Looking back at a close election won, lost or stolen by an unlikely candidate one must guard against over rationalizing. On occasions like this pundits who never told us so tend to speak as if they could have, or nearly did tell us so. The neurotic pundit in us wants to do the same thing. The results of the recent elections in Iran, all economic explanations and political conspiracy theories notwithstanding, could easily have been different. If Karrubi’s stunt of $60 checks raining from heavens had been slightly more successful or if Rafsanjaani had pulled out in favor of Karrubi before the runoff (an option he seriously considered) the pundits would be singing a very different tune today. With that caveat let me first puncture an increasingly popular Monday morning retrodiction.
“It was economy stupid” is a fashionable cry these days. Ahmadinejad promised bread and won, they say. Who cares for liberties when people are hungry? Marx would be pleased but numbers belie this logic. In the most deprived states ethnicity of the candidates, or their position on minority rights predicted the vote much better than economic factors. Conversely, a lot of the well-to-do voted for Ahmadinejad. Iran’s most famous novelist (Doulatabadi) and its most renowned director (Kiarostami) praised Ahmadinejad’s modesty and commitment to service, even as they voted for his opponent.
This election, followed the motto of Ayatollah Khomeini about the Islamic Revolution: it was not about the price of watermelons. Economics are important but in Iran the symbolic ace trumps most economic hands. Ahmadinejad won because he was a master of symbolic interaction. He showcased his small house in a poor neighborhood of Tehran and flaunted his earthy manners, grooming, and even his ugliness, as the stigmata of a long suffering servant of the people. It was not his economic plans that wooed the poor but such gimmicks as banning bananas (considered an luxury food item) at his office of Tehran’s Mayor.
Ahmadinejad, the ultimate insider cruised on enormous monetary reserves of right wing’s hidden economy (including the Revolutionary Guards’ illegal piers at the Persian Gulf used to import contraband and their huge, no-bid, Halliburton-like public works contracts) to the summit of Iran’s politics. And yet Ahmadinejad campaigned on a platform of exposing the nexus of money and power in Iran and won. He won because he garnered the opposition vote by playing the righteous and humble underdog — just as Khatami had done.
The story of Ahmadinejad’s victory began with the no-show election of the City Councils when the reform constituency avoided the polls handing an easy victory to the the new Mayor. Ahamdinejad pounced on the office of the Mayor with the verve and stamina of a hungry cheetah. Having borrowed huge sums from his rightwing allies in Revolutionary Guards and under the guise of service to people Ahmadinejad milked Tehran to gain popularity. He gave generous bonuses not only to bus drivers but also to teachers. He built sports complexes not only for the city but also for universities and schools. He doled out copper cooking pots to religious congregations and gold coins to kiosk operators.
Above all, Ahmadinejad built up his shock troops: the “Mobilization” or Basij militias. A survival of the eight year war with Iraq, Basij has been maintained to turn back a hypothetical urban uprising against the Islamic republic. Under Ahmadinejad, Basij, that is arguably the world’s best organized corps of high school dropouts got new uniforms and shiny cars. On the days of the election the Basij were efficiently and decisively deployed under such code names as “Victory 1, 2 and 3” and “Hyacinth” and got out the vote. The strident Mr. Karrubi vociferously objected to this misuse of government funds – to no avail, of course.
A few days before the election all the systems were go for Dr. Ahmadinejad except for a crucial one: the not-so-secret blessings of the Supreme Leader, which would mean all kinds of perks. Impressed by Ahmadinejad’s numbers the Supreme Leader, who has been active in preventing another reform win for a long time, finally switched to Ahmadinejad from another right wing candidate. Ahmadinejad, perfectly fits the templates of an IRI public servant: a pious cantor, or a “maddah.” Of course one need not be a maddah in real life to go places in the IRI bureaucracy, but he should be able to play one at work.
During his tenure at the office of Tehran’s Mayor Ahmadinejad appointed real-life maddahs to six out of twenty two districts of the greater Tehran. Ahmadinejad may not be an actual cantor but he is quite a ham. The simpering, gaunt fellow was disconcertingly Reaganesk on TV. Given his looks, it is hard to say camera loved him but he sure knew how to love the camera. Fortuna continued to smiled on Ahmadinejad. As the election continued, his rivals’ campaigns flagged and his opponents proved divided, unprepared and unable to build on the ruins of eight years of President Khatami’s inept leadership. Now that he has won that smile may fade.
Like every populist in power he has to deliver on generously given promises. The benevolent, hardworking image will wear thin when the distributive style he practiced as the Mayor of Tehran proves inflationary at a larger scale. Even if the new petrodollars (another wink from lady Fortuna) continue to flow in, such challenges as ending unemployment will prove difficult.
On the cultural front he has to make difficult choices. These days the Basij types walk with a swagger in public spaces in Tehran. They will demand a better show of public morality, namely enforcing of the dress codes for women. This will force Ahmadinejad to choose between enforcing the dress codes and losing the middle classes, or, appeasing them at the expense of chagrining his loyal shock troops.
But all is not bleak for Dr. Ahmadinejad, who is the sharp edge of the neo conservative wedge growing in Iran. He can count on his American counterparts for more unintended support. It was President Bush’s denunciation of Iranian elections that helped swell the conservative vote, defeat Karrubi and send Ahmadinejad to the runoff.
The American neo cons can oblige their Iranian counterparts with another salvo of bellicose manna. They can use “their terrorists” Mujahedeen-e Khalgh corps now stationed in Iraq (and other user friendly neighbors to the north) or embark on a limited blockage, invasion or bombing. In the aftermath of such events reform will be crushed as the fifth column of the foreign invaders, and nobody in the long food lines will remember that certain people were not supposed to eat bananas.
Ahmad Sadri is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See Features. See homepage. This article first appeared in Shargh newspaper in Iran.