Dismissed by the opponents of the regime as irrelevant and by supporters as a make-or-break moment, Iran’s presidential election the second round of which is held today, has proved to be neither. It is not irrelevant because it offers a fairly reliable picture of the balance of forces within the regime. At the same time it is not a make-or-break moment because, whoever wins, will not resolve the contradictions of a system still unable to define itself in historic terms.
Let us begin by the chief interest of this election: the information it has provided on the relative strengths of the factions within the regime. It is virtually impossible to know how many voters actually did go to the polls. But even if we accept the official and unverifiable figures, the percentage of the electorate that took part in the first round was the lowest of all the nine presidential elections held in the Islamic Republic since its creation in 1979.
One reason for the evident lack of public interest was the perception that the candidates, referred to as "The Seven Dwarfs", seemed to offer no real choice in the first round.
In the second round, however, there is a real choice, albeit within the limits of the ruling establishment.
It would be foolish to claim that Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, the two candidates facing each other today, are interchangeable. This would be like saying that Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were the same because both belonged to the Chinese Communist Party.
The chief difference between the two is that with Ahamdinezhad you get what you see while with Rafsanjani you can never be sure. You cannot imagine Ahamdinezhad as something other than he appears to be. With Rafsanjani, however, you get a personage as likely to emerge in different guises and poses as the Hindu "god" Krishna. In a sense this is a contest between the chameleon and the mongoose. A natural shape-shifter, Rafsanjani is a man for all seasons: he can be hard-liner, soft-liner, or no-liner according to circumstances. Ahamdinezhad, however, is a radical Khomeinist who means what he says even if that is impolite or impolitic.
Rafsanjani says he may, one day, nuke Israel out of existence, but does not really mean it. Ahmadinezhad has never spoken of the destruction of Israel but gives every indication of dreaming about it every night. Rafsanjani boasts that Iran is at war with the United States and would end up humbling the "Great Satan", but is already putting feelers to Washington through British intermediaries. Ahmadinezhad seldom talks of the United States and even denies that there is a crisis in relations. But it is almost certain that he believes that the Khomeinist regime can lead an Islamist uprising to drive the United States out of the Middle East.
Rafsanjani says men and women are equal but does not believe it. Ahmadinezhad says they are unequal and believes what he says. Rafsanjani promises democracy but is remembered for eight years of despotism when he was last president. Ahmadinezhad, however, states publicly that there can be no democracy in Islam and that the "pure Islamic rule" he promises to establish would bear no relationship to the globally adopted Western pluralist model.
To Ahamdinezhad power is a means to the idealistic goals of the Khomeinist revolution. To Rafsanjani power is an end in itself.
There are other differences between the two.
Rafsanjani is reputedly the richest man in Iran, and the 46th fortune of the world, while Ahmadinezhad is still paying mortgage on his modest home. During his two terms as president Rafsanjani showed that he regarded corruption as the lubricant of an oppressive system. Ahmadinezhad, on the other hand, has purged the notoriously corrupt gang leaders from the Tehran Municipality, which he heads as mayor, and promises to clean the stables throughout the government. One of his specific pledges is to disband the 30 or so, often fictitious, companies, set up by powerful mullahs to siphon off a good part of Iran”s oil revenues.
Rafsanjani is many things in one. He is a businessman, a mullah, and a politician. Ahamdinezhad, however, has been a professional revolutionary all his adult life. Gun in hand, he has fought Kurdish and Turcoman separatists in person. He has killed, and on several occasions, was nearly killed in the service of his Khomeinist ideals. In 1983 Ahamdinezhad headed a commando that assassinated the Kurdish dissident leader Abdul-Rahman Qassemlou in Vienna. In the shoot-out Ahmadinezhad was seriously injured. Rafsanjani, on the other hand, has never taken personal risks. When he wanted Kurdish dissident leaders eliminated in 1992 he just sent a hit-squad to Berlin to do the job.
Ahamdinezhad fought in the eight-year war against Saddam Hussein in person while Rafsanjani was 1000 kilometres away in Tehran making speeches.
There is also a generational difference between the two.
Ahmadinezhad, 22 years younger than Rafsanjani, is a child of the revolution, having spent his formative years under the Khomeinist regime. Rafsanjani, however, was a successful contractor and pistachio merchant during the Shah”s regime.
Not only are the two candidates poles apart in terms of their personalities. They also represent different social strata.
Rafsanjani represents big business, the various foundations that dominate the economy, the top echelons of the civil service, much of it deeply corrupt, and the networks of influential mullahs engaged in business and politics. Ahmadinezhad represents the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Baseej Mustadhafeen (Mobilisation of the Dispossessed), largely recruited from among the poorest peasants. He also reflects the interests of small shopkeepers, low-ranking civil servants, and the poorer mullahs.
These class differences are reflected in the rival economic policies of the two.
Rafsanjani promises a Chinese model, that is to say a capitalist system with an authoritarian political regime. For the past days Rafsanjani”s main theme has been prosperity for all, which means an opportunity to make money for those who happen to be in the right place at the right time.
Ahamdinezhad, on the other hand, promises a North Korean model aimed at economic self-sufficiency, minimum dependence on foreign trade, and the mobilisation of national energies for fostering the revolutionary spirit rather than making money.
Rafsanjani wants to take Iran into the World Trader Organisation as quickly as the US allows. Ahmadinezhad, on the other hand, wants to avoid WTO like a pest.
The US and other major powers might wish Rafsanjani to win because, as a rich businessman with dollar assets that could be frozen in foreign banks, he would not dream of provoking a revolutionary confrontation with anybody. Ahamdinezhad, however, may try to build walls around Iran in the hope of preparing it for a spectacular comeback-most probably as a nation turned into a huge human bomb.
All in all Ahmadinezhad offers a more logical construct while Rafsanjani”s platform is designed around the concept of politics as the art of the possible.
By the time this column appears the result of the run-off may well be known. My guess is that, if the "Supreme Guide" does not intervene to fix the result, Rafsanjani will win. Many of those who didn”t vote in the first round may hold their noses and vote for Rafsanjani if only to avoid the prospect of life under someone who takes Khomeini”s adolescent diatribes seriously.