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.