What happened in Iran's recent presidential election?

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His victory defied conventional wisdom, but in the end the support of his country's powerful religious conservatives was enough to propel him to victory in an election marred by charges of voting irregularities.

The people who like him say he's an inspiring, pious patriot with a common touch, and a strong leader willing to wage battle against both foreign enemies and the out-of-touch, decadent urban elite at home.

His critics, and most of the free world, see him as a narrow-minded ideologue whose religious fanaticism, ignorance about global affairs, and aggressive foreign policy will only lead to more war, more terrorism, and an erosion of personal liberties.

"Enough about President Bush," you say. "Tell us about Iran's new president."

But I was talking about Iran's election. Honest. The above is actually a description of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's 49-year-old president-elect. If you wanna get creeped out by the fact that our politics bear an eerie resemblance to the politics of a militant theocracy, then that's your problem.

Iran's president-elect didn't exactly come out of nowhere to win Iran's presidency last month. Since 2003, Ahmadinejad has been the mayor of Tehran, Iran's capital and largest city. Nevertheless, his victory came as a complete surprise to most of the people who talk to Western reporters about Iranian politics. The people who broadcast their expectations about these sorts of things were loudly expecting that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would win the election.

The first surprise came during the election's first round of voting. On June 17, Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad finished a close first and second, respectively, in a field of seven candidates. Nobody expected Ahmadinejad to do so well, and there's strong evidence indicating that his second-place finish was helped with vote-rigging and voter intimidation. Ahmadinejad was the favorite candidate of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And Khamenei's Guardian Council manages Iran's elections.

Iranian election rules mandated a second round of elections, this time just between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani was once again widely favored. Rafsanjani is an experienced political maneuverer. He was Iran's president from 1989 to 1997, and experts on all things Iran assumed that Iranian voters would want him in office to serve as a counterweight to Khamenei and Co.

What analysts didn't bank on was that Rafsanjani's reputation and experience were a minus to his candidacy rather than a plus. Yeah, he's less of a hard-liner than Ahmadinejad, but if you play word-association with an Iranian and say "Rafsanjani," the word you're likely to hear in response is "corruption" or one of its synonyms. Rafsanjani enriched himself and his cronies during his eight-year presidency.

In the end, Iranians chose the ultra-hard-line Ahmadinejad over the less-hard-line, but corrupt Rafsanjani. There were still charges of vote-rigging, but Ahmadinejad's margin of victory in the runoff (17.3 million to 10 million) was way outside the margin of corruption.

Does that mean the Iranian people want an extreme Ahmadinejad ruling them? Not really. Keep in mind this was not a democratic election in the sense that you and I know one. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Guardian Council chose who was allowed to run. Nobody who questions theocratic rule or Khamenei's position as God's chief bureaucrat on Earth was allowed near a ballot. A presidential election in Iran is like choosing which size and shape stick someone's going to be beat with for the next four years.

So why did they choose Ahmadinejad? He ran on a platform of economic reform. He promised to stamp out corruption and narrow the gap between rich and poor. Because Ahmadinejad grew up poor and to this day lives a materially humble life, his populism had credibility with voters.

What do the election results mean for Iran's relations with the United States? Well, it's not a good thing. Ahmadinejad celebrated his victory with scary speeches about how Iran should move full-steam ahead on its nuclear program. During his campaign, he criticized the government for conceding too much to the European negotiators during nuclear talks.

Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter much because the real authority in Iran isn't in the presidency. It's in the hands of Khamenei and his Guardian Council. He's the one dictating how Iran operates. Ahmadinejad's victory is really just a consolidation of Khamenei's power.