The Ahmadinejad Era: Preparing for the Apocalypse

Article excerpt

The upset victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran's June 2005 presidential elections has caused a sea change in the Islamic Republic. His stunning success dwarfed in every respect ex-president Mohammed Khatami's similarly unexpected electoral triumph in 1997. But, while Khatami defeated mainly an unpopular rival--a religious fundamentalist, political hardliner, socially conservative and business-oriented bazaari--Ahmadinejad's coup involved beating four betterknown, more experienced, more qualified and more attractive rivals. Of the eight presidential candidates approved by the Council of Guardians, Ahmadinejad was the darkest of all dark horses in every respect. According to a poll taken four weeks prior to the elections, less than 5 percent of likely voters favored him compared to 36 percent for ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani--the defeated challenger in the run-off elections. (1)

In retrospect, assuming the elections were fair and free, the surprising reversal of fortunes probably reflects three main factors. First, it was a normal swing of the ideological pendulum back to the right, reversing the leftward shift made in 1997 from Rafsanjani and a conservative Majlis to Khatami and his reformist coalition. Second, it was a manifestation of the voters' disenchantment with Khatami's lackluster and dissatisfying performance. (2) Third, it was Ahmadinejad's astute use of political lessons learned from the mistakes of both Mohammed Reza Shah and Mohammed Khatami who ignored the people's craving for both economic welfare and political participation. He promised them both.

Interestingly enough, however, while the Islamic Republic's four pivotal power centers--the Supreme Leadership, the Experts Assembly, the Council of Guardians and the National Expediency Council have meanwhile remained essentially the same both in personnel and structure, the accidental president has been able to leave his indelible imprint on Iran's politics and society by adopting a maverick management style at home, and a defiant foreign policy towards the West. Internally, he has wrested power from an estimated 20,000 of the entrenched nomenklatura that had monopolized various levels of bureaucracy since the revolution, and given it to his military and security bedfellows; he has shifted political forums from urban centers and sophisticated audiences to small towns, deprived masses and less educated crowds; and he has taken some independent personal positions openly different from those of other government leaders. Iran's foreign policy facade has also undergone a substantial overhaul as a result of his bombastic tirades, his confrontational maneuvers and a new cadre of diplomatic envoys. (3)

This review attempts to examine Ahmadinejad's performance in light of his campaign platform by analyzing him as a leader, describing the process he has followed, discussing the message he has tried to convey and examining the product he has thus far delivered. Although it may appear too early for such an appraisal, it is warranted for two reasons. First, his administration's record so far may offer a clue as to the eventual outcome of his four-year tenure. Second, in one of his campaign speeches, he himself promised that people should see the results of his economic policies in one year, i.e., six months ago.

THE MAN: A GOD-LINKED LEADER

Ahmadinejad is a political phenomenon sui generis in many respects. First, although a man with presumably higher education in modern science and cherishing western titles of doctor and professor before his name, he is also a superstitious neo-fanatic who not only believes in the apocalypse, but also expects the physical appearance of Imam Mahdi any day soon. In his view, Iran's Islamic revolution has a distinct mission to pave the way for him to come and rescue the righteous from the wicked. Although he has tried to keep himself at a distance from some obscurantist mullahs who claim that the Hidden Imam personally chose him, Ahmadinejad has not shied away from insinuating a mystical link to the Almighty. …