Sunday, June 26, 2005

Iran's New President: What Difference Does it Make?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

What does the new president of Iran mean to the rest of the world and what does this election mean? The new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an unknown quantity here in the U.S. Even though he was the mayor of Tehran since 2003, he hasn't made much of a mark outside of
Iran itself. So what can we divine from what there is out there about him? The following is some of what's known about the man:

1. He won as a populist candidate. He's considered a man of the people, someone who's down to earth and in touch with the common man. This, more than his hard-line views are more likely to have been the undoing of the "reformist" candidate Rafsanjani, a "cleric" who is widely disliked and closely associated with past and present corruption in the country. Rafsanjani is a rich man who flaunts his power and wealth, as does his family, and who over time has caused a wide range of people to develop strong feelings of dislike towards him. Rafsanjani's last election fiasco was four years ago when he resoundingly lost a bid for a senate seat, a performance he seems to have duplicated in this bid for the presidency. Bottom line, the man is not liked, and it may well have taken a run-down election with him as one of two candidates for president for the Iranian people to finally tune into how much they really don't like him.

2. He's considered to be very devout and very intolerant of corruption. What I've heard from family in Iran is that there's a rash of people trying to get out of the country who've had any association with corrupt goings on there --- the expectation is that Ahmadinejad is going to clean house.

3. He was on the frontline during the war against Iraq. This is a significant thing for a man, especially when one considers the savagery and waste associated with war.

4. He was very involved in the Islamic Revolution which brought Khomeini to power. His ties to the teachings of Khomeini and the Revolution are strong and hold considerable influence on his thinking and actions.

5. He didn't get along well with the reformists. He had problems with Khatami, the reformist president whose term is expiring.

6. His actions while mayor of Tehran, the largest city in Iran, were of a man who's very conservative and a strict interpreter of religious writing, who has no problem imposing that interpretation on the citizens of the country.

7. He's well-educated, with a PhD in civil-engineering, who taught for a time at the university level.

8. In many respects Ahmadinejad is Iran's version of George Bush, though better educated. It's rumored that he even has a problem with malapropisms, similar to Bush.

The fact is that there's little that the president of the country directly controls, so to a large degree the man who occupies the position is a figurehead. But when you consider that a large majority of Iranians did vote for him it causes one to wonder what's going on. My person belief is that this election wasn't so much of an endorsement for Ahmadinejad as it was a loud raspberry to Rafsanjani, a man who had gotten under the skin of a lot of people and who in the end was extremely presumptuous about what he expected to occur on the second election day. Moreover there's a strong sense that I get from the Iranians that I talk to, all of whom are more from the reformist school and as far as I'm aware didn't vote for Ahmadinejad, that of the two candidates Ahmadinejad seems to be the one who would do the most right by the country in terms of cleaning up the corruption and taking care of the people, platforms which played a large role in his getting elected. While the younger citizens in the country seem by and large reformist in perspective, it was pretty clear from the first electoral runoff that a reformist candidate was not going to hold sway, and of the choices available it was felt that maybe Ahmadinejad would get something constructive done during his time in office --- that said, it should be stated this is largely coming from people who are looking at this in some measure of bewilderment themselves, and to some degree trying to find the best message out of what happened.

While it's true that the president of the country has little to say about what goes on there or even internationally with regard to the country for that matter, with the last say in anything of significance coming from the "supreme leader" Ayatollah Khamenei, the president can still
have a significant influence on the people in ways associated with internal control of how they live their lives. Here is where those who voted Ahmadinejad in may regret their decision as it's clear that he favored a conservative interpretation for how Muslims in Iran should lead their lives, in particular the women. How far this will go now that he's president remains to be seen,
though weathervanes to what may come will be tied to those selected for various ministry posts.

The U.S. is still voicing criticism regarding a lack of democracy in Iran. To some degree this is true inasmuch as the unelected Guardian Council and the supreme leader vetted all possible candidates, with the end result being a group of candidates seen as acceptable to them, with one reformist thrown in to keep everyone else happy. This is clearly not a democratic process in any sense that we appreciate it here, but as for anywhere else in the Middle East it's still pretty much the best there is. Of the candidates that were available the electorate turnout in both cases, with the votes held the past two Fridays (it must also be kept in mind that Friday in Islamic countries is the equivalent of Sunday in Christian countries) came close to or exceeded 60%; last Friday's election was on the order of 59.6%. The reality is, regardless of however the
candidates were chosen, the U.S. hasn't had a national election turnout anywhere near that high in a long, long time, and if election day was held on a Sunday I'd hazard to guess that we'd see even less of a turnout.

On the whole, while there are many people who are concerned that there's a conservative who'll be sitting as president, it remains to be seen how this will play out and whether it's going to change much for the country. I'm inclined to believe that the next six months will tell. There's enough indication from Ahmadinejad's past actions to give some concern for how the lives of the people of Iran may regress. That said, there are a lot of things wrong in Iran right now that have nothing to do with religion, and corruption and the misuse of the country's oil wealth top the chart --- from an Iranian perspective Ahmadinejad may well be what the doctored ordered, though it is what the Iranian people clearly wanted, Bush and Rumsfeld's objections aside, and only time will tell what will come with this new twist in the history of a fascinating country.


Blogger Africanuck said...

Completely off subject, this has to do with the health care costs that you spoke about recently.

3:47 PM  
Blogger James said...

Africanuck: Thanks for the link. It's hitting a contentious issue these days, with some medical experts actually arguing that there isn't an epidemic of obesity in the country, and with those in that category of body form going out of their ways to entrench the idea of the big beautiful woman (BBW). For me it never made sense how having more weight than your body was designed for made sense in any context, and why it wouldn't be a health risk has always puzzled me. The point that insurance companies should do more to encourage people to lose extra weight is a good one, but it doesn't seem that any majority of providers is headed in that direction, for what I'm sure are myopic and/or self-serving reasons.

2:47 PM  

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