialist. But on closer inspection, Ahmadinejad's elevation to the presidency is not all that surprising; in fact, the forces that propelled him into the commanding heights of government are firmly rooted in the ideological and social landscape of the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Western analysts who, without exception, made the wrong predictions throughout the presidential campaign, are trying to compensate for their earlier mistakes by reading far too much into Ahmadinejad's success. They now attribute it to his alleged powerful supporters in the establishment and the paramilitary Basij forces. Some have even gone further and joined some Iranian political exiles in declaring the whole event as stage-managed by the secretive clerics who allegedly control the Islamic republic. According to this analysis, Ahmadinejad - irrespective of his mass appeal among the poor and the disadvantaged - is the regime's choice and his elevation to president must be analyzed in this context.

This argument completely ignores the democratic component of the Islamic republic and its uncanny ability to reflect the national mood at crucial junctures. This was as true in May 1997 - when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected president - as it was in June with the electoral victory of Ahmadinejad. Despite all the institutional and cultural weaknesses of Iranian democracy, there is little doubt that Iran is years ahead of even enlightened Arab and Muslim countries in providing real electoral choice to its people and enabling them to seriously affect the destiny of their country.

The second Rajai
Ahmadinejad consciously linked his electoral campaign to that of Mohammad Ali Rajai, a former Iranian president who was killed in a bombing in August 1981, claimed by the terrorist Mujahideen e-Khalq. This symbolism is acutely important, for two reasons. First, the slain Rajai was the last non-clerical president of the Islamic republic, and second, Rajai is the working-class hero of the Iranian revolution. Indeed, his pictures still proliferate in Iranian cities and his words and memory are regularly invoked by government officials and others who are anxious to maintain the emotional and ideological ties between the Islamic republic and the poor and disadvantaged classes.

Rajai is not only a hero of the Iranian revolution; his memory represents an alternative course of development for the revolution. Had he not been killed, Iran would likely have looked very different today. It was Rajai's murder, alongside those of former prime minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar and countless other officials killed in the period 1981-1982, that profoundly radicalized the Islamic republic and forced it to crack down decisively on all forms of dissent, armed or otherwise. It also consolidated power in the hands of a narrow circle of clerics; in short, the killing of Rajai is directly linked to the empowerment of the theocratic element of the Islamic republic.

All nations commemorate their fallen soldiers and heroes, but there is something uniquely intense about the manner in which Iran commemorates the memory and legacy of those who died fighting for its establishment, security and longevity. Pictures of the "martyrs" of the 1978-1979 revolution and the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s are plastered all over the buildings of major cities, towns and villages, and streets and districts are named after them. It is as if the Islamic republic establishes a personal relationship with all those who have died in its name. Nowhere is this intense posthumous relationship more apparent and overwhelming than Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery in the south of Tehran, where many of the "martyrs" of the revolution and the war with Iraq are buried.

Walking across this vast necropolis, the visitor is confronted with the pictures of hundreds of thousands of young men, mostly of either rural, working-class or disadvantaged backgrounds, and on their graves a few short words describe their devotion to the Iranian revolution and its founding leader, the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The words are as genuine, compelling and intense as the innocent pictures that stand above them. Those who are interested in understanding the captivating power of the Iranian revolution and its ability to continuously reproduce itself need to visit this unnerving plot of land.

It is highly symbolic and meaningful, therefore, that Khomeini's resting place is in Behesht-e-Zahra. The message is clear: the "imam" rests among his core constituency, and the fate of the revolution is inextricably tied to its ability to improve the circumstances of the disadvantaged social classes who gave their sons to it. Rajai is also buried in Behesht-e-Zahra, and the creative sloganeers of the cemetery have put the following caption above his grave: "For what crime was he killed"? It is not only the hardcore supporters of the Islamic republic who have posed this question to the terrorists who killed Rajai, but judging by the events of the past two decades, namely the radicalization of the Islamic republic and the empowerment of its clerical core, most sensible people in wider Iranian society have a very similar query.

It is precisely this powerful legacy that Ahmadinejad tapped into, and his phenomenal electoral success largely rests on his successful manipulation of it. Ahmadinejad has been propelled into the presidency by a substantial rural and urban working-class constituency that wants to take its rulers and the middle classes into account. This revival of the Iranian revolution and its egalitarian spirit will inevitably create tremendous energies that could potentially make Ahmadinejad's victory the most consequential event in Iran since 1979. Far from being the favorite of the clerical establishment, Ahmadinejad is in fact their most serious adversary to date, particularly since his revolutionary credentials are impeccable.

Ahmadinejad is not only a working-class man from a disadvantaged rural background, he is also a former senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officer and veteran of the Iran-Iraq war. In short, he represents the Iranian revolution and its history in its entirety. Ahmadinejad represents the class that has worked and fought tirelessly for the past 26 years to consolidate the achievements of the revolution, usually behind the scenes and certainly without any public recognition.

It is particularly dramatic therefore that the candidate that he defeated in the second (runoff) round of the elections represented a very different class altogether, namely the clerical oligarchy that has amassed a degree of power and influence that is far beyond its due share. Indeed, Hashemi Rafsanjani is the clerical oligarch par excellence. For more than two decades, Rafsanjani has rode the tiger of clerical supremacy, while at the same time playing to a receptive Western audience, promising them a final settlement with the Islamic republic.

His defeat in the second round spells the definitive end for his hopes of once again capturing the center stage of Iranian politics. Moreover, Rafsanjani's defeat could potentially spell the demise of the clerical oligarchy as a whole, thus finally releasing Iran from its theocratic constraints and enabling it to live up to the expectations of the revolution that gave rise to it.

Implications of Ahmadinejad's victory
Broadly, Ahmadinejad's victory has two relatively near-term implications. First and foremost it represents a catastrophic defeat for the liberal reformists. The reformist discourse of fundamentally remaking Iran's political institutions has been eclipsed by a more parochial and practical concern over the growing inequalities in society. Ahmadinejad's landslide victory proves in a dramatic way that reformist rhetoric in many of its aspects is mainly an intellectual pursuit without deep resonance in Iranian society. At a practical level, the defeat will further deepen divisions in the reformists' ranks, making them even less capable of shaping Iranian politics.

This defeat should force the reformers to contemplate two very important factors: namely, that they do not have the support of a substantial number of people beyond the affluent communities of north Tehran, and that their institutional approach toward remaking the Islamic republic is a failure through and through. The latter point is particularly important as the reformists set about changing their strategy and tactics. The "institutional" approach, as prescribed by Saeed Hajjarian, the main strategist of the reformists and the godfather of the Islamic republic's intelligence services, envisaged the gradual diminution and eventual replacement of key theocratic institutions in the Islamic republic.

One fundamental problem with this approach is that it ignores the vital functionality of these institutions, particularly the office of the Velayat-e-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisconsult) and the constitutional watchdog body, the Guardians Council. Without these institutions, the entire republican apparatus of the Iranian state becomes vulnerable. This is not an argument in favor of these effectively non-elected institutions, but a reminder that in the absence of properly organized parties (and the regulatory framework that would accompany such an arrangement) and an exhaustive debate on the precise nature and scope of the republic's "Islamic" dimension, weakening existing institutions could be destabilizing.

More broadly, the reformists will have to recognize that any major political change in Iran that seeks to ignore the experience of the past 26 years is doomed to fail, since it will provoke massive resistance by well-entrenched emotional, ideological and commercial interests. Regime change in Iran has always been a fantasy, not least because the Islamic republic is underpinned by remarkably extensive and complex socio-economic and ideological constituencies.

Secondly, the rise of Ahmadinejad signals a major shift in power in the Islamic republic. The shift works in favor of second-generation revolutionaries who seek to diminish gradually the power of the clerical nucleus of the regime and distribute political power more equitably. Indeed, Ahmadinejad's election is a major blow to clerical supremacists who now have to contend with the first non-clerical president since Rajai.

The challenge of second-generation revolutionaries to the clerical supremacists is spearheaded by a right-wing coalition known as the Abadgaran Iran-e-Islami (Developers of Islamic Iran). Although it is widely assumed that Abadgaran is a "neo-conservative" coalition with strong links to the establishment, the grouping is in fact made up mostly of second-generation revolutionaries critical of traditional conservatives who strive to reconcile the values of the Islamic revolution with Iran's current realities. Interestingly, Abadgaran refuses to call itself "right-wing", claiming that it transcends the reformist-conservative divide characterizing Iranian politics.

Ahmadinejad's firm footing in the Abadgaran constitutes another factor behind his success. Abadgaran is a very large grouping which can count on the strong support of millions of one-time revolutionaries with strong ideological and emotional ties to the Islamic republic and to the memory of Khomeini. It became a major force in Iranian politics when it defeated reformists in both local council and parliamentary elections in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

There is a disproportionate number of former IRGC and other security personnel at the core of the Abadgaran, and this has caused some concern. The concerns are, however, mostly unfounded since there is simply no scope for military intervention in Iranian politics. Iran is refreshingly different to its Arab, Turkish and Pakistani neighbors insofar as the military (whether in the form of the regular armed forces or the ideological IRGC) has neither the will nor the political wherewithal to interfere in the political process. But the presence of former IRGC elements at the heart of the Abadgaran, and Ahmadinejad's own background in the IRGC, mean that he will have the support of this vital institution and its paramilitary arm, the Basij, which constitutes the grassroots Islamic movement in Iran. This institutional and grassroots support complements Ahmadinejad's wider socio-economic base, thus enabling him to meet the challenge of the clerical supremacists and their allies more effectively.

More than a quarter of a century after it toppled the Shah and sent geopolitical shock waves across the region and beyond, the Iranian revolution shows no sign of retreating. The forces that underpinned the revolution have mobilized to place one of their own at the apex of the most important elected institution of the republic. Much now rests on the shoulders of Ahmadinejad, who has to prove that he can deliver on his promises. So far Ahmadinejad has merely engaged in populism and demagogy; this will have to be immediately followed with concrete action after he is sworn in as president.

While much of the Western media, often manipulated by a handful of exiles and their US neo-conservative patrons, has focussed on the alleged past radicalism of Ahmadinejad (ranging from his possible participation in the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 to his alleged role in the assassination of Kurdish separatists in Vienna), the people of Iran - the constituency that really matters - await to see whether Ahmadinejad can walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.

To make his presidency immediately meaningful, Ahmadinejad will have to do the following: first, dispel any lingering doubts that the turbulent revolutionary decade of the 1980s - complete with all its gratuitous radicalism - can be reproduced, and second address the widening socio-economic gulf in Iranian society in a truly meaningful manner.

This means empowering the democratic discourse and impulse that constitutes yet another strand of the Iranian revolution. While there is no denying that the Islamic republic has real and meaningful democratic institutions and procedures, the efficacy of these institutions is blunted by parallel non-elected entities. There is, however, a complex relationship between the two, dynamics that were not fully appreciated by the liberal reformists. Ahmadinejad and his allies will have to find ways of diminishing the theocratic component of the system without endangering the post-revolutionary Iranian state.

Thus far Ahmadinejad has only spoken of the need to remove corrupt and incompetent managers and officials. This is important, but it is far more important to remember that "corrupt" and "incompetent" officials are not primarily responsible for the widening socio-economic gulf in the country. It is the clerical oligarchy, using corrupt officialdom as a smokescreen, which is the primary obstacle to a more equitable distribution of power, wealth and opportunity in the country.

It is readily apparent to most seasoned observers - particularly those with access to the heart of events and trends in Iran - that socio-economic inequality and the democratic deficit are inextricably linked. The reformists had made the same conclusions, but their paradigm of democracy is Western-style liberalism, which does not necessarily guarantee institutional transparency and accountability in a country like Iran. The challenge for Ahmadinejad, and his young followers and advisors, is to find the right solutions to the democratic deficit, solutions that do not ignore the experience of the past 26 years.

Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed here are his own.

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