The Rise of the Conservatives

The reformists had relied on two main constituencies for their electoral successes before their reversal of fortune; cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile, well-to-do Iranians and the urban poor and working classes. The reformist political establishment largely drew its cues from the former, and its policy agenda centered largely around increased cultural liberties. The reformists could not succeed without the latter's numbers, but the elites were out of touch when it came to understanding that the primary concerns of the poor and working classes were a fairer economy and less exploitative labor conditions.

Much like the 1997 election, the 2005 contest would feature a surprise victory by a dark horse candidate, although this time, the results were an endorsement rather than a rebuke of Khamenei’s worldview. While his populist economic message had resonance, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s surprise victory cannot be fully explained by a wholesale rapid shift in the electorate from reformism to hardline neoconservatism. The most salient factor in Ahmadinejad’s meteoric 2005 ascendance was the intervention by the IRGC and basij to mobilize voters on his behalf, further breaking the taboo on the IRGC’s participation in politics and cementing its role as the most influential political actor on the scene. The 2005 election cycle featured numerous irregularities in which the IRGC may have played a role, but the IRGC’s intimidation prevented potential fraud from roiling the country.

Ahmadinejad’s ascent was highly improbable. Former President Rafsanjani ran for election again in 2005 and was widely considered the most probable victor, given his stature and outsized public persona compared to his challengers. The conventional wisdom was that Rafsanjani’s pragmatic conservatism could appeal to moderate voters on the left and right, but the electorate had been largely polarized by the tumult of the previous eight years. As the head of the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani had played a pivotal role in stymying much of the reformist agenda, but he now pitched himself as a candidate whose gravitas and knowledge of the revolutionary system would enable him uniquely to break the gridlock of Iranian politics that he had contributed to.

Supreme Leader Khamenei had exiled his ally-turned-rival Rafsanjani to the relative backwoods of the Expediency Council to keep him in the regime’s good graces while limiting his influence. Khamenei was wary that Rafsanjani’s bid to revive his political fortunes would place him in a power struggle with a rival who had considerable economic resources to draw upon. While projecting a public air of neutrality, Khamenei maneuvered behind the scenes to hamstring Rafsanjani. For his part, Rafsanjani had palpable resentment toward Khamenei. After playing kingmaker during the succession saga, Rafsanjani was now unquestionably inferior in rank to the Supreme Leader. Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour offered two anecdotes that illustrated the contentious nature of their relationship: “When told that Khamenei discouraged his candidacy in the 2005 presidential election, his chief adviser Mohammed Atrianfar retorted, “Rafsanjani is a pillar of this revolution, he doesn’t need permission from anyone.” Most remarkably, Rafsanjani’s son told a visiting American reporter before the June 2005 presidential elections that, if elected, his father would change Iran’s constitution to reduce Khamenei’s power by making the position of Supreme Leader a ceremonial role akin to “the king of England.”

The Guardian Council allowed eight candidates to stand for the election, increasing the probability that no candidate would win an outright majority from the outset, sparking a runoff between the two highest vote-getters. The Council approved former majles speaker Mehdi Karroubi, a moderate cleric who was allied with the reformists despite not fully sharing their ideology, to run from the outset to give the appearance of allowing competition. It blocked the main candidates the reformist political associations put forth, however, sparking public denunciations and demonstrations. While disdainful of reformism, Khamenei was adept at reading public sentiment and intervened to overrule the Guardian Council, allowing an uncharismatic reformist, Khatami’s education minister Mostafa Moin, to run. Permitting Moin’s candidacy benefited Khamenei tremendously. It undercut the reformists’ efforts to gin up anger at the undemocratic nature of the system, mollifying the public enough to forestall massive demonstrations that may have ensued from a one-sided election. Moreover, it divided the reformists on how to strategize during the election. Some, like Akbar Ganji and his attorney, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, urged boycotts, depressing some reformist votes. In contrast, those who did vote were split, with religious voters largely backing the cleric, Karroubi, and more secular voters backing Moin.

The hardliners recognized Rafsanjani’s potential vulnerabilities as a candidate and thought they could improbably place the presidency in principlist hands, but they, too, lacked a candidate of his stature. Rafsanjani’s main challenger on the right was expected to be Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former IRGC Air Force commander and Tehran police chief who was believed to be Khamenei’s preferred candidate. Reformists loathed Qalibaf for his public-facing role in the crackdown on the 1999 student demonstrations. Initial polling showed Rafsanjani capturing 19 percent of the vote, with Qalibaf a distant second at 9 percent. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the firebrand Tehran mayor, was a little-known afterthought whom few took seriously, polling second-to-last with under 3 percent of the vote. 

As the campaign season launched, Ahmadinejad was the only candidate to focus his strategy on campaigning largely outside Tehran, preaching a populist economic message and portraying himself as a humble man of the people. His lack of ties to the unpopular political and clerical establishment, folksy manner of speech, and complete lack of pretensions buttressed his outsider appeal. Furthermore, unlike other candidates in the race, Ahmadinejad had served during the Iran-Iraq War (it is disputed whether he served in the IRGC or irregular basij forces), but not at the upper echelons of the IRGC. He was thus emblematic of the shared service and sacrifice of the war, which resonated with veterans and their families, but free of association with the military leadership that treated a generation like a cannon fodder.

Ahmadinejad vowed to take on the “oil mafia” and redistribute their profits to social spending for the Iranian people. As Ahmadinejad’s popularity grew, Qalibaf became dogged by allegations of financial irregularities. In the days before the election, Khamenei held a meeting with senior hardline and conservative leaders where the decision was made to collectively throw support to Ahmadinejad rather than Qalibaf. Khamenei’s representative to the IRGC sent a missive to the IRGC’s members advising them that while voting their conscience, they should select the candidate who most embodied obedience to the Supreme Leader, a modest and pious lifestyle, and an emphasis on social and economic justice. The implication of these attributes made clear that Ahmadinejad was the preferred candidate.

Once Khamenei decided to back Ahmadinejad, a plot unfolded that culminated in him improbably edging out Karroubi to come in second place in the first round of voting. The full extent of the conspiracy is unknown, but several leading figures have attested to its existence and the involvement of the IRGC and basij. For instance, Deputy IRGC commander General Zolqadr, admitted that there was a “multi-layered plan” to elect Ahmadinejad, stating that in “the complex situation where foreign powers had been plotting, one had to act in a complex manner!”

While the scope and dimensions of election rigging are unclear, it is certain that the IRGC and basijis, working through established mosque networks, helped mobilize turnout for Ahmadinejad, particularly among the urban poor and the families of veterans. However, the regime took pains to emphasize that the IRGC and basij involvement was not mandated from on high – claims disputed by reformists. When the first round results came in, Rafsanjani came in first with 6.1 million votes, Ahmadinejad in second with 5.7 million, and Karroubi in third with 5 million. Voter turnout was 62 percent, a relatively low figure for Iranian elections, reflecting that a subset of the reformists followed through with a boycott.

Several irregularities came to light which pointed to interference by the Guardian Council, IRGC, and basij on Ahmadinejad’s behalf. Supervising the election results was typically the purview of the Interior Ministry, but after voting closed, the Guardian Council announced after an unusual delay that 21 million votes had been cast, in contrast with the Interior Ministry’s announcement that 15 million people had voted. The Guardian Council’s higher tally favored Ahmadinejad, further questioning the process. The basij, which heavily favored Ahmadinejad, had been tapped to provide security at polling places around the country. After the election, they faced allegations of intimidating voters and ballot stuffing. Reports also emerged of basijis using the unexpired birth certificates of recently deceased citizens and casting multiple votes from the deceased. In South Khorasan, a province with a largely restive Sunni population, a journalist found that 298,000 votes had been cast among 270,000 eligible voters. More shockingly, Ahmadinejad, representing a militant form of Shi’ism, first appeared in the province.  

Karroubi and Moin, the two reformist candidates, quickly alleged fraud after the vote results. Karroubi alleged that the Guardian Council would have given the election to Ahmadinejad without counting the votes if it could and accused IRGC leaders of illegally campaigning for Ahmadinejad. Moin issued a statement containing thinly veiled accusations of a conspiracy, saying, "A powerful will entered the arena bent on the victory of a particular candidate and the elimination of the other candidates and opened the way to the organization of some military bodies and the support of the election supervisory apparatus, so that the self-evident rights of the other candidates could be targeted. Today, anyone can clearly see the effect of this organized interference on the election results." Moin further warned that this organized electoral interference would lead Iran down a path toward “militarism, authoritarianism, and narrow-mindedness.”

Despite their brazen efforts to elevate Ahmadinejad through any means necessary, Khamenei and the top brass of the IRGC were sensitive to the appearances of electoral engineering and wary of mass demonstrations. Rafsanjani registered a protest about the suspicious vote with Khamenei and threatened to withdraw from the race, but Khamenei convinced him to remain and drop his objections for the regime's good and to avoid playing into Western propaganda narratives skeptical of Iranian democracy. Figuring that he was in a strong position to win the runoff, especially if he could capture the votes that went to Karroubi and Moin, Rafsanjani complied. Karroubi, who narrowly missed out on making the runoff under dubious circumstances, continued to protest the legitimacy of the election vigorously. This allowed Rafsanjani to remain a regime insider, even while remaining a rival of Khamenei, after the election, while Karroubi and other prominent reformists were increasingly marginalized and less tolerated.

Now that the race had narrowed to just Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani, the contrast between the outsider, everyman, working-class avatar and the corrupt, opulent, and out-of-touch establishment scion came into stark relief. The conservative factions, urban poor, and those who served in or revered the IRGC and basij coalesced around Ahmadinejad, while Rafsanjani’s coalition was fractious. The reformists remained bitter about the railroading of Karroubi, and Rafsanjani had failed to endear himself to them during the election season. Rafsanjani did not campaign nearly as actively as Ahmadinejad, attempting to coast off name recognition and the appearance of being perceived as more serious and presidential. Lacking a broad natural constituency, when Rafsanjani did campaign, the results were disastrous. While speaking at the University of Tehran, reformist students in the audience began chanting Akbar Ganji, demanding freedom for the journalist who had exposed Rafsanjani’s role in the “chain murders.” Rafsanjani responded to their outrage by pointing out that prison conditions in the Islamic Republic were better than under the Shah. Rafsanjani’s glib remark indicted the Islamic Republic regime, whose founders sold a vision of moving beyond the Shah’s oppression but instead replicated and repurposed his feared security and intelligence apparatus. Moreover, it mocked the reformists’ demands for a more free and just society.

While Ahmadinejad had a clear edge in enthusiasm among his supporters, he unlikely had the numbers to win the election legitimately. It defied credulity when he won the run-off with over 60 percent of the vote. Turnout for the runoff was 3 percent less than the first round, indicating more reformists opted to boycott than before. But for the final tally to have been plausible, large numbers of voters who backed left-of-center candidates in the first round would have had to have switched their allegiances to Ahmadinejad or have stayed home. In contrast, nearly equal numbers of voters who sat out now opted to cast ballots for Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani again protested the irregular results but had no recourse to challenge the election without destabilizing the regime’s foundations.