Monday, July 04, 2005

Providence Journal--Iran May Still Reform under New President--William O. Beeman | Providence, R.I. | Opinion: Contributors: "William O. Beeman: Iran may still reform under new president

01:00 AM EDT on Monday, July 4, 2005

William O. Beeman: Iran may still reform under new president

01:00 AM EDT on Monday, July 4, 2005

MANY PEOPLE IN IRAN and around the world are greeting the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran with trepidation, given his conservative credentials. Yet an examination of Iran's broad cultural patterns suggests that social progress is far from over in the Islamic Republic, and will, in fact, advance under Mr. Ahmadinejad's leadership.

From my observer's post, in Tehran, Ahmadinejad seemed to be completely out of the running before the election. With a 7-percent margin in the pre-election polls, his stunning victory took the world by surprise.

There may indeed have been shenanigans in the Iranian presidential election, as many have charged. However, an examination of the voting patterns both in the first election and in the runoff conform to expected patterns, making it unlikely that the election was stolen. What is more likely is that the pollsters and observers failed to tap into Ahmadinejad's support.

In assessing the Iranian political climate, Westerners -- and Westernized Iranians -- tended to ignore the traditional population in South Tehran and outside the capital. It is largely these people who elected Ahmadinejad.

The great fear of many in Iran is that progress made in recent years in personal liberty, increased opportunities for women, and advances in social justice will be turned back to the repressive days following the Revolution of 1978-79. However, an examination of the broad social trends that brought Mr. Ahmadinejad to office should give those who view his election with trepidation hope that things are not likely to be as bad as they envision.

In all societies, the push toward change is matched by a tendency to maintain "traditional" values, whatever they are. U.S. citizens have witnessed this in recent years, and Iran provides an example of the same tendencies.

In Iran, the push toward modernization in the Pahlavi era was met by the conservatism of the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 -- tendencies that hark back to at least the 18th Century, when clerics became disillusioned with the corruption of the rulers of the Safavid Empire. Modernization as an Iranian trend dates back to the first contacts with Europe in this period.

However, in Iran the desire to be spiritually pure runs against the desire to be modern, and to gain respect from the great nations of the world. Iranians are as proud of their spirituality as they are of their status as an advanced nation, and this is reflected in the attitudes of both conservatives and social progressives.

Among my deeply Islamic friends in South Tehran on my recent trip, I saw anger that the West seems to be impeding Iran from developing nuclear industries, and failing to recognize Iran for its burgeoning computer and industrial base. My friends were voting for Ahmadinejad. As my friend Hamid, a pious engineering student, exclaimed, citing one of Ahmadinejad's campaign speeches: "He says it right -- we have to achieve on our own. We have to stop worrying whether the United States or Europe will approve of what we do." And there is some truth to that.

In North Tehran, at a chic salon, I ran into young people who confessed that their lives seemed increasingly to lack meaning. "So what if I can drink and see pornography -- what does that prove?" said one 19-year-old, who was planning to join a Sufi (Islamic mystical) order.

The most popular political writers in recent years appeal to balancing these tendencies; some, unknown in the West, such as Ali Shari'ati and Abdulkarim Soroush, become immediate cult figures. They provide cultural sustenance to people who are very hungry indeed.

Mr. Ahmadinejad represents several departures from recent leaders. Some Iranian commentators have already noted that, far from being a tool of the ruling clerics, he seems to represent a rejection of everything the public dislikes about them.

First, he is not a cleric. The first president of the Islamic Republic, Abol-Hasan Bani-Sadr, was also not a cleric, but he was quickly removed from office. The next three presidents, Khamene'i, Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Khatami, were all mullahs. For Iranians who consider themselves good Muslims but who are tired of clerical rule, Ahmadinejad's election is a fresh approach to leadership.

Second, Mr. Ahmadinejad is a technocrat-civil engineer, with a Ph.D., who is deeply committed to Iran's progress in technology, medical science and industry, including nuclear power. He has the expertise to lead the country in this direction, which is fervently desired by the population.

Third, he appears to be modest, honest and pious. The population of Iran is all too aware that the clergy have become corrupt in their leadership -- enriching themselves and their families, and becoming a kind of new royalty for the nation. Mr. Ahmadinejad is the antithesis of this image.

Finally, like most Iranians, Mr. Ahmadinejad is a fierce nationalist. He is utterly uninterested in kowtowing to the United States, and has expressed a desire to make Iran, independently, a great economic and intellectual power.

His early pronouncements have dealt with the respect due to women as equal partners in society, the need for improvement in economic conditions for the poor, and the advancement of education. These statements hardly sound reactionary -- they sound just like the aspirations of Iran's reformists.

Time will tell whether Mr. Ahmadinejad makes good on his early pronouncements. However, he deserves a chance to show his mettle. Certainly his ascension to office should be greeted with cautious respect.

William O. Beeman, a Brown University professor of anthropology and the director of its Middle East Studies, monitored the Iranian presidential election in Tehran. His forthcoming book is The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.