Last Friday, Iran held a momentous presidential election. Although there have been charges and countercharges of voting irregularities, it is unlikely that the broadest outlines of the results are inaccurate, and the contest has already produced two shocking outcomes: a high turnout (approximately 62 percent) and a runoff between two conservative candidates, the former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Tehran's hard-line major, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Conventional wisdom had stipulated that a high turnout would benefit the reformist candidate Mustafa Moin, who ran an aggressive campaign pledging to liberalize Iran's Islamic polity, release all political prisoners, and ease tensions with the United States. But after eight years of stalemate, internal discord, and lofty promises of reform and democratization, it appears that the Iranian populace are ready to concede the state to the conservatives in the hope that they can deliver the promise of economic reform. At least in its current incarnation, the once-scintillating reform movement has finally died, along with its pledge to harmonize Islamic injunctions with democratic norms.

Not all hard-liners are alike, however, and Iran's presidential race does reflect a generational shift within the conservative cohort. The 71-year-old Rafsanjani represents the fading revolutionary generation, whose most formative experience was the 1979 revolution. Rafsanjani continues to speak the language of pragmatic conservatism, stressing that the resolution of Iran's economic difficulties mandates integration in the global economy. Such integration is unlikely to be achieved so long as Iran remains at loggerheads with Washington, especially over Tehran's nuclear program.

Today's younger conservatives have been molded not by the revolution but by the prolonged war with Iraq in the 1980s. After the West greeted the use of chemical weapons against Iranian cities and soldiers with indifference if not connivance, this group developed a marked resentment of the United States and the international community. Moreover, the notion that disarmament agreements, international treaties, and diplomatic negotiations are the best way to secure Iran holds little appeal for the rising war generation. A careful examination of the younger conservatives' rhetoric reveals another stark departure from their elders: they disdain the argument that Iran's problems can be resolved by coming to terms with the United States. Instead, during the campaign, the likes of Ahmadinejad continuously propounded an "eastern orientation." They are looking to forge ties with the emerging industrial giants of China and India, not "old" Europe and imperial America, and are not prepared to offer concessions on critical national issues such as the nuclear program to garner U.S. investments or European munificence.

Whatever the results of Friday's runoff, the immediate future of Iran belongs not to ossified mullahs such as Rafsanjani but to defiant hard-liners such as Ahmadinejad. The Bush administration spent five years dismissing Iran's reform movement and hoping for even more radical change. But the possible advent of a reactionary succession may make Washington wish it had done more to empower outgoing President Muhammad Khatami when moderate reform might still have had a chance.

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  • Ray Takeyh is a Senior Fellow in Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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