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Winners and Losers Turn the Fate of Iran By: Amir Taheri
Gulf News | Monday, July 04, 2005

It may take some time before all the winners and losers in Iran's latest presidential election are identified. Nevertheless, it is already clear who the main winners and losers are.

But before we try to find out who they are, it is important to deal with a couple of other points.

The first concerns allegations of fraud made by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the loser in last Friday's election, and the entourage of the outgoing President Mohammad Khatami.


Rafsanjani and Khatami say they are surprised that an "almost unknown man", that is to say the winner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could have collected almost 18 million votes. But the two men should remember that this is precisely what happened to them, too.


In 1989 Rafsanjani was credited with 16 million votes after less than a week of campaigning. In 1997 Khatami, then as unknown as Ahmadinejad was last month, was declared president with 20 million votes. The same machine that made Rafsanjani and Khatami president has produced a result they do not like.


At the same time the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his European colleagues would be foolish to pretend that the election that made Khatami president was somehow more legitimate than the one that gave the victory to Ahmadinejad.


The second point that merits mentions is the Khomeinist regime has always used a simulacrum of elections, rather than bloody purges and gulags, to sort out its internecine feuds.


The individuals and groups who will now be driven out of power will not be killed. Rafsanjani, the loser in last Friday's election, may no longer be allowed to expand his business empire but is unlikely to end up in jail.


Khatami, who did all he could to help Rafsanjani win, will presumably be allowed to continue touring the world talking about Hegel and Nietzsche, though no longer at the Iranian taxpayer's expense.


The various ministers and other top officials who will lose their jobs are also unlikely to end up in any gulag. Most may even get jobs in the quasi-governmental bodies that dot the Iranian political landscape.


The big winner on a tactical level is, of course, the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei who had to wait more than 16 years to seize control of all levers of government and thus hope to exercise the near-absolute power that the Khomeinist Constitution grants him.


The fact that Khamenei's eldest son Mujtaba acted as Ahmadinejad's campaign manager shows that the surprise outcome of the election had been planned long in advance.


Khamenei's victory, however, may prove to be the result of a Faustian pact with the well-entrenched and ambitious military elite within the regime.


Created history


This election was the first in the history of the Islamic Republic in which a mullah, and one of the most prominent of all mullahs, was defeated in a high profile election.


Rafsanjani's claims of fraud will not wash because he knows he would never win anything remotely resembling a free and fair election. And within the strictly limited elections that the regime allows, it is quite credible that someone such as Ahmadinejad should defeat someone like Rafsanjani. What he is complaining about is why the "Supreme Guide" did not arrange things to let him win. From a broader perspective, Ahmadinejad's election may well signal the beginning of the end for the domination of Iran by the Khomeinist mullahs. In recent years the mullahs have lost many positions of power to the military.


Today the military represent a majority of the provincial governors. Politicians with backgrounds in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard also form the biggest bloc within the Islamic Majlis (parliament).


The question is: what will the military elite do with the power that it has won? Its most immediate task is to consolidate its victory. That means forming a new government in which the technocrats allied with Rafsanjani and Khatami are replaced by "committed revolutionaries" with military backgrounds.


The new president would also have to gain control of the powerful Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the dozen or so secret services it controls.


The current minister, a junior mullah named Ali Yunesi, is a business partner of Rafsanjani and thus a member of the losing faction. The next target would be the judiciary which, under Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi, represents one of the last bastions of the mullahs within the regime.


Once Ahmadinejad has installed his own men in key government positions, albeit with Khamenei's blessing, he would have to bring under control the scores of so-called "foundations" that have been "pillaging the nation's wealth" as he claims.


Some of these "foundations" are large enough to operate as states within the state. The Imam Reza Foundation, with an annual turnover of $15 billion (Dh 55 billion) is the nation's second largest enterprise after the National Iranian Oil Company. And yet it is controlled by a mullah who operates as if he were head of an independent country. Another foundation, that of the Martyrs and Warriors, is Iran's third largest enterprise with an annual turnover of $12 billion (Dh44 billion).


It is not at all certain that Ahmadinejad will be able to bring these powerful giants under any form of legal control.


The new president would also have to fight powerful business mafias that control the bulk of Iran's foreign trade. That would mean taking on some big mullahs who have carved mini-empires for themselves. One area where he is bound to meet stiff resistance is the oil industry. With over 30 façade companies set up by mullahs to siphon off part of the oil revenue before it gets into the national treasury, this is one particularly difficult stable to clean.


Radical rhetoric


The danger that Ahmadinejad faces is that he may get carried away by his own radical rhetoric and get the country involved in foreign adventures that it can ill afford. Some of his radical allies may also try to make a name, and an impression, by pushing his administration into side issues such as the shape of women's hijab and the length of men's beards.


His best bet would be to focus on the real domestic issues that have turned Iran into a ticking time-bomb. Corruption, which has run out of control in the past eight years, is not the only problem.


Unemployment is one of the key sources of resentment towards the regime as a whole.


So is poverty which, as Ahmadinejad said during his campaign, is much more widespread than it was before the Khomeinist revolution.


Very quickly, Ahmadinejad may find out that if he plays radical, there would always be someone who can outbid him in radicalism. The big question is whether or not Ahmadinejad can liberate himself from his rhetoric.

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