Ahmadinejad and the Poor


The slightly absurd debate continues on whether Iran's president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad participated in the 1979 hostage takeover at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. After all, leading reformers are confirmed as having done so, but that didn't block past prospects of a U.S-Iranian dialogue when President Muhammad Khatami was in office.

One of the reformers is Said Hajjarian, and he says the photograph of a man leading an American hostage and looking very much like a young Ahmadinejad is not that of the new president. Hajjarian, a founder of Iran's Intelligence Ministry and an adviser to Khatami, was shot by a hard-liner and is partly paralyzed, so he doesn't seem especially well disposed toward Ahmadinejad. He and other sources say the man in the 1979 photo is someone who was later accused of working for the opposition Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), and who committed suicide.

More disturbing are reports that Ahmadinejad may have been involved in the assassination of an Iranian Kurdish official in Vienna in 1989. At the time Ahmadinejad was a high-ranking Revolutionary Guards official, and that kind of behavior was common, though the fact that the more prominent accusers are opposition figures invites perhaps a measure of caution.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has a story that seems to go to the heart of what the Ahmadinejad victory actually means: It resulted from a combination of the indifference of the reformist-liberal "silent majority" that preferred not to vote and the mobilization of Iran's poor, who (to quote Lebanese Iran expert Michel Naufal) were left to their own devices during the Khatami years. Naufal told me that largely ignored in recent press coverage was the fact that, when Ahmadinejad won, more than 40,000 people rode their motorbikes from poor South Tehran toward far more affluent North Tehran to sound their horns in what was clearly an effort at aggressive affirmation by the underclass–a crowing after victory.

That's why, Naufal continued, Ahmadinejad has a daunting challenge. If he cannot fulfill his promises on redistributing wealth, his poor electorate (which also makes up the bulk of the Basij militia, one of the regime's Praetorian guards) may resort to violence in retaliation. That's why the debate on the president's role in the embassy takeover or other actions, while interesting, may actually detract from the real questions here: Why did Ahmadinejad win, and what happens if he fails?


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  1. “…of the indifference of the reformist-liberal “silent majority” ”

    Was this simple “indifference”, or maybe the abstention was caused by the fact that most (if not all) reformist candidates where disqualified by the ayatollas and so the silent majority had nobody to vote for ? There were also reports of intimidation.

    I don’t think the election of Ahmadinejad was a legimtimate expresion of popular preferences.

  2. Is anyone around here really shocked that an authoritarian zealot won power by promising to soak the rich and redistribute wealth?

  3. What happens if he fails to resdistribute enough wealth to end poverty? Ask the Democrats. They’re still around and noisier than ever.

  4. The good news is that this religious zealot has no real power over anything.

    The bad news is that another religious zealot does indeed have power.

    As an aside (since it was mentioned above), I do find it interesting that some leading reformers were involved in the 1979 revolution. It speaks volumes that they have renounced the obviously flawed revolution and now embrace reform. It takes a lot of courage to admit that your revolution was a mistake, and even more courage to stand up to those who have power and are willing to kill to protect their power.

  5. If Jimmy Carter had any imagination, he’d ask Ahmadinejad to get up on a dunking booth. Jimmy would get three softballs. There would be a video of the attempts.

    Then we could move the fuck on??

  6. Thoreau wrote: “It speaks volumes that they have renounced the obviously flawed revolution and now embrace reform. It takes a lot of courage to admit that your revolution was a mistake,”

    Thoreau, you’re a very smart guy and your posts are usually spot on, however this is one of the dumbest things you’ve ever written. Being opposed to the Velayat i-Faqih does not constitute a rejection of the Iranian Revolution nor an admission that the revolution was a “mistake” anymore than the Federalists were rejecting the American Revolution by replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. To “renounce” the Iranian Revolution one would have to turn from supporting republicanism to advocating for the return of the Shah.

  7. “To “renounce” the Iranian Revolution one would have to turn from supporting republicanism to advocating for the return of the Shah.”

    Which is better – the mad mullahs or the Shah ?

  8. “Which is better – the mad mullahs or the Shah?”

    I don’t see where he argued that the theocracy was better than the Shah.

  9. Nowhere did I say that it was a mistake to overthrow the Shah. I meant to say that it was a mistake to replace him with the theocrats, and I’m glad that some former revolutionaries have realized that mistake and are now trying to correct it.

    To put it in perspective, how many people would get upset with me if I said that the Communist revolution in Russia was a mistake? Would anybody call me pro-czar?

  10. thoreau: One difference is that Russia did *not* go directly from tsarism to communism (there was the interval between the February and October revolutions) whereas Iran went directly from the Shah to theocracy.

  11. While that’s true, David T, it is also true that the popular movement that overthrew the Shah was a broad front, like that which overthrew the Tsar. Both included religious figures, leftists, democrats, modernizers, populists, and plain old reformers.

    The Iranian theocrats hacked their way to the top of the heap a little faster than the Bolsheviks, but the basic dynamic was very similar.

  12. i think, before we all condemn the man, we’d best wait and see just exactly how he intends to govern. by no means is it guaranteed that ahmadinejad will be a despotic figure, nor even socially strict by any iranian standard — even as some westerners (most of whom could use a bit more modesty) decry anything that would forbid an iranian public life mimicking elton john’s.

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