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Iran's George W. Bush

Can anyone beat Ahmadinejad in this week's election?

On June 12, Iranian voters will choose among four leading candidates for president, but their real choice is singular: whether to continue on the course plotted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This ought to be a no-brainer: Ahmadinejad has made a mess of the economy, clamped down on political dissent and social freedoms, militarized the state, and earned the enmity of much of the world. In large Iranian cities, even those who voted for him in 2005 are almost unanimous in their disappointment. But in Iranian elections, demographics are everything. It all depends on who, exactly, shows up to the polls.

Iran has its own version of the Red State dynamic. Although just 35 percent of the population lives in rural villages, which are more traditional and conservative than the cities, these people make up almost 65 percent of those who have voted in elections since 2005. Rural Iranians have been well-served by the Islamic Republic in general, and by Ahmadinejad in particular. The villages are poor, but since 1979, the Islamic Republic has brought them electricity, education, clean water, roads, local governance, and countless other improvements. Rural Iranians benefit from generous subsidies, becoming clients of the state even while urban Iranians have grown increasingly alienated.

In the cities, the failure of Iranian export industries has produced joblessness and resentment. Civil society--including the country’s largest universities and its impressive community of journalists, activists, and intellectuals--faces unrelenting repression. The country’s ill-used middle class spins its wheels, almost completely shut out of the country’s economic, political, and cultural life. It is in the cities that young Iranians chafe most visibly at the Islamic dress code and the laws against the mingling of the sexes. But while urban Iranians outnumber their rural brethren, they are so disenchanted with the Islamic Republic as a whole that they are increasingly disinclined to vote.

None of the candidates in this election seems willing to stake his campaign on the effort to bring urban Iranians to the polls. The 2005 presidential election, and the two midterm elections since then, have demonstrated the futility of such endeavors. Last year’s parliamentary election was contested entirely within the conservative camp; Mostafa Moin, the 2005 presidential candidate of the urban youth, came in fifth out of seven. All four candidates, then, are fighting over the same narrow slice of the Iranian public, even though they have positioned themselves in remarkably different ways.

Ahmadinejad plays to the rural constituency almost exclusively. His own family migrated to Tehran from the provincial village of Aradan, and--as embarrassing as Tehranis find his rural accent, clothes, and demeanor--to villagers, the presence of one of their own in high office is nothing short of empowering. Ahmadinejad has literally handed out money in the provinces, even printing extra currency to do so. He has the undying loyalty of many of these villagers, and he is going to need it.

Though Ahmadinejad carried the votes of both rural and urban poor in 2005, he will likely struggle with the latter in 2009. His economic policies have contributed to plant closings and produced inflation that bordered on hyperinflation last summer; costs of housing and food in the cities have skyrocketed, and the numbers of the urban poor have ballooned for the first time since the 1980s. The main question is whether poor urban youth who voted for Ahmadinejad in 2005 will vote for one of his challengers this year, or whether they will just stay home.

All three of Ahmadinejad’s competitors have promised better economic management and a less confrontational approach to foreign affairs. (On both scores, these are really questions of degree, as most of the candidates are populists and deeply suspicious of the West.) Mohsen Rezai is the president’s challenger on the right, and the longest shot for the presidency. He is an old-school hardliner who comes out of the Revolutionary Guard, and he appeals to conservatives who disapprove of Ahmadinejad’s freelancing foreign policy, including his incendiary public remarks, and of his economic irresponsibility. Rezai may be the spoiler who diverts conservative votes from Ahmadinejad, making the first round of voting less determinate and necessitating a run-off.

The most liberal candidate in the race is Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric from Lorestan who has long been considered the most conservative figure in the reformist camp; that he is the most liberal candidate in this election shows the extent to which the clerics have foreshortened the political playing field. Nonetheless, Karroubi has seized his new mantle with alacrity, letting loose some of the most confrontational rhetoric of the campaign season. He is pledging to defend human rights and to pursue rapprochement with the West. He has a track record of supporting political prisoners and even visiting them in their confinement.

Unlike many of his reformist colleagues, Karroubi attracts rural voters, largely because, like Ahmadinejad, he is a populist. In the last presidential election, he famously campaigned on the promise that he would give every Iranian over 18, $60 if he were elected. As a result, he made a surprisingly strong showing. When Karroubi did not make it to the second round of voting, many of his supporters cast their ballots for Ahmadinejad rather than for his opponent, Rafsanjani, who was running as a reformist. Not coincidentally, however, urban liberals don’t take Karroubi seriously. They see him as an eternal candidate and an opportunist, and the more radical the campaign promises he makes this time around, the less they trust him.

That leaves Ahmadinejad’s most serious opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was prime minister of Iran in the 1980s before that post was abolished. Mousavi, who, according to some sources, is leading Ahmadinejad in the polls by as much as 10 to 20 percent, is an ingenious candidate for several reasons. As a wartime prime minister who has kept near total silence about politics since 1988, Mousavi is the repository for a certain (somewhat counterintuitive) nostalgia for the years of war, deprivation, and instability that followed the Islamic revolution. He was seen as a wise manager at a time of crisis, and he was a particular favorite of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For these reasons, he appeals to many of the revolutionary faithful, and particularly those of the older generation--again, people who might otherwise vote for Ahmadinejad. He’s the only politician on the Iranian scene who is popularly known by his first name.

But he is also attracting a following among young reformers--urban liberals who distrust or disdain Karroubi, as well as some who anticipate that Mousavi will make an assertive leader, unafraid of confrontation and willing to take on the upper clergy, with the confidence conferred by Khomeini’s remembered blessing. On the down side, Mousavi lacks charisma, and his views are largely unknown. When he was prime minister, Mousavi belonged to a faction known as the Islamic Left, which was particularly hardline, especially on foreign policy. In the years since, most members of this faction have migrated to the reformist camp, espousing moderate, pragmatic, and even liberal views. Mousavi, however, was silent during the years his colleagues spent remaking themselves.

These days, Mousavi calls himself both a reformist and a believer in revolutionary "principles" (the latter is a catch-phrase among the fundamentalists around Ahmadinejad), and he enjoys support from both camps. He has accepted the endorsement of the main reformist party, but at the same time, he has made a point of keeping his distance. In a televised presidential debate with Ahmadinejad on June 3, Mousavi openly accused the president of dictatorial tendencies. From his public statements, it seems likely that as president, Mousavi would ease up on political repression and bring technocrats back into government (under Ahmadinejad, they have been replaced largely by political cronies). These are important steps for the long-term health of Iran’s economy and civil society, but it would be foolish to expect even as significant a change as that which followed Khatami’s election in 1997.

Mousavi is not Iran’s Barack Obama. He’s more like John Kerry, and this election year is strikingly like 2004 in the United States. The incumbent president is deeply unpopular at home and abroad. He came to power with a dubious mandate, but governed in a polarizing fashion that has divided even his one-time allies. Iranians have paid the price in every area of life that is touched by the government. The election is Mousavi’s to lose--but to win it, he will need to unite a divided opposition, and inspire at least a few of the beleaguered urban voters who have stopped going to the polls.

Laura Secor is a 2008-2009 fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She is writing a book about Iran.

By Laura Secor