That the election of Ahmadinejad came as a total shock speaks volumes about the West's -- and, in particular, Washington's -- lack of "ground truth" in its analysis of contemporary Iran. It was deemed a virtual certainty that frustrated Iranians would hold their noses and turn to the veteran Rafsanjani in hopes that the cagey conservative would steer a pragmatic course between the mostly disenfranchised reformers and the all-powerful Islamic Shiite clerics. Nobody expected a relative unknown, espousing the most extreme conservative values, to reach the runoff against Rafsanjani, much less win a resounding victory.
Angry Iranian reformers were quick to charge electoral malfeasance on the part of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's mostly behind-the-scenes clerical cabal. Considering the degree of pre-election manipulation exercised by the clerics -- which actually required Khamenei's personal approval for all presidential candidates -- suspicion over the result is not unreasonable. Clerical meddling, however, does not entirely explain why an outspoken moderate, who was expected to run neck-and-neck with Rafsanjani, finished well back in the field. And, it doesn't explain why Western journalists -- who had completely discounted Ahmadinejad in their pre-election coverage -- had no trouble at all finding legions of eager followers in the aftermath of his victory.
If the announced scale of Ahmadinejad's victory cannot entirely be taken at face value, given the extreme limits on the practical exercise of democracy in Iran, it is clear nonetheless that Western governments and media have been largely ignorant of a broad swath of the Iranian population that is poor and pious -- in contrast to the much-noted mostly educated middle-class that has agitated for greater Western freedoms and a lessening of religious-inspired restrictions on daily life. The underclass apparently was not put off by Ahmadinejad's clear endorsement of hard-line social policies detested by moderates, but what poor Iranians really seemed to like about him was his overt populist identification with the "have-nots" in post-revolutionary Iran.
Ahmadinejad's triumph, however tainted in Western eyes, points up the shortcomings in Washington's view of Iranian politics as a zero-sum contest between autocratic clerics and a restive population -- exemplified by the rebellious students espousing Western values. The peasants and slum residents who elected Ahmadinejad represent the failure of the Iranian Revolution to raise the standard of living for most Iranians or to significantly improve upon the corruption and grossly unfair distribution of wealth bequeathed by the Shah. But rather than identifying with the reformers' desire to move Iran closer to the West, it appears that much of the Iranian underclass preferred a hard-line firebrand and career regime apparatchik who walks their walk and talks their talk.
It's entirely possible, maybe even probable, that Ahmadinejad's popularity will be short-lived, particularly if the clerics subvert efforts to improve the lot of the president-elect's ragtag supporters. But at a minimum, his election demonstrates how little Washington really understands about political dynamics in Iran.
There is no denying that Ahmadinejad's victory undermines the possibility of a deal between Tehran and the Western democracies precluding Iranian development of nuclear weapons. This hardly comes as bad news to the Bush Administration, which recently embraced the diplomatic efforts of the UK/French/German troika with barely disguised distaste.
Perhaps the administration even sees Ahmadinejad's arrival on the scene as an advantage, since he personifies their caricature of Iran as a nest of radical zealots bent on exporting fundamentalist values, terrorism and even nuclear blackmail. But the Europeans (among most other countries) reject this view of Iran as simplistic and are likely to take a more nuanced view of Ahmadinejad's aims.
Consequently, Washington's dismissive reaction to Ahmadinejad's presidency is most likely a prelude to its further isolation from the Europeans and others in the coming confrontation with Iran. In the end, even if Ahmadinejad and his clerical overseers want to compromise over their nukes, the Bush inner circle will be extremely reluctant to countenance a deal with a regime that seems to relish the "Axis of Evil" label Bush applied to it.
And yet Bush has few credible alternatives to negotiations. Military action to destroy Iran's nuclear sites would be incredibly dangerous and, very likely, futile; China and Russia are nearly certain to veto harsh UN sanctions, no matter how obstinate Tehran becomes; and Ahmadinejad's victory casts great doubt on the neoconservative theory that masses of disaffected Iranians could be induced to actively support regime change. It would be beyond ironic for Bush's representatives to sit across the table from a man who epitomizes everything Americans distrust about the Iranian clerical state. But it may be the only slim chance left to avert a nuclear-armed Iran.
Bill Loskot, a Spokane native and resident, was a foreign service officer for 27 years, serving at six overseas posts and at the State Department in Washington, D.C.