Iran’s presidential polls: the politics of normality in a state of war

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The election of Mahmood Ahmadinejad as the new president of Iran in the second round of the presidential polls on June 25 can be interpreted in a number of different ways, virtually all of them positive. For one thing, clear to all those observing the elections from outside the country, it rendered the Western enemies of Islamic Iran virtually speechless. For years they had built up a version of events in Iran that suggested that the Iranian people were disillusioned with the Islamic system, fed up with the ‘mullahs’ and their ‘hard-line’ anti-American politics, and desperate to reverse the ‘backward’ steps of the Islamic Revolution by rejoining the international community under de facto US suzerainty. To support this analysis, they promoted marginal and irrelevant figures within Iran, and misrepresented other individuals and factions who were better established in Iranian politics, including even president Khatami himself. Of course, their false image was not based entirely on inventions; it was all the more powerful because it had some relation to debates on the future path of the Islamic State taking place within the country. They also hoped that their analysis would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, persuading Iranians to see their own situation in terms of the framework presented by the US.

These strategies undoubtedly have had some effect in Iran, both directly and indirectly. But the results of first last year’s Majlis elections, where the reformers in whom the West placed great hopes were defeated, and then these presidential elections, have demonstrated that the vast majority of the Iranian people remain fully committed to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution. They have both turned out in large numbers to take part in the elections, and elected to the presidency a man whose style and outlook are deeply rooted in the ideals of the Revolution, and who had been dismissed as an irrelevant ‘hard-liner’ by Western commentators before the election. Little wonder that the US, having backed candidates who were decisively defeated, and called for a boycott that never materialised, have been reduced to perfunctory condemnations of the election processes, knowing full well that Muslims around the world would love to have a similar opportunity to show their attitude toward the pro-Western despots who rule their countries.

This is not to say that Ahmadinejad does not face serious political issues as president of Iran. The country does indeed face serious questions about its future direction, with many Iranians very unhappy about the state of its political and economic institutions. As in all countries, the government is largely blamed for failures and problems in these areas. The reformers were brought to power in 1997 on a promise to address these problems but have failed miserably. They blame this failure on the so-called conservatives, saying that they have been hampered in their attempts to improve the situation. Some Iranians no doubt agree with this analysis. Most, however, do not, as shown by their decision to elect a man associated with those self-same conservatives to try to do what the reformers failed to do. Ahmadinejad has a considerable task ahead, trying to address these issues while also maintaining a degree of consensus in what is undoubtedly a populace deeply divided on some issues. It bodes well that proposes to do so by trying to re-establish the ideals of simplicity, humility and sacrifice in public life embodied by Imam Khomeini; many Iranians feel that these essential elements of the Islamic Revolution have been lost in recent years, and have thus felt increasingly alienated from their political institutions and leaders. It is a sign of the strength of the Revolution that, in this situation, Iranians have preferred to return to its ideals rather than abandoning them.

Such issues and debates are the normal stuff of politics in an open society. But Ahmadinejad, and other Iranians, must be aware that they are not facing them in a normal situation, but in a country that is effectively in a state of war against a powerful external enemy determined to do whatever it takes to recolonise their country. America’s stunned silence will not last long; we know that the West has contingency plans for political warfare against Iran. In the new situation, Iran may well be better able to resist these plans, but it will also be subject to far stronger attacks than they might otherwise have been. As Ahmadinejad aims to reassert the values of the Revolution, Muslims around the world must also rediscover the support they offered the Islamic Revolution in its earliest years. The struggle for the survival of the Islamic State will only intensify in years to come.

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