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Signals From Tehran By: Amir Taheri
Arab News | Tuesday, July 05, 2005

It may take some time before the shock caused by the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the sixth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran is absorbed. But one thing is already clear: The election signals the beginning of the first major shift in the balance of power within the Khomeinist regime since 1981.

Khatami’s brother Muhammad-Reza has told journalists of his surprise that an “unknown” like Ahmadinejad could collect 18 million votes. But Muhammad-Reza forgets that eight years ago his own brother, another “unknown” at the time, was credited with 20 million votes.

Within the parameters fixed by the Khomeinist regime, Ahmadinejad’s election is as legitimate, if not more, than the elections that made Rafsanjani and Khatami two-term presidents.

Nor is Ahmadinejad such an “unknown” as Rafsanjani and Khatami claim. The newly elected president has held various official positions for more than two decades. An officer of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard he has served as special emissary for the “Supreme Guide” on a number of sensitive domestic and foreign policy missions. He has also served as provincial deputy governor and governor for six years. On three occasions he was named “Governor of the Year” by his peers. As mayor of
Tehran for the past two years he has shown greater managerial ability than either Rafsanjani or Khatami.

Rafsanjani and Khatami have tried to portray Ahmadinejad as an uneducated street lout. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, Ahmadinejad is the best-educated president that the Khomeinist republic has had so far. Rafsanjani had no formal education while Khatami had a BA in divinity from
Isfahan University. Ahmadinejad, however, attended the Science and Industry University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in Iran, and ended up earning a Ph. D. in civil engineering. Far from being “uneducated” he became a professor at his old alma mater, and has authored a number of scientific textbooks.

Ahmadinejad is also the first president of the Islamic Republic with a military background. He fought in the eight-year war against
Iraq and has taught at the Revolutionary Guard’s staff college for years.

There are two more important facts that distinguish Ahmadinejad.

The first is that he is the first president of the Islamic Republic to come from a poor, rural family, and not to be related to a mulla. As son of a blacksmith he is a genuine “child of the people” and as removed from the various aristocracies of pedigree, money, and religion as possible.

Secondly, and much more importantly, Ahmadinejad is a sincere Islamist. And in that he is at an opposite pole from Rafsanjani and Khatami, confused men who never managed to decide what they actually believed in. Ahmadinejad proudly describes himself as a “fundamentalist” (usuli) while Khatami and Rafsanjani have treated the term as an insult and tried to sell themselves as “moderate”, a meaningless term in a totalitarian regime.

Ahmadinejad’s victory represents the defeat of a political and philosophical current that has been present in the Khomeinist movement from the start.

Known as “Iltiqati” (hybrid), the current represents mullas and politicians who see Islam as an instrument of achieving power rather than a model for society. Mahdi Bazargan, Khomeini’s first prime minister, was an “iltiqati” as was Abol-Hassan Banisadr, the first president under the ayatollah. Rafsanjani and Khatami were also “iltiqati”, albeit each in his own way.

But what does iltiqatism, to coin a phrase, actually mean?

It means someone who wants to have his cake and eat it.

Under the Shah it meant the use of religion as a means of mobilizing the masses of the poor and illiterate against the regime.

It was obvious that for as long as the Shah controlled the army plus the oil revenue, no ordinary political force could dislodge him. The only force capable of counter-balancing the Shah’s power was that of the poor masses. But the masses could not be mobilized in the name of Western ideologies such as nationalism, socialism or communism. The only way they could be mobilized was in the name of Islam. It was on that basis that even atheist groups, such as the Tudeh Communist Party and the People’s Fedayeen Guerrilla, the Islamo-Marxist groups such as the People’s Mujahedeen, and the Mussadeqists, suddenly grew beards, bought rosaries, discarded neckties, started going to Friday mosque prayers, and became self-styled devotees of Khomeini.

After the fall of the Shah the various branches of iltiqatism tried to reduce Islam to the level of a décor behind which they could build their various “ideal” systems. Part of the history of the past quarter of a century consists of the war between Khomeinism and iltiqatism in its different versions, the last of which was represented by Khatami.

Iltiqatism is secretly convinced that the ideal Islamic society either does not exist or would be impossible to build in a world long shaped by Western ideas and experiences. Islam, therefore, should be retained only as the ideological façade behind which a largely Western-style society, minus some of its individual liberties, is built.

The iltiqatis believe that while they and their own children should live a largely Westernized life, the masses should continue stewing in the juice of poverty and ignorance in the name of religion. The iltiqati sends his own children to
Europe or America to study but insists that the children of the masses attend Qur’anic school and be protected against “Western corruption”. You would be surprised how many children of the grandees of the Islamic Republic, including Rafsanjani, have been sent to the West for education.

All in all the iltiqati lacks the courage of his claimed convictions. When faced with the contemporary world, which is anything but Islamic, he suffers from a deep inferiority complex. He tries to get round this by using the Islamic label for the Western ideas and methods that he is forced to adopt. He speaks of “Islamic democracy” and “Islamic physics,” although he knows that the adjective cannot modify the noun.

The iltiqati attends the Davos Forum in
Switzerland and pretends to be as “modern” as any Western politician or business executive. He loves traveling around the globe to talk about Hegel and Nietzsche to prove that, despite his beard and turban, he is as versed in Western philosophy as an undergraduate in Frankfurt.

Ahmadinejad, however, represents the “usuli” current. He has no inferiority complex toward the West and is sincerely convinced that Islam alone offers a blueprint for the perfect society.

He says that men and women can never be equal although this does not mean that women should not have rights or be respected. He does not hide behind labels such as “Islamic democracy”. Instead, he states that Islam, which represents perfection, is incompatible with democracy that is, by definition, imperfect.

Rafsanjani and Khatami claim that Ahmadinejad wants to create a Taleban-style system in
Iran. Nothing is further from the truth. Ahmadinejad is no mulla Muhammad Omar and Iran is not Afghanistan. What Ahmadinejad shares with Mulla Omar is the belief that a non-Western, largely Islamic, method of organizing society is possible. Omar built his version and Ahmadinejad, if given a chance, would try to build his.

Ahmadinejad's election is good news for all concerned, if only it clarifies the situation. Having tried to dodge the inevitable duel between Islamism and democracy, the Khomeinist regime, by propelling Ahmadinejad into the presidency, declares its intention to take the modern, Western-dominated, and “utterly corrupt” world head on.

We shall see which side wins.

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