No free rein for hard-liners

July 01, 2005|By Shireen Hunter

WASHINGTON - The massive election defeat of the former president of Iran and one of the pillars of the Islamic Republic, Hashemi Rafsanjani, by the little-known mayor of Tehran has stunned many Iranians and the international community.

It has spurred fears that Iran will return to the repressive and religiously based social policies of the early years of the 1979 revolution and embark on a more confrontational and adventurous foreign policy, thus probably hastening a serious crisis between Iran and the West.

But are these fears justified?

Or will President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite his revolutionary past and hard-line reputation, have to take into account Iran's changed social, political and cultural conditions in determining his social policies and to adjust his foreign policy to the new international and regional realities?

While some hardening of positions on the domestic and international fronts is to be expected, a return to what an editorial in the Financial Times called "The Islamist Winter" is unlikely.

It's true that Mr. Ahmadinejad beat Mr. Rafsanjani by a wide margin. But he won only 19 percent of the votes in the first round while the combined votes cast for the reformist and moderate conservative candidates were nearly 55 percent. To this must be added those who did not vote as being unfavorable to Mr. Ahmadinejad.

In short, Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory was more the result of the disarray in the reformist moderate camp, some of the strong negatives of Mr. Rafsanjani and the half-hearted support of the reformists for Mr. Rafsanjani during the second round rather than a massive shift of Iranians to hard-line conservatism.

This reality means that for Mr. Ahmadinejad to govern effectively and to prevent excessive apathy or, worse, protest by the Iranians, especially among the youth, he must take the preferences and concerns of this large part of the electorate into account, at least to some degree.

This means he must avoid the social excesses of the early years of the revolution. He seems aware of these limits. For example, in his campaign, Mr. Ahmadinejad did not emphasize religious themes too much, focusing instead on improving living conditions for the poor, fighting corruption and restoring Iran's national pride.

Moreover, easing of social and cultural restrictions in Iran has been a long process that started, albeit timidly, during the lifetime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For example, he ruled that chess and the kind of music that does not encourage immoral behavior are not anti-Islam. Even President Mohammad Khatami could not go as far as allowing women to go in public without head covers.

On foreign policy, too, Mr. Ahmadinejad cannot change the underlying themes that have emerged and consolidated since the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in 1988. For example, Iran's policy of reconciliation with the Persian Gulf Arab states began during Mr. Rafsanjani's presidency and with the approval of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The same is true of Iran's relations with Russia, China, India, the Central Asian states and Europe.

Outside powers, especially the United States and Europe, did not treat Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Khatami much differently. They offered no special incentives to the Khatami government, for example, despite its conciliatory approach to Iran's foreign relations. Indeed, the hard-liners used this against reformers by attacking what they called Iran's "concessionary foreign policy" under Mr. Khatami.

So in the absence of any incentives, Mr. Khatami's hands were tied by the veto power of Ayatollah Khamenei over all important foreign policy decisions.

Under Mr. Ahmadinejad, too, the final word will be with the leader, and it is unlikely that the former mayor will act in a suicidal manner in conducting Iran's foreign policy. This general principle applies also to Iran's nuclear program and talks about it with Britain, France and Germany.

Indeed, it is more than conceivable that now that the hard-liners have all the levers of power in their hands and total responsibility for the fate of Iran, sooner rather than later they will realize the risks of adventurism both on the domestic and foreign policy fronts.

In particular, Mr. Ahmadinejad may soon understand that his ambitions to make Iran a strong, developed and respected country cannot be realized without the cooperation of the majority of Iranians and the good will of the international community. The sooner he understands this, the better it will be for Iran and the world.

Under these conditions and while preparing for difficult times, the best policy for the West is not to rule out the possibility of accommodation and thus make confrontation a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shireen Hunter is the director of the Islam Program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies.

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