By REZA ASLAN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Anyone struggling to understand how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the obscure, hard-line mayor of Tehran who had never before run for office, who spent almost no money on his campaign for president and who barely registered in pre-election polls -- could have steamrolled former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the enormously powerful political moderate and overwhelmingly favored technocrat, should ask my cousin Karim.
Karim, a 30-year-old engineer from Tehran with a wife, two kids and his own software business, is a member of the city's disproportionately large and technologically savvy middle class. But although in the U.S. the term middle class implies a level of financial comfort and security, Karim enjoys neither of these.
Like the rest of Tehran's young and highly educated populace, Karim is forced to wade through an utterly collapsed economy by performing menial jobs. Besides running his software business, he works some nights as an unlicensed cab driver; he helps raise chickens on his aunt's farm; he hires himself out as a tour guide and translator; and, if he's lucky, he sometimes sells American contraband -- compact discs, DVDs, designer purses -- out of the trunk of his car.
For his life of toil and struggle, Karim naturally blames Iran's clerical regime, which holds all the power and, increasingly, all the wealth in the country. In fact, like many Iranians, he dreams of one day dragging the clerics out of the government by their beards and trampling on their bodies in the streets. But first, he has to figure out a way to feed his family. And that is why he voted for Ahmadinejad.
Despite the shrill rhetoric coming from Washington, where officials are now wasting their time trying to determine whether the incoming Iranian president was or was not a radical student hostage taker 26 years ago, Ahmadinejad did not win because of widespread fraud or because reform-minded voters boycotted the elections (though both played small roles). He won because most Iranians, especially younger voters like Karim who are the natural constituency of the reform movement, saw him as the only candidate willing to talk about what nearly everyone in Iran -- regardless of class, degree of piety or political affiliation -- is most concerned about: massive inflation, high unemployment and soaring housing prices.
While Rafsanjani and the other half-dozen or so presidential candidates stumbled over each other with promises of social reform and rapprochement with the West, Ahmadinejad promised to stop corruption in the government, distribute aid to the outlying provinces, promote health care, raise the minimum wage and help the young with home and business loans. Amid all the talk of head scarves and pop music from the front-runners, Ahmadinejad's message had enormous appeal not just for Iran's poor, but also for the country's youth, many of whom were attracted to Rafsanjani's promises of reform but who ultimately voted with their pocketbooks for Ahmadinejad.
In fact, the crumbling economy -- perhaps even more than the mass arrests and political repression -- is to blame for Iranian's widespread disenchantment with the reform movement. After all, when nearly a third of the population is unemployed and about 40 percent live below the poverty line, it is nearly impossible to focus on social reform.
In this sense, the U.S. must bear some responsibility for Ahmadinejad's victory. Because the primary cause of Iran's economic collapse (in addition to domestic corruption and ineptitude) is more than two decades of U.S. sanctions, isolation and containment which, according to a report issued last year by the Council on Foreign Relations, has only strengthened the hard-liners, accelerated Iran's nuclear program and made full democracy a more distant prospect.
U.S. failed policy
Over the last four years, a slew of American foreign policy experts and Iranian intellectuals, such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, have pressed the Bush administration to abandon its failed policy of isolating Iran. Instead, they recommend a broad program of economic incentives in exchange for meaningful reform (something akin to what the administration is enthusiastically doing for North Korea, a brutal, totalitarian country in the grip of a murderous megalomaniac with nuclear weapons and the will to use them).
But the administration has rebuffed these calls, choosing instead to pursue "regime change" by threatening military action, fomenting dissent and encouraging Iranians to revolt against the clerical establishment, even though the vast majority are too preoccupied with eking out a living to consider rising up en masse.
It is too early to say for certain what the election will mean for Iran, let alone for Iran's relations with the West. However, the election of a tough ultraconservative suggests that the time when the U.S. could have helped move Iran toward greater freedom by forcing the country out of its isolation and prying it open to the rest of the world (as it did with the Soviet Union and China), may have come and gone.