Throwing the bums out, in Iran

It’s polling day in Iran and a monster turnout is expected. Both leading candidates have been spotted appropriating bits and pieces of the style of the Obama campaign; incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has been using the slogan “Yes We Can”, his main rival has been on a Web-enabled youth organising drive, and has been sending network-hammering numbers of text messages to get out the vote.

Oddly, US political comparisons are in the air. Laura Rozen asks if Ahmedinejad reminded anyone of Sarah Palin. I disagree – he reminds me most of all of George W. Bush.

An ambitious but limited regional politician who has spent time in the air force, he achieved election through a campaign for vague “reform” – whether with results or not is a good question – heavily tinged with religion or at least religiosity. In office, his term has been marked by a string of spectacular gaffes and crowd-pleasing rhetoric aimed at the hard right of the political spectrum, as well as a deliberately provocative foreign policy. Coming up to the election, Ahmedinejad leaves the Iranian economy in considerable trouble after over-spending on the belief that the boom would go on forever, and passing out considerable sums in favours to his clientele. Politically, he relies on low-information rural voters in parts of the country where the integrity of the ballot is frequently in doubt.

There’s also a certain Cheney- or Rove-esque quality to his campaigning; he regularly violates Godwin’s Law. For Ahmedinejad, everyone seems to be Hitler for fifteen minutes, just as they are for Jonah Goldberg. He would probably be Winston Churchill all the time as well, if Winston wasn’t chiefly remembered in Iran for nationalising the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and ordering the joint British-Soviet intervention of 1941. And he indulges in the partisan exploitation of supposed secret intelligence information, an odd reflection of the Plame affair.

Further, his election in 2004 was at a historic high point of Iranian influence, just as Bush was elected in a time when US power, wealth, and influence seemed beyond questioning; the US invasion of Iraq had begun to radically reconfigure the political balance between Sunni and Shia powers, whilst tying down the US military’s reserves and poisoning the US’s reputation. High oil prices made everything seem achievable. Unlike Bush, you can’t say he squandered it, but you can certainly question what, if anything, he achieved. As Marc Lynch points out, Iranian soft power would be instantly strengthened if the crazy guy failed to win re-election.

Yes, it sounds provocative, but it’s no more so than describing Iran as “totalitarian”. This is a country where the last two presidents were elected against the wishes of the establishment, in votes that came as a total surprise to the rest of the world. Here’s a wonderful quote:

But Rahnavard has been highly visible, especially after Ahmadinejad dragged her into the middle of the campaign by holding up what appeared to be an intelligence file about her during a debate with Mousavi and accusing her of skirting government rules in obtaining her degrees.

Rahnavard appeared to relish publicly defending herself, demanding that the president apologize.

“Either [Ahmadinejad] cannot tolerate highly educated women or he’s discouraging women from playing an active role in society,” she told reporters.

You might have thought this was the obvious statement of the year, but read the whole thing about women and the mobilisation for Mir Hussein Mousavi’s campaign.

Demonstration

What do his supporters want? Essentially, most things you do.

“Liberalization, a more forward thinking government, they want civil liberties — they want the whole gamut.”

Don’t, of course, imagine that a Mousavi government would immediately hand over the keys to the kingdom, or more to the point, the Natanz uranium enrichment plant. Talking in terms of “pro-Western” factions seems ridiculous in the context of someone like Mousavi, who was a revolutionary, a wartime prime minister, and is now a critic of the system. One thing that stands out is the intellectual flexibility and intellectualism of such people; you may not agree with the ideas presented here, but you can’t odds the commitment to ideas they represent.

It is nowhere near as surprising as it should be that Daniel Pipes says he would vote for Ahmedinejad.