Iran’s presidential election, which was held in two rounds, on June 17 and June 24, ended in triumph for an Islamist ideologue, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The vote raised important questions. Have Iranians, by electing a hard-line conservative, turned their backs on the ambition of encouraging the rule of law and promoting the pluralism that was pursued by the outgoing president, Mohammad Khatami? Since voters favored a candidate who promised to set up a pure “Islamic government” over others who promised social and economic policies more in line with those of the liberal West, has the prevailing American view of Iran’s politics, as a struggle between a freedom-seeking people and their repressive clerical rulers, been exposed as false? The answer to both these questions is yes—but only up to a point.
I know of no Iranian active in public life or in journalism, let alone a foreign diplomat or reporter, who predicted Ahmadinejad’s win. Most political commentators, both conservative and reformist, expected the next president to be one of three men (in descending order of probability): Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who presented himself to the electorate as a moderate in all things; Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative who said he favored modernizing the economy, and whose expensive campaign was aimed at attracting young voters; and Mostafa Moin, a former higher education minister who was viewed as Khatami’s ideological heir. Ahmadinejad’s chances were considered so remote that he spent much of the campaign deflecting pressure from allies to step aside to help unify the conservative vote. Two reformist candidates, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, and a third conservative, Ali Larijani, were expected to do badly.
Popular discontent was a strong factor in the election. Many Iranians that I spoke to during the campaign said that they would not vote because the president, although he is Iran’s highest elected official, is humiliatingly subordinate to the unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (During his eight-year presidency, Khatami has struggled in vain to take over some powers from Khamenei and from the officials Khamenei appoints; the prestige of the president’s office has declined as a result of his failure to do so.) These Iranians said that they regarded holding elections as a fig leaf to protect an authoritarian conservative establishment made up of unelected clerics who guard their authority to dictate binding “national” policies on matters such as Iran’s contentious nuclear program. Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer and Nobel peace laureate, who had been briefly imprisoned in 2000, declared her intention not to vote. Iran’s most famous political prisoner (who happens to be Ebadi’s client), Akbar Ganji, called for a boycott of the election. Some analysts predicted that barely 40 percent of the electorate would vote, and that the Bush administration would have an easy time deploring the shortcomings of Iranian democracy.
As polling day approached, Mostafa Moin seemed to be doing well. He held a successful rally in a large stadium …