Tuesday, June 28, 2005

So, do tell, what's been going on while I was away, part three

Oh, yeah, there was an election in Iran, wasn't there?

Yes, there was, and with a surprise result that no one would have predicted going into the first round of balloting: The dramatic victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the run-off for the presidency. According to official totals, Ahmadinejad (whose name is pronounced "Aah-MA-dee-ni-JAHD" according to AP and "ah-mah-DEE-nay-jahd" according to Knight-Ridder) gathered over 60% of the vote, routing former president Hashemi Rafsanjani.

What this means for the future of change in Iran remains to be seen. Knight-Ridder notes, quite accurately, that
[m]any Iranians fear that by electing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as their next president, voters may have slammed the door on political freedom and placed their future in the hands of hard-line clerics and the elite military establishment that backs them.
However, as AP reported with equal correctness,
for many Iranians, the biggest issue was an economy that has languished despite Iran's oil and gas riches. Iran's official unemployment rate is 16 percent, but unofficially it is closer to 30 percent - and the country has to create 800,000 jobs a year just to stand still. In the fall, another million young people are expected to enter the work force.

Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith, presented himself as the humble alternative to Rafsanjani, whose family runs a large business empire. He has promised Iran's underclass higher wages, more development funds for rural areas, expanded health insurance and more social benefits for women.
With oil prices hitting record highs, improving Iranians' lot, at least to some degree, should be well within his grasp. At the same time, however, just as with our own Georgie-boy, people who voted for a candidate based on one concern, even if it's a big one, may have failed to realize they're actually getting a package deal.

In a taped message that served as his victory statement, broadcast on state-run radio, Ahmadinejad said his "mission [is] to create a role model of a modern, advanced, powerful and Islamic society," but what that means in practice is unclear: He has also pledged to return Iran to the principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, frightening reformers with the prospect of undoing all the limited social reforms grudgingly achieved over the last dozen or so years. Indeed, those reformers, many of who regard their new president as a "yes man" to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
worry that Ahmadinejad's populist nationalism and archconservative brand of Shiite Islam will return their country to international pariah status and revive the purges and oppression that prevailed two decades ago.
It's always an open question if such repression - assuming it comes - can prevent change as opposed to merely delaying it. In some ways, the demographics favor change in Iran over the longer term: More than half of the population is under 25, meaning they have grown up in an atmosphere of slowly-increasing openness. They may well not be willing to give that up. In many such cases, change comes not by insurrection or open rebellion, but by people going as far as they can without getting into trouble, creating a constant subtle pressure, the press of culture gradually stretching the fabric of society. It's a slow process, but yeah, it happens.

Footnote: Knight-Ridder says
Rafsanjani now appears to be facing his political grave. ... He may retain his seat on the Expediency Council, which mediates between parliament and the ruling clerics, but he now casts the shadow of a two-time loser.
I wouldn't be so quick. A little over a month ago, I called him Iran's Ahmed Chalabi, "a wily politician ... whose political obituary has several times proved to have been premature." And he retains the power base of his business interests. I wouldn't count him out just yet.

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