The scene this late August evening is not unlike thousands of others playing out in homes, meeting halls and mosques across the country. Extended family, friends and neighbors have gathered in this working-class corner of South Tehran to commemorate the birthday of Javad, the ninth imam, or spiritual leader, of the Shiites. Arrangements have been made by Ali, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, a bear of a man marked by his girth, superior singing voice and remarkable good humor. Ali lost both his legs in the war and now negotiates his way through life with a wheelchair and a well-equipped 1976 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Most of those assembled this evening are also veterans, or simply former members of the paramilitary Basij force, their families in tow.
I sit with the women, crammed into half of one family’s front room partitioned by an enormous sheet, immersed in their chatter, eating over-sweet pastries and drinking lemon sharbat as children chuck chocolates over our heads. In the adjoining men’s space, a local cleric speaks of Javad, who at the tender age of 8 took on the role of leader for the millions living as adherents to Islam’s underdog branch, Shiism. Amid exhortations and invocations, the name of Iran’s new president passes the cleric’s lips more than once. Much like Javad, he says, this new president is young and unknown, marked by a simple life and an uncompromising commitment to the poor and downtrodden. Like Javad, he continues, he will lead us down the right path in these uncertain times. Ali’s wife leans over to me and says about the new president, “He is one of us.”
On September 24 the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency voted to refer Iran to the Security Council over its nuclear program, one of the boldest steps it has taken over the course of two and a half years of ritual accusations, denials and staged crises on either side. While the exact timing of such a referral was left open and serial holdouts Russia and China abstained (along with ten other countries, many of them from the Non-Aligned Group, on the thirty-five-member board), it was clear that regime-change advocates, with the United States in the forefront, were upping the pressure on Iran–whom they routinely accuse of having nuclear weapons ambitions.
Only days before, on September 13, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had made his debut visit to New York City and the United Nations as Iran’s president. Almost meek and extraordinarily humble, he cut a curious figure in that monumental setting in his simple tan jacket and slacks. On the 17th the new president addressed the General Assembly, speaking of the need for increased Third World representation in international bodies, decried First World double standards and even cited a few lines of Persian poet Saadi on the nature of humanity and justice. When it came to his country’s contested nuclear program, he insisted that Iran has the right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy activities, calling attempts to deprive it of that right a sort of “apartheid.” Though his insistence on Iran’s nuclear rights hardly represents a departure from the stance of his predecessor, the photogenic reformist Mohammad Khatami, his use of the UN platform made for a stark contrast with Khatami’s own; seven years ago, after his election, this was the venue the reformist chose for the launch of his now famous, though defunct, “dialogue among civilizations.”
Reaction to Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric was swift. The State Department branded his words “aggressive,” Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain called Ahmadinejad’s speech “disappointing and unhelpful,” while the Washington Post deemed his speech a “sermon” marked by “anti-American vitriol” and “angry finger-pointing.” Almost immediately, both President Bush and Secretary of State Rice warned of Iran’s imminent referral to the Security Council.
And so it begins. While the new president’s earnest ideological style may be rough, even at times undiplomatic, is he the fire-breathing conservative that much of the media makes of him?
Ahmadinejad’s victory on June 24 took most everyone by surprise–Iranians and foreign observers alike. Among the eight candidates in the running, Ahmadinejad, a blacksmith’s son who had risen through the ranks to become mayor of Tehran, seduced just enough of the voting public with his rants against corruption, his humility and, perhaps most important, his promises of social and economic justice to overwhelm his closest rival, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a conservative reborn as a centrist who served as president from 1989 to 1997. Though there were allegations of fraud (in Ahmadinejad’s favor) in the first round of voting, the second-round-winning margin of 7 million provides a telling picture of voter tastes and, more to the point, Iranians’ distaste for the former president: The wealthy Rafsanjani is widely perceived as serving the interests of the privileged few.
But why the unknown Ahmadinejad, and why now? While the hardliner’s victory was a symbolic blow to the aspirations of the reform movement and its vision of a modern, even secular, democracy, for many Iranians a vote for the modest mayor was simply a vote for change. In his down-home manner, he responded to voters’ desires for a larger chunk of the economic pie as well as their frustration with the reformists for failing to connect to their most fundamental needs; lofty talk of human rights and democracy, while melodious to Western ears, often sounded irrelevant, unrealistic at best. With Ahmadinejad’s victory, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is surely beaming–assured of a consolidation of power in conservative hands across elected and unelected institutions.
“People’s minds have been corrupted,” says Amir, a law student at the University of Tehran and a member of the Basij militia who sits across from me in a downtown café. The mobilization of Basijis like Amir played a critical role in Ahmadinejad’s victory. While the middle-class Amir is not representative of the country’s 4-6 million Basijis, he is perhaps emblematic of a faction that voted for Ahmadinejad on ideological grounds. For Amir, reformist thinkers like Mohsen Kadivar, Mostafa Malekian and Abdolkarim Soroush, who seek reconciliation between Islam and what is vaguely referred to as liberal thought, are held captive by Western notions of advancement. He explains to me, “We seek something that is neither East nor West. We have been fighting for our intellectual independence since the time of the revolution. And now we are winning.”
From the beginning, Ahmadinejad showed every sign of being the outsider. While his opponents, even the most conservative ones, spoke in conciliatory tones of the West and were marked by slick, even hipster, campaigns, Ahmadinejad took a no-frills approach, emphasizing independence and what he termed Islamic values. His campaign film, a tribute to melodramatic cinéma vérité, mocked the excesses of contemporary political life. Ahmadinejad, the film tells us, takes ordinary public transport and even as mayor continues to live in his family home in South Tehran (cut to shot of modest family home). “Mr. Ahmadinejad, do you have a summer home?” one interviewer asks in the film. Both the candidate and the interviewer giggle at the question (muffled laughter); the joke is on the ruling elite.
In keeping with this theme, one of Ahmadinejad’s first acts as president was to forbid the display of his portrait in public. His modesty aside, the new president’s bold blend of populism and nationalism represents a departure from the immediate past. Riding a wave of high oil prices, his economic plans aim to narrow the gap between haves and have-nots–providing interest-free loans for young couples, slashing interest rates and promoting subsidies for consumer goods. During his presidency at least one oil company, with links to both the Rafsanjani family and American oil conglomerate Halliburton, has been charged with corruption and banned from operating.
All the same, the new president’s first weeks have been marked by hardline gestures that suggest he may roll back some of the changes brought about by his reformist predecessor, Khatami. Though Khatami often had his hands tied by the country’s hardline unelected institutions, there is no denying that he ushered in an unprecedented period of social and political freedom. Enter Ahmadinejad. Three days after his inauguration, Iran sparked a crisis by resuming uranium enrichment at a plant in Isfahan despite the ardent pleas of the IAEA; while the gesture did not come as a big surprise, its timing was uncanny. At the same time, government security forces carried out a round of crackdowns on activists in Iranian Kurdistan, and a prominent human rights lawyer representing jailed dissident journalist Akbar Ganji was arrested on July 30.
Iranians have a history of supporting wholesale change when dissatisfied with their rulers. They did with the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and again, less dramatically, with the elections that brought Khatami to power in 1997. Ahmadinejad, it seems, has worked that tendency to his advantage. His proposed Cabinet, revealed in mid-August, was so new, in fact, that journalists in Tehran were caught scrambling to figure out who these people were and where they had come from.
Conservative across the board, Ahmadinejad’s Cabinet is cut from his own revolutionary generation. His appointment for the post of Interior Minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, served as deputy intelligence minister during a series of killings of political dissidents that was linked to that ministry in the late 1990s, while the new Intelligence Minister, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehei, acted as the judiciary’s representative to the ministry at that time. Ahmadinejad’s foreign affairs team, led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Manouchehr Mottaki and Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Larijani, is marked by a strident techno-nationalism when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. The new Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance, Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi, served as the ultraconservative editor of the state Kayhan newspaper. A hardline culture minister will likely translate to more newspaper closures as well as a rigorous monitoring of cultural production at large. Heightened restrictions on bloggers have already taken effect.
In the days following the Cabinet appointments, I asked members of Shargh, one of the country’s last reformist papers, how they saw the future. “It’s difficult not to be discouraged. We see self-censorship already,” journalist Badrossadat Mofidi told me. Mofidi has worked for ten newspapers in twelve years, most of which have been shut down only to be later reborn. Like many journalists working for reformist papers, she feels that their mercurial life spans may be reaching their end. “If we’re shut down today, we won’t get licensed again.”
If nothing else, Ahmadinejad’s victory signaled the fact that the reformists had lost their esteemed place in the popular imagination. Their talk of human rights and civil society had done precious little to alleviate unemployment (officially 11 percent but certainly higher) or double-digit inflation. To some people’s horror, social codes had loosened up and a creeping “Westoxification” had set in. This was Ahmadinejad’s moment.
Mostafa Moin, the primary candidate of the reformists in the elections, reluctantly acknowledges their failures. “One-quarter of this country lives below the poverty line. That’s who we could have been speaking to,” he told me after his defeat. He is regrouping with a new multiparty movement and a plan to engage in more “grassroots” work. Another failed reformist candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, has also unveiled plans for a new party as well as a satellite channel that would be its mouthpiece.
Emadeddin Baghi is especially critical of the reformists. A dissident writer who spent three years in prison for his investigative work on the serial killings, today he runs the Society for the Defense of the Rights of Prisoners. “Our intellectuals have always worked behind closed doors. We need a discourse that is not so far from the people,” he noted as clients lined up to speak to him about relatives in detention. “The democracy so dear to the reformists is not bread and water for the people. The conservatives will give you bread. But they’ll take away your freedom.”
During the last week of August I traveled to the mountainside community of Rezvanshahr, sixty miles from the former resort town of Rasht. There I met Ali Abdoli, a self-fashioned ethnologist who studies the Talesh, a minority people in the north. Though he has no university education, he is one of the most well-read people I have ever met, and his commitment to his obscure cause is a compelling one.
In 1997 and 2001 Abdoli was head of the Khatami campaign in his home province of Gilan. He walked through the villages of the mountainous province, where unemployment approaches 30 percent and illiteracy is widespread, urging people to vote for the soft-speaking cleric. “He let us breathe again,” he said.
Nonetheless, this year, when asked to run the Ahmadinejad campaign in Gilan, he agreed. Something had changed. “Khatami did not know our needs,” Abdoli said. “Money is in the pockets of the elite, and here I have five people in my family, all without work. He disappointed us.”
Later in the day, his 24-year-old daughter told us that a friend of hers had been picked up in the neighboring town of Bandar Anzali for sitting in the park with a young man. Rumors of heightened moral supervision abound, particularly in small towns like this one. Abdoli reluctantly added, “But economic justice may come at a price for our young people.”
Whatever comes of the new president, most Iranians–from every class–spurn the notion that their country needs an outsider’s heavy hand to bring about change, a refrain trumpeted by fans of “regime change” in Washington, Los Angeles and beyond. “If he’s a problem, he’s our problem,” one women’s rights activist told me the day after the election results came in.
Observers have historically underestimated Iranians’ contrarianism, their profound sense of the sting of imperialisms past and present (ma doshman-e hich kasi nistim–a rebuke to servitude) and their remarkable ability to start anew. The president’s recent UN address was a rhetorically packed testament to Iranian resolve. In the end, the best thing anyone–state or individual–supporting reform in Iran can do is to let Iranians play out this chapter on their own terms. In this neighborhood, history has taught us that the hand of the outsider is the one that impedes.
“We’ll manage. We’ve been through worse,” notes Baghi. “We are like tightrope walkers. Perhaps you can say that the rope just got thinner.”