In the Arena

Ahmadinejad’s Appeal

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Wow. Iran had a rock-em, sock-em presidential debate yesterday between the two top candidates for the job, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Say what you will about Iran, but it’s difficult to imagine another country in the Middle East, except Israel (and possibly Iraq), where this sort of public confrontation could take place…and it sounds as if Ahmadinejad got the better of it.

Mousavi made the sort of points that might register with a western audience: Ahmadinejad had alienated the world with his extreme public statements, especially his denial of the holocaust. Iran had suffered as a result, in economic terms and in international repute. But Ahmadinejad made the sharper, populist–if inaccurate–appeal: Mousavi represented the Tehran establishment, which was getting rich at the expense of average Iranians. He launched a direct attack on Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom he defeated in the 2005. This sort of attack is unprecedented in Iranian politics–and it may indicate desperation on Ahmadinejad’s part. He’s been trailing in recent polls. But it also may indicate why Ahmadinejad succeeded in 2005 and has been something less than a comfortable presence for the ruling Mullahs: he presents himself as an average guy, a populist, a man of faith–and a fighter. Mousavi, by contrast, is an artist and architect who allows his wife, a prominent academic, to sit next to him at campaign rallies. 

Hmmm. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? (Although there’s no evidence that Mousavi wind-surfs or speaks French.)

update: Nazila Fathi of the New York Times scores the debate in favor of Mousavi and makes an important point:

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks seemed to suggest a deepening divide between the president and a number of influential leaders, including some conservatives who belong to a faction that has supported Mr. Ahmadinejad. 

Those conservatives, including Rafsanjani, are close advisers to the Supreme Leader. Which raises the question: If Ahmadinejad wins the election, despite this opposition, will he have a power base that begins to challenge the existing structure of the government?