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?