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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Victory in Iran’s Presidential Runoff Election

June 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidential election win, announced Saturday, was as decisive as it was surprising. The 49-year-old former Tehran mayor won 62 percent of the vote in a runoff election against Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a prominent, wealthy cleric who’d been president twice before.

Rafsanjani had campaigned as a reformer after the most prominent reformist candidates were knocked off in the first round of voting. Ahmadinejad is a religious conservative who’s espoused hard-line social views. He campaigned as a man of the people fighting corruption, and he appealed to Iran’s poor and struggling middle class with promises of more jobs, better wages and lower prices.

Yesterday, at his first news conference since winning, Ahmadinejad said “Moderation will be the policy” of his government on domestic matters. On the international front, he said he wanted good relations with any country that wasn’t hostile to Iran, but he saw no need to pay special attention to relations with the United States.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Translated): The Iranian nation is taking the path of progress based on self-reliance. It doesn’t need the United States significantly on this path.

MARGARET WARNER: The president-elect also asserted Iran’s right to pursue a nuclear energy program.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Translated): Iran’s peaceful technology is the outcome of the scientific achievements of Iran’s youth. We need peaceful nuclear technology for energy, medical and agricultural purposes and scientific progress. We will continue this.

MARGARET WARNER: But he promised to continue talks with France, Germany and Britain over their demand that Iran not use the energy program as a cover to pursue nuclear weapons. British Prime Minister Tony Blair today said he expects Ahmadinejad to honor Iran’s pledge to suspend its nuclear program while talks are under way.

TONY BLAIR: Those obligations that Iran has entered into have to be upheld. And he would be making a serious mistake if he thought that we were going to go soft on him, because we are not.

MARGARET WARNER: President Bush today again dismissed the election as unfair because so many reformers weren’t allowed to run. But he encouraged the diplomatic approach to the nuclear issue.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My message is to… to the chancellor is that we continue working with Great Britain, France and Germany to send a focused, concerted, unified message that says the development of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable and a process which would enable Iran to develop a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.

MARGARET WARNER: Ahmadinejad will take office on Aug. 3.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and what kind of president he’ll be, we turn to two people born and raised in Iran. Mahnaz Afkhami is president of the Women’s Learning Partnership, which promotes women’s issues worldwide. She was minister of state for women’s affairs in the Iranian government during the time of the shah. And Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A former professor at National Defense University, he’s written extensively about Iranian politics. Welcome to you both.

Answer the number one question, Mr. Takeyh. Who is Ahmed Ahmedinejad in terms of what Americans need to know about him and what kind of leader he will be?

RAY TAKEYH: As president, Ahmadinejad is actually part of a new generation of conservatives. For him and for many people of his cohorts, the formative experience they had was not so much the Iranian revolution but it was the war with Iraq.

They tend to have been isolated from the international community so he is suspicious of international community and international treaties as a means of preserving Iran’s national security interest.

In terms of his personal life, he is, of course, very uncorrupt unlike most people in the Iranian clerical elite but also very religiously inclined and imposing sort of the Islamic strictures on the society.

He talks about going to the roots of the revolution, so in a sense he is the younger candidate in this election race but he wants to go back as opposed to forward.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that?

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI: We have to remember his past. He was a founder of the student association that took the American diplomats hostage. He was in the militia, in the guard during the war and he has had very little experience in government and he has held no national elective office.

So he comes really to this position almost unexpectedly. Very few people in Iran know very much about him, especially outside of the city.

MARGARET WARNER: So what does it say about the Iranian public that he was elected and so decisively, at least in this runoff?

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI: One could say there are a number of causes for that — partly the reaction to Mr. Rafsanjani declaring his candidacy and Mr. Rafsanjani is known as one of the focal points and focal points of power in Iran during the entire course of the revolution and also he’s known as someone who has a reputation for corruption and cronyism.

So some of it is reaction to Rafsanjani; some of it is a small group of people who are worried about the loosening of social restrictions during Khatami’s regime and want to, in fact, keep the revolutionary fiber; that’s also another part of it.

And of course the economic problems: Poverty and the discrepancy between the rich and the poor which is growing.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way that it was a vote against the establishment and for a more conservative at least social policy?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, it does reflect a transition in Iranian public opinion in a sense. In 1977, Iranians voted for an agent of political change — again an unknown person, President Khatami, who promised greater degree of liberalization, civil society, rule of law.

In 2005, they also vote for an agent of change, an agent of economic change. Ahmadinejad ran a very successful campaign talking about economic justice, talking about economic equality; talking about the fact that this society has to be on a greater degree of not just personal freedoms or social freedoms but a degree of economic opportunity being expanded.

He was uniquely capable of making that case because he personally lived a very simple life. And during the time as mayor, he also exhibited that simplicity. So that message of anti-corruption, economic justice, egalitarianism did resonate with Iranian people who are tired of lofty promises of Islamic democracy and just are tired of living in such an impoverished economic situation.

MARGARET WARNER: So what are the most significant promises he made on the economic front and can he deliver on them?

RAY TAKEYH: I don’t think he can deliver on them. He essentially has promised that going back again to the roots of the revolution, which means his economic program, emphasizes first and foremost the concept of social justice which means a command economy which means further nationalization of private industries, which means essentially further confiscation of policies that the regime enacted in the early 1980s.

So in that sense, that is not the solution to Iran’s economic problems. That doesn’t necessarily integrate Iran into the global economy and usher in a more privatized economy. He doesn’t talk about transparency rule of law or accountability.

MARGARET WARNER: He does not?

RAY TAKEYH: He can’t because some of the corruption charge that he is making, some of the conservative clerics who supported his candidacy are the most corrupt individuals so now there will be a challenge to Ahmedinejad but not so much from the left but from the clerical right who are implicated in this corrupt economic system that he campaigned against.

MARGARET WARNER: If he wants to move aggressively on that front. Now what do you think it is going to mean in social policy? Do you think he will roll back some of the modest liberalization steps we’ve seen in recent years? If so which ones?

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI: I think he most likely will, although we have to also remember that the participation in this election was rather limited, that he really basically had 35 percent of the voters who were eligible to vote, something like 17 million so he doesn’t have the kind of mandate that Khatami had and even though Khatami had the mandate, he still was unable to do much.

MARGARET WARNER: But what do you think he will do – I mean, was this just really scare tactics that he was going to roll back the clock say for women, or do you think there are really going to be changes?

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI: I think he will try to bring changes. How much he will succeed I don’t know.

MARGARET WARNER: Like what?

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI: In the mayor’s office, for instance, he segregated the elevators. He ordered to have –

MARGARET WARNER: Men and women had separate elevators.

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI: Separate elevators. And he ordered the cafeterias closed. And he ordered the cultural centers turned into prayer rooms. He also ordered the pictures of the international soccer star, Beckham off of the advertising boards — I mean, these sort of token but signs of more and more limitation on people’s cultural and social movements and freedoms.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you have the same expectation?

RAY TAKEYH: I think during his limited time as mayor, he attempted some of these social measures but when he faced resistance to them, he did actually retreat. He might be mentally in 1982 but Iran is in 2005.

And it would be very difficult to re-impose that sort of Islamic cultural restrictions on this particular society and his history is he is willing to retreat from it.

Some of the things said against him – the new Taliban and so on — were really somewhat of a scare tactic designed to mobilize a constituency against him. They were not entirely inaccurate, given some of those things that he said and some of the way he’s behaved, but I wouldn’t necessarily say Iran is going to go the way of Taliban. I think if he meets resistance which he inevitably will, I begin to see some degree of retreat from some of these onerous Islamic restrictions that he’s been talking about.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally what do you think it’s going to mean about his relations with the West? We heard him say he didn’t really think he had to do much vis-à-vis the United States and on the nuclear issue.

RAY TAKEYH: That potentially in the area of foreign policy, Iran can experience a significant of change because Ahmedinejad, as well as many younger conservatives, talk about an eastern orientation, talk about relationship with emerging industrial giants such as China, such as India, and such relationships will obviate the necessity of accommodating the Europeans or much less Americans.

MARGARET WARNER: In the name of getting European investments.

RAY TAKEYH: Yeah. On the issue of EU-Iran negotiations on the nuclear issue, the principal assumption of those negotiations is that Iran is willing to make concessions for foreign investments. That argument has very limited utility to Ahmedinejad who is actually very suspicious of foreign investments.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think he is going to take a hard line in these negotiations?

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI: I think he will because for the first time also, all of the basic structures of power in the Islamic republic are uniformly in conservative hands. So it’s easier for him to actually implement some of these policies even though the office of the president itself is not powerful but the coalition of all these forces make it more likely for him to succeed in some of these areas.

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, the president and the Ayatollah Khomeini being in sync.

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI: Exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you both very much.