Iran’s choice for its next president, the hardline Mayor of Teheran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is likely to worsen relations with the West and the country’s international isolation. Yet in domestic terms the Islamist regime is likely to be better off than it would have been with a more moderate result.
Clearly, Ahmadinejad has a real base of support. But the fact that he ran as a populist, talked about helping the poor, condemned the government’s performance, and acted almost like an opposition candidate are all irrelevant: he was the regime’s choice, and, in the end, he received official help even against rival hardline candidates.
The regime played its hand brilliantly. It turned the slightly more pragmatic Hashemi Rafsanjani, who disagreed with some current policies, into the “establishment” figure and its own man into the rebel. The government thus used anti-establishment feeling to revitalize its own rule. Given the fact that the last president, Muhammad Khatami, was a supporter of the reform movement – albeit a timid one who ultimately accomplished nothing – only underlines how thoroughly the rulers turned around the political situation.
Ahmadinejad is a representative of the younger activists in the anti-Shah revolution of a quarter-century ago. He was directly involved in the holding of American hostages in Iran, though exactly how much so remains a matter of dispute. Most worrisome of all, he is close to the two main groups that represent the most extreme elements in Iran: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij organization. The first is a parallel pro-regime army; the second is an organization for intimidating opponents and anyone seeking a more open society.
However, concern that an even more radical leadership has taken over in Iran is mitigated by two factors. First, Ahmadinejad is more likely to focus on domestic issues, trying – with whatever degree of success is unclear – to improve living standards for the poorest Iranians. Second, the same group that has been in control ever since the revolution will basically continue to run ideological and foreign policy. The president has fewer powers than it seems, overshadowed particularly by Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad’s election starkly clarifies the challenge that Iran poses for Western policy and Middle East stability. First and foremost, it sends a signal to the most extreme elements in Iran and that country’s terrorist clients – Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and various small groups operating against Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and other Arab countries – that they have a green light for launching attacks. They are likely to assume that Iran will support them whatever they do.
Outwardly, Iran has often been relatively cautious, but, at the covert level, it has been the world’s leading sponsor of terror. Sometimes individual Iranian officials may have acted on their own to order and coordinate specific operations; they will now feel freer to do so.
Moreover, Ahmadinejad openly advocates Iran’s crash program to obtain nuclear weapons. Most Iranian politicians – at least those allowed by the government to function openly – support the program, but favor a quieter and more cautious approach. Rafsanjani, for example, put building better economic relations with the West ahead of pushing forward on the nuclear front.
If Ahmadinejad is president of a nuclear Iran, he is more likely to use the weapons in an adventurous manner. This does not mean that he would fire them, but rather that he would use them for purposes of diplomatic blackmail, raising threats to crisis levels. Since Iranian leaders daily proclaim their desire to wipe Israel off the map and to fight the US (Ahmadinejad stepped on a picture of an American flag on his way to vote), the risk of confrontation has increased.
Finally, Ahmadinejad is likely to be bolder in subverting stability in Iraq, and his victory will encourage radical Iranian officials and extremists within Iraq itself. Iran is already sending many agents into Iraq and supporting clients seeking to turn that country into a clone. Iraqis, including Shia Muslims – who follow the same version of Islam as Iranians — generally reject such interference. A more militant Iranian posture is likely to increase friction with Iraq, as well as inspire more anti-American violence there.
In short, Iran’s electoral outcome is a dangerous one, though precisely how destabilizing it ultimately turns out to be will depend on Ahmadinejad’s actions and the degree of power granted him by Khamenei. Moreover, dealing with such an openly extreme Iran – radical even by the hardline regime’s standards – will be a challenge not just for the US, but for Europe as well.
Will European countries try to pretend that Ahmadinejad’s militant rhetoric and provocations don’t matter and that some diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambition can be found? With Rafsanjani, either a real agreement or the pretense of cooperation would have been easy to maintain. But, with Ahmadinejad, a high level of appeasement will be necessary for even the most minimal diplomatic process to continue.
Some Iranian reformers and exiles put a bright face on Ahmadinejad’s election, arguing that his administration is more likely to show the regime’s real face and disabuse any Western hopes of compromise. Yet it may also represent the regime’s success at co-opting dissatisfaction with a quarter-century of radical Islamist rule. Whatever the outcome, for the West, Ahmadinejad’s victory means that everything related to Iran is set to become even hotter.