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 in Tehran. On the next-to-last night of campaigning, the northern section of Vali-Asr Avenue, the capital’s main north–south artery, was thronged with young Moin supporters, some of them arguing volubly with Rafsanjani supporters. I spoke to many people who said that, having originally decided to boycott the election, they would, in fact, vote for Moin. They seemed to be animated less by enthusiasm for Moin than by a desire to preserve the limited liberty of expression and social freedoms—to mix with members of the opposite sex, for instance—that have been tolerated under Khatami’s presidency.

A few days before the election, I visited one of Rafsanjani’s advisers. He told me that the Qalibaf campaign, despite the vast sums that had been reputedly spent on advertising, was faltering. He predicted that Rafsanjani and Moin would have to engage in the two-man runoff that the Iranian constitution provides for if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote.

The following day, Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the best-equipped and most ideologically conservative part of the armed forces, publicly urged guardsmen and members of the Basij, a militia controlled by the IRGC and estimated to have between four and six million members, to vote for a conservative candidate who “puts himself sparingly in the public view while campaigning, and who refrains from extravagant spending.” The supreme leader’s message was unmistakable: the basijis should vote neither for Rafsanjani nor for Qalibaf. A few days later, according to the same Rafsanjani adviser, Basij officials began a “massive and concerted” campaign, mostly by telephone, to persuade basijis to vote for Ahmadinejad.

For what happened next, we must turn to another candidate, Mehdi Karroubi. Educated Iranians had derided this mildly reformist cleric, a former parliament speaker, for promising every adult Iranian a monthly handout of $62 if he was elected. After the polls closed on June 17, it became clear that, among poor Iranians, Karroubi’s offer of a bribe was a vote-getter. Semi-official results and private projections suggested that he would join Rafsanjani in the runoff. That, at least, was Karroubi’s impression when he went to bed at 5 AM on June 18; he awoke two and a half hours later to find that “in one leap…[Ahmadinejad] had accrued a million votes” and overtaken him. When official results were announced, Karroubi was in third place—with a little over five million votes, compared to Ahmadinejad’s 5.7 million votes and Rafsanjani’s more than six million votes.


Karroubi presented his grievances at a press conference. (For a former high official to make public complaints is a provocative act; “family” disputes are usually solved behind closed doors.) The gist of Karroubi’s argument was that the presence of basijis among some 300,000 election monitors appointed by the Council of Guardians was illegal and conducive to electoral fraud. “Money passed hands,” he announced, giving rise to speculation that some voters had been paid to vote for Ahmadinejad. Karroubi also indirectly (but unmistakably) accused IRGC and Basij leaders of pressuring voters in Ahmadinejad’s favor, and of encouraging some voters in provincial towns to vote more than once. In a letter that he sent to the supreme leader, Karroubi claimed that ballot boxes had been stuffed and that Khamenei’s own son had interfered in the election. Two other candidates, Moin (who came in fifth, with a little over four million votes) and Rafsanjani himself, corroborated Karroubi’s claims that serious irregularities had taken place.

Without the “irregularities” would Ahmadinejad have won his place in the runoff? There are reasons, though not conclusive ones, to suspect not. In some big provinces which Ahmadinejad won handsomely, the official turnout was far higher than most people expected. In Isfahan, for instance, the figure was 60 percent, almost double the turnout for last year’s parliamentary elections. The officially announced nationwide turnout, 62 percent, was also surprisingly high. Some remote provinces produced odd figures. In South Khorrasan, for instance, which is home to many members of Iran’s disgruntled Sunni minority, the official turnout was an improbable 95 percent. Even though he was the candidate most associated with intrusive Shia Islamism, Ahmadinejad came first in the province.


Ahmadinejad’s popularity soared during the week that elapsed between the two rounds. He was a convincing winner in the runoff, defeating Rafsan-jani by more than seven million votes. The first reaction of many Westernized Iranians was embarrassment. Ahmadinejad is a professor at Tehran’s University of Science and Technology, but his special subject, traffic planning, does not promise imaginative leadership. These Iranians contrasted the president-elect’s short stature, dreary clothes, and occasionally coarse language with Khatami’s good looks, refined manners, and impeccable mullah’s robes. (Appropriately, the two men do not get on. Khatami, it was said, was disturbed by Ahmadinejad’s appointment as Tehran’s mayor two years ago; fearing that Ahmadinejad would report to his conservative allies the proceedings of cabinet meetings, Khatami went against convention and did not offer the mayor an honorary cabinet position.) Khatami’s conciliatory rhetoric in foreign affairs, his attentiveness to attractive women, and his admiration for Western writers have impressed many of the foreigners who have met him, especially Europeans. What, the Westernized Iranians wondered, would the Europeans make of this new man, a self-proclaimed “servant of the people” who created a controversy when he proposed turning municipal spaces in Tehran into graveyards for fallen soldiers in the Iran– Iraq war?1

Painful though it is for some to accept, Ahmadinejad may broadly reflect Iranians’ collective desires—just as Khatami did in 1997, when he was elected to bring about liberalization and strengthen the rule of law. The fate of Khatami’s reform movement is well known. Most of his legislative reforms were blocked by unelected conservative institutions such as the Council of Guardians. His cause was further set back at last year’s parliamentary elections. Conservative candidates won control of the chamber after more than two thousand reformists were barred from running. The reform movement has been marginalized and many Iranians have come to regard its ultimate goal, democracy, as being of more interest to intellectuals and newspaper editors than to ordinary people.

Moreover, conservative Iranians associate “moral corruption”—the dramatic rise in prostitution, marital infidelities, and drug addiction during recent years—with the reformists’ laissez-faire social policies. Under Khatami, it became common to see unmarried men and women walking hand in hand, and people wearing Western fashions—at first in well-to-do urban neighborhoods, more recently in modest ones. Some of Ahmadinejad’s supporters are deeply concerned by these developments.

After the first round of voting, I borrowed two videos of Ahmadinejad’s campaign speeches. One of them was an event in a crowded sports hall in Tehran. The other was a speech that he had delivered in the company of clerics in the seminary town of Qom. Before Ahmadinejad began his speech, a professional narrator of religious stories sang homilies to Zeynab (the sister of the third Shiite Imam), whose birthday it happened to be. Young men in the segregated audience clapped and waved green flags that had Koranic verses on them. The women swayed demurely.


Once the audience had been warmed up, Ahmadinejad got to his feet and delivered a series of millenarian and vague promises which, in effect, dismissed most of the efforts toward political reform of the last century. He took no account, for example, of the Constitutional Revolution of 1909, when democratic forces toppled the despotic Mohammad Ali Shah in the name of parliamentary democracy, or of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, in the face of opposition by the then shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Such events apparently did not interest him.

Ahmadinejad believes that the two key developments in Iranian history are the advent of Islam and the revolution of 1979. He uses them as rhetorical references, ignoring other events that are tainted with Western notions of democracy. (He distinguishes between the Islamic Republic under Khomeini and the Islamic Republic after Khomeini’s death in 1989, when he believes that revolutionary ideals were subverted.) If he were not so clearly an earnest religious zealot, you might accuse him of manipulating history and of treating his constituents like simpletons. But from all appearances, Ahmadinejad is sincere and, for many of his constituents, that quality validates his message, which is pious, reactionary, and seems genuinely unsophisticated.

During his Tehran speech, Ahmadinejad promised his audience a government whose “every project, every method, and every administrative mechanism has been extracted from the heart of Islam.” He offered a clean administration, where “there is no room for personal or family profit.” He repeatedly used the word “justice,” which reminds Shiite Iranians of the five-year caliphate of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, and the first Shiite Imam. (Shiites regard Ali’s caliphate as the most fully realized example of Islamic rule.) During his speech, he touched on economics only to castigate the “rentiers” who profit from high interest rates and the banks that offer these rates. “If we return to the culture of Islam,” he predicted, “you’ll see tomorrow what kind of heaven this place becomes.”

To Ahmadinejad, there is nothing very complicated about good government. What is required is trust between the ruler and the ruled, hard work, and faith in God. During his speech in Qom, he described how he had built up trust with his constituents in Tehran, and how corruption was being detected there—he described citizens approaching him after Friday prayers and informing on officials. The municipal government, he said, had used indigenous talent and minimal resources to dispose of a mountain of lethal waste that had accumulated over years on the city’s periphery. Ahmadinejad may have wanted his audience to read in this mountain a metaphor for today’s Iran.

If so, there would be near unanimity on who built the mountain—Ahmadinejad’s opponent in the runoff, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. This seventy-one-year-old cleric, a former confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini and a modernizing president between 1989 and 1997, campaigned as a patriarchal figure who personifies the Islamic Republic. But the Islamic Republic has become polarized—between a middle class keen on acquiring consumer goods and the conservative poor; between city residents and migrants from the villages. (According to UN figures, Iran’s rural population has been dropping since 1996, while the urban population is rising by 3 percent a year, with dramatic social and economic consequences.) In the eyes of many, this polarization is the result of the uneven development associated with Rafsanjani’s presidency, when Iran’s economy became partially modernized and corruption also increased. Many people attribute to Rafsanjani (and his family) not only fabulous wealth, but also boundless guile and a tendency to put expediency over principle.

I saw Rafsanjani deliver a speech in the run-up to the election. The audience was carefully chosen, consisting mostly of people associated with a network of very profitable private universities that an associate of Rafsanjani started in the 1990s. Rafsanjani does not care for unscripted criticism or heckling. (This is why he did not campaign in the provinces.) He did not stand up to deliver his speech, but remained seated, every inch the Brahmin mullah. He spoke about how he would be liberal and moderate in all things, but did not explain why his previous tenure had ended in hyperinflation, cronyism, and a series of horrific political murders that remain unsolved.

Rafsanjani’s campaign went wrong from the start. Rather than try to sell himself to the electorate, he gave seemingly endless dull interviews to the foreign press, in which he portrayed himself as a man who could end more than a quarter of a century of enmity with the United States. (Time assumed he would become president and put him on the cover of its international edition, while Iran’s relations with the US were hardly an issue during the campaign.) He repeatedly emphasized his reluctance to run for office—he had only done so, he said, out of a sense of duty. In the end, the voters saved him the trouble.


A few days before the runoff of June 24, I was in Tabriz, a northwestern city that is dominated by Iran’s Azeri minority. Visiting Ahmaghieh, a poor suburb, I got my first inkling that Rafsanjani would lose. Ahmaghieh has a population of around 60,000 people. Roughly half of these people arrived there from the surrounding villages in the past few years. I was told that around three thousand people in Ahmaghieh live on government handouts. If they have a job, the men can make around $10 per day either working on building sites or in local factories. Until a few years ago, most local women wove carpets at home. Now Iran’s former position as a major carpet exporter has been undermined by foreign competition, and the looms of Tabriz are mostly still.

In Ahmaghieh, I met two young men, members of the Basiji militia who run a shop offering basic computer services. One of them told me that he had recently dropped out of a local university; he had despaired of getting a steady job in a government department because he did not have the necessary personal connections. His friend told me that the key election issue would be “saving us from unemployment.” A poster on the wall outlined ways that people could help the destitute families of men who were in jail.

In common with many other residents, the two young basijis had not heard of Ahmadinejad until a few days before the first round of voting. Then Ahmadinejad supporters distributed a film showing the Tehran mayor in his modest house, and in his office dealing with people’s problems with the city. After seeing the film, many in Ahmaghieh decided to vote for him.

The two men took me to the grimy office of a local doctor. He was an educated man, about forty years old, and he told me that he had been working in Ahmaghieh for the past eighteen years. He, too, had been impressed by Ahmadinejad’s campaign, especially by his promise to solve the country’s housing problems. (The doctor said that many of his patients were too poor to pay for consultations and he himself had not saved enough money to buy a house.) Diseases resulting from poor sanitation were frequent in Ahmaghieh, he said, and the township suffered power cuts for around three hours per day. (This was happening, he observed, in the second-biggest oil-exporting country in OPEC.) When I asked him about the fears, exploited by the Rafsanjani campaign, that Ahmadinejad would restrict social freedoms if he became president, the doctor replied, “Do you think that I, who have to spend the weekend at work in the hope of seeing a patient or two, have time to worry about social freedoms?”

That evening, I was back in Elahiyeh, a well-to-do district of north Tehran, stuck in election traffic. Some of the houses near where I live had been taken over for the Rafsanjani campaign. A well-connected young man had told me that young members of Rafsanjani’s family had asked his friends to distribute flyers and campaign CDs, and that people were being paid to plaster their cars with Rafsanjani stickers. The street was packed with handsome young people wearing expensive clothes. Some shoved flyers through the windows of passing vehicles; others swayed to the Rafsanjani campaign jingle. The song blared from a parked car, an SUV that had been imported from Dubai, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Most of the 27 million Iranians who voted in the runoff election (49 percent of the electorate) live better than the people of Ahmaghieh and more modestly than the hedonists of Elahiyeh. But I suspect that lots of people had the two extremes in mind when they went to vote. Of the ten million people who voted for Rafsanjani, many did so because they believed that under his presidency, they would stand a better chance of preserving the upscale lives that they have enjoyed since the oil price hike of 1999 led to a dramatic rise in foreign exchange receipts. (According to the deputy governor of the Central Bank, foreign exchange receipts in the Persian year ending in March 2006 are expected to exceed $46 billion. Last year, imports soared 24 percent; consumer goods accounted for a sizable proportion of the increase.) Some feared that, if Ahmadinejad became president, he would live up to his conservative reputation, segregate the sexes in universities, and order baton-wielding basijis to discipline any young woman who dressed daringly.

Many of Ahmadinejad’s supporters feared that a Rafsanjani presidency would benefit a privileged few. It is not that Iranians are becoming worse off; most statistics show that poor Iranians are becoming less poor, better fed, and better educated. But life is hard for the millions who live on the edges of Iranian towns. For those who recently came from villages, urban customs can seem shockingly irreligious and frivolous while they struggle hard to make a living. Inflation in Iran is running well above the official rate of 15 percent. Ahmadinejad’s economic adviser laments that a third of Iranians in their twenties are unemployed. The public university system is ill equipped to accept more than a fraction of applicants. (This summer, some 1.4 million young people will take university entrance exams to qualify for the 200,000 places available.) For many of Iran’s first generation of city dwellers, urban life is a brutal assault on their traditions and their dignity. And it is dignity, not democracy, that Ahmadinejad has promised them. During a campaign speech in Tabriz, he declared, “We didn’t raise a revolution to institute democracy. Democracy was insignificant next to our goals in this revolution.”


The real victor of the 2005 elections was the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Having spent the past eight years trying to obstruct Khatami’s reform movement, he can now reassure himself that, besides the institutions—such as the Council of Guardians and the judiciary—that are directly answerable to him, the government and parliament, which are elected by universal suffrage, are also in conservative hands. Unlike the outgoing reformists, the newly chosen legislators and officials are committed—in public, at least—to the theocratic system that all but guarantees Khamenei his position for life.

Before the elections, George Bush was Khamenei’s main adversary. Khamenei is known to be incensed by Bush’s disdain for Iran’s semi-democracy, and he is reputedly sensitive to taunts that the supreme leadership is not an elected position. Before the elections, Iranian conservatives worried that a low voter turnout would validate Bush’s criticisms and that more countries would come to agree with him. If only a small proportion voted, they feared that Bush’s hand would be strengthened in his effort to muster support for referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council because of its refusal to abandon its ambitions to produce nuclear fuel—an ability that Iran could, if it wanted, exploit to make bombs.2

Khamenei helped ensure that the turnout was respectable. A month before polling day, the Council of Guardians issued the names of candidates that it had barred from standing.3 Mostafa Moin, the main reformist candidate, was among them. Khamenei could hardly have been surprised by this decision, for he has considerable influence over the council. Amid accusations that the conservatives were fixing the elections in advance, Khamenei ordered the council to reinstate Moin. The reformists were embarrassed; they are opposed, in principle, to ad hoc interventions by the supreme leader, which they consider unconstitutional. Some reformists urged Moin to spurn Khamenei’s decision and boycott the election; if Moin rejoined the race, they argued, he would seem beholden to the very system he wants to change.4

In the end, Moin announced that he would run; the result was the most pluralist election campaign in Iran’s history. That does not, of course, mean that the process was exemplary; it is hard to ignore Karroubi’s allegations that the first round was rigged, or the judiciary’s banning of a newspaper that dared to print Karroubi’s allegations about Khamenei’s son. All the same, in the first round, there was a wide range of views and a wide range of votes; according to the official results, no fewer than five candidates won more than four million votes apiece.

Amir Mohebian, a conservative newspaper columnist, expects the supreme leader to restrain Ahmadinejad’s radicalism after he takes over as president in August. Khamenei does not always sit comfortably on top of the conservative establishment. He is more flexible than his public pronouncements suggest, and his primary concern is the Islamic Republic’s survival, not its ideological purity. My guess is that Khamenei will advise Ahmadinejad to avoid exacerbating the existing divisions between traditional and Westernized Iranians, and to concentrate on fighting corruption and distributing Iran’s oil revenues more equitably. Since his election victory, Ahmadinejad has distanced himself from suggestions that he plans to tighten dress codes—an issue that, in any case, he hardly mentioned during the campaign.

But much depends on the ministers that he appoints. A hard-line culture minister, for instance, could increase censorship of the press, as well as book publishing and the arts, all of which have benefited from Khatami’s relatively liberal approach. In any event, no one expects civil society to prosper. During the campaign, Ahmadinejad spoke disparagingly of Western-style NGOs and approvingly of traditional foundations and charities. It is unlikely, furthermore, that Ahmadinejad will undertake the structural reforms that the economy needs. Although he claims to favor the private sector and foreign investment, he comes from a political tradition that is paternalistic, distrustful of foreigners, and dirigiste in economic policy. (Ahmadinejad’s economic spokesman has already announced that the government will reduce interest rates—against the advice of market economists.) Mohebian expects Iran’s bloated state sector to grow further.

Few people think that Iran’s policy toward Iraq will change under Ahmadinejad. Iran’s leaders feel that they have done well in Iraq. They have cultivated to varying degrees all major Shia groups, including the secular ones, as well as the two major Kurdish factions of northern Iraq. Iran has considerably more influence over Iraq than it did when that country was being run by Saddam Hussein, and the US worries that this influence is harmful to its interests.5 Although the Iranians enjoy American discomfort across the border, they would not stand to benefit if the current insurgency turned into unmanageable chaos.

Most Western governments, especially those involved in the current nuclear negotiations, had hoped for a Rafsanjani victory. As a veteran statesman and the head of an influential mediating body, Rafsanjani has considerable influence over Iran’s negotiating positions. He would, it is thought, favor Iran’s developing a nuclear fuel cycle, but not at the cost of having its case referred to the Security Council. It may be that, having been humbled at the elections, Rafsanjani will lose some of his influence over the ongoing nuclear negotiations. If so, the balance may tip in favor of radicals who regard a nuclear fuel cycle as an indispensable shield against American aggression. Although Iranian presidents do not have much influence when it comes to formulating nuclear policy, Ahmadinejad can be expected to add his voice to those of the radicals—in favor of principle, against expediency. Ahmadinejad, whatever else he is, is a man of principle.

This Issue

August 11, 2005