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Iran's president-elect, and voters, mark a turning point

Displeasure with status quo clinches a win

TEHRAN -- Yusef Vaghor is a case study in why Tehran's Islamic fundamentalist mayor is now president-elect of Iran. People like him -- young, enterprising, politically disgruntled, and a moderate on religion -- had been expected to vote against the mayor out of fear that an Islamic resurgence would curb personal freedoms. They didn't.

''The election was not about religion," Vaghor, 26, said yesterday as he tended to a half-dozen customers who were whiling away the hot afternoon on carpet-covered benches, puffing hubble-bubble pipes and sipping tea in his nameless cafe on Pachenar Alley. ''It was about corruption and the economy -- 100 percent."

Two customers who were listening nodded in agreement.

Final results released by the Interior Ministry yesterday indicated that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received 62 percent of the 28 million votes cast in Friday's presidential runoff, dealing a crushing defeat to the former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the well-to-do establishment, as well as the movement for reform and liberalization in Iran.

Rafsanjani, along with the liberalizers who rallied to him after their own candidates were eliminated, were not able to convince Iranians such as Vaghor that they had anything to fear from Ahmadinejad (pronounced ah-MAHDI-ne-JAD). Meanwhile, the mayor was able to tap into deep public displeasure with economic inequities and government cronyism.

In the week since the preliminary election, while analysts and opponents were telling one another that fear of his fundamentalist beliefs would be his undoing, Ahmadinejad was busy reassuring people that his mind was on matters closer to their hearts.

''He is for the poor, the lower strata," said Vaghor, who, as a business owner near the bazaar, is himself far from poor. ''And he said he would clean house on the management level -- something Iran needs 100 percent."

Vaghor said he did not vote in the first round of balloting because Ahmadinejad's economic positions and his stance on personal freedoms were not clear to him. But within days after the first round, he was convinced by the mayor's speeches and television ads, so he plastered the facade of the teahouse with Ahmadinejad campaign posters.

He became so wrapped up in the campaign, he said with evident pleasure, that he lost an expensive mobile phone -- forgotten in the heat of political discussion.

The empathy for the poor showed up in wealthier and more sophisticated young people, too.

Alnaz Ashtari, 23, a dentist from upscale northern Tehran, said she ''didn't have time" to vote in the first round, but liked what Ahmadinejad said during the runoff campaign.

''He said the country is under the influence of nepotism, and I decided to vote for the good of the country," she said. ''We must bridge these gaps where some people have enough money to go abroad and others can't afford to go to the park. You can't only think about yourself."

Ahmadinejad continued his efforts to reassure the public in a brief, taped statement, broadcast yesterday on state television.

''Let's convert competition to friendship," he said, in an apparent effort to smooth conflicts and tensions that grew heated in the closing days of the campaign. ''We are all a nation and a big family. . . . My mission is creating a role model of a modern, advanced, powerful, and Islamic society."

There was none of the large and exuberant celebrating in the streets that greeted the electoral victories of outgoing reformist president Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and 2001. There were unconfirmed reports that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power in the Islamic republic, had told both sides to refrain from public demonstrations.

While there is no denying the magnitude of Ahmadinejad's victory, leading reformists say it could not have occurred without the help of fundamentalist military organizations -- particularly the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, a volunteer militia -- that they say were behind Ahmadinejad's unexpected second-place finish in the preliminary election.

Mehdi Karroubi, a political moderate and a former speaker of parliament who was eliminated after finishing just behind Ahmadinejad in the first round, resigned last week from two high-ranking government positions. He said he quit to protest Khamenei's refusal to investigate allegations of irregularities in the voting related to a heavy presence of Basiji in some polling places.

Hamidreza Jalaeipour, a reformist and a politics professor at Tehran University, said in an interview yesterday that 200,000 to 300,000 Basijis in civilian dress were involved in the Ahmadinejad campaign. He said the failed campaign of reformist candidate Mustafa Moein was aware of Basiji involvement months ago, ''but we didn't think they could mobilize so many people. . . . The extremists used the Basij as a political party." Jalaeipour was chairman of Moein's political committee.

Once into the runoff, Jalaeipour said, Ahmadinejad was able to use a potent tool that was unavailable to liberals and reformists -- criticism of the government.

''There are many disappointed people in Iran. . . . Many people in Iran are anti-government," he said. Because of Ahmadinejad's Islamist and conservative credentials, he could criticize the government without fear of government reprisals, Jalaeipour said, ''but if a reformist tried to point to Iran's officialdom as a symbol of corruption, he would go to jail."

He said he expects that Ahmadinejad will try to make good on his promise of direct action to aid the poor and that this will harm the economy.

Revolutionaries in the reformist camp ''realized we should . . . create wealth, and the only way to do that was going toward democracy," he said. ''Ahmadinejad does not believe this. He has oil money, and when he comes to power he will distribute it. He cannot encourage investment with such a policy."

Jalaeipour said Ahmadinejad's victory was ''a humiliation for Iran's reformers. . . . Because of this, there will be more obstacles on the road to democracy."

Hojatolislam Mohsen Kadivar, a liberal cleric who has in the past been imprisoned for his dissident views, said the outlook is much worse than that. The election of Ahmadinejad, he said, means that Khamenei has concentrated power in the hands of conservatives like himself.

''The supreme leader [Khamenei] is the real victor in these elections," Kadivar said, calling him the winner of a long struggle in which ''the reformers tried to change the supreme leader's position to a symbolic one, and the conservatives tried to make the position of president symbolic."

Kadivar said the reform movement in some way brought disaster on itself because it did not reach out to the poor and to the politically unaware strata of the middle class as the opposition did.

''Our slogans were more about democracy, human rights, and freedom," he said. ''Their slogans were about justice and criticism of rich people."

Charles A. Radin can be reached at

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