Analysis / Final Plum for Iran's Neocons

The surprise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election to Iran's presidency began last week, when it turned out that the final hours of the election had placed him in second place, after Hashemi Rafsanjani. According to Iranian reports, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards enlisted every possible vote last week to bring about the election of Tehran Mayor Ahmadinejad, after they learned he might come in fourth or fifth. They reaped their ultimate triumph on Friday. Ahmadinejad, not Rafsanjani, will be president, and thereby complete the neoconservative revolution that began when hard-liners won municipal elections two years ago, and parliamentary elections a year ago.

On Friday, Iran furnished a political surprise for the second time, after Mohammad Khatami's landslide victory in 1997 belied all forecasts. Iranian public polls and Western intelligence assessments failed to guess the result this time, too.

Surprise at Ahmadinejad's election apparently stems from underestimating the economic and social element in Iran. In a country with 30 percent unemployment, particularly among university graduates, where the immense oil-generated wealth does not trickle down to the underclass, and the reforms promised under Khatami did not take off, Tehran's impoverished neighborhoods and millions of poor villagers were casting their ballots against the disappointing reformers more than they were voting for the hard-line candidate.

As mayor, Ahmadinejad segregated men and women in municipal restaurants. He favors outdated hairstyles for teenagers, and believes women should stick to housework. His election naturally raises the matter of Iran's foreign policy, especially the nuclear question and the change in policy toward the United States. As president he has many powers, especially backed by a conservative parliament, but Iranian foreign policy is not his exclusive domain, just as in Khatami's time. Thus, nuclear talks were run by the secretary general of the National Security Council, Hassan Rowhani, as the personal representative of Ali Khamenei, and when it looked like European and American pressure might thwart Iranian economic plans, Khamenei ordered the negotiations be advanced by presenting several Iranian concessions.

When there appeared to be a difference of opinions between Europe and the U.S., it was again Khamenei who ordered Iran's stance toughened to breaking point. Khatami had at most a lobbyist's role in all this. Ahmadinejad's election will spare Khamenei the disputes he had with the outgoing president on relations with the U.S., as well as fear of the political aspirations that a president like Rafsanjani might have displayed. It was Rafsanjani who bandied about the campaign slogan of renewing relations with the U.S., hoping to draw young and reform-minded voters. But even had he been elected, Rafsanjani would have had trouble advancing such an agenda while faced with the hardline Supreme Leader and revolutionary institutions.