Three years ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a relative political unknown in Iran. But now, the 49-year-old hard-liner - a former commander in Iran's universally feared clerical army, the Pasdaran, and more recently the mayor of Tehran - has become one of the Islamic Republic's most recognizable faces.
In Friday's presidential election, the gruff, unpolished Mr. Ahmadinejad leapfrogged ahead of five more prominent candidates - including former Science and Education Minister Mostafa Moin, the favorite of Iran's reformist camp - to secure a spot in the presidential runoff set for tomorrow.
Mr. Ahmadinejad's rise was almost certainly stage-managed by Iran's clerical leadership, led by the country's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At least two other presidential candidates, including former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, have alleged widespread fraud and governmental interference in the elections. Nevertheless, Mr. Ahmadinejad's ascendancy is deeply significant since it mirrors a deeper political shift taking place within Iranian politics.
In 1997, "reformist" cleric Mohammad Khatami was swept into the country's public leadership post on an unprecedented wave of popular support, buoyed by the notion that he would make dramatic changes to economic policies, improve social conditions and, above all, soften Iran's radical political orientation.
But eight years later, much the opposite has happened. Reformists have lost ground, repression has deepened and internal political changes have dramatically shifted power to clerical hard-liners committed to a radical ideology aimed at revitalizing and expanding Iran's Islamic revolution.
Signs of this re-entrenchment are everywhere. After the resounding victory of regime conservatives during Iran's hotly contested February 2004 parliamentary elections, nearly one-third of Iran's 290 parliamentary deputies now have links to Iran's military complex and 42 are directly affiliated with the Pasdaran.
Moreover, because of the Pasdaran's takeover of new political posts and the rising price of oil - which has netted Iran upward of $30 billion in excess oil revenues over the past year - these elements have greater resources than ever to put their radical message into practice.
For the United States and its European allies, this should be cause for more than a little concern. Created by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 as a clerical counterpart to the country's standing armed forces, the Pasdaran is the Islamic Republic's principal ideological weapon.
The Pasdaran's agenda is global in scope, and so is its reach. Over the past 25 years, it has served as the shock troops of the Islamic revolution, training terrorist organizations in Iran and in specialized training camps in places such as Lebanon and Sudan. It similarly has provided assistance to radical movements and terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia.
But the Pasdaran occupies another role as well: guardian of the regime's strategic programs. Following its final test in June 2003, Iran's premier ballistic missile, the medium-range Shahab-3, was handed over with great fanfare to the Pasdaran by the Defense Ministry. Iran's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs are similarly in the hands of the clerical army. (Indeed, the prestige of the Pasdaran has grown exponentially as a result of Iran's drawn-out diplomatic jockeying with the United States, Britain, France and Germany over its nuclear ambitions.)
Since the Pasdaran serves as the regime's principal point of contact with terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, this nexus raises the alarming possibility that Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile advances could eventually translate into substantial terrorist gains.
Mr. Ahmadinejad will face off tomorrow against Hashemi Rafsanjani in the second round of the Iranian elections. The safe bet is on Mr. Rafsanjani, a wily political survivor who has already served twice as Iran's president between 1989 and 1997. But regardless of who ultimately ascends to the presidency, Mr. Ahmadinejad's breakout performance is alarming proof of the Pasdaran's rising power and that the radical principles underpinning Iran's Islamic revolution are getting a new lease on life.