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Hardliners in a panic

30 May 2009 04:081 Comment
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This is the author's fifth article in a series on Iran's presidential election. Part I described the political and economical landscape in Iran. Part II provided a brief history of the important political groups in Iran after the revolution, their place on the political spectrum and their present position on the issues. Part III profiled the four candidates and Part IV described the latest developments.The present article continues describing the important developments of the past week, including several unexpected ones.

Iran's Presidential Elections, Part V: the Hard-Liners in a panic

By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

[TEHRAN BUREAU] Only two weeks remain to Iran's 10th presidential election and the campaigns of the four candidates are in high gear. To kick things off, we'll turn to who's supporting who.

Mir Hossein Mousavi

As described in Parts III and IV, with few exceptions, Mr. Mousavi has secured the support of just about all the major reformist/democratic groups in Iran. But, as a further sign of the strength of his candidacy, the Society of Teachers and Researchers of Qom's Seminaries (STRQS), known in Iran as the Majma' Modarresin va Mohagheghin-e Hozeh Elmiyeh Qom, which consists of left-leaning clerics who teach in Qom's seminaries, declared its support for Mr. Mousavi. Note that STRQS did not support any candidate in the 2004 election.

In addition, 2500 university professors have also endorsed Mr. Mousavi. At the same time, some major figures in the conservative/principlist camp, led by Mr. Emad Afrough, the Tehran deputy to the 7th Majles (the parliament), announced the formation of a committee in support of Mr. Mousavi. The reformist minority caucus in the Majles, which refers to itself as the Imam's Line Faction, also threw its support behind Mr. Mousavi.

Sedaa-ye Edaalat (Voice of Justice), a reformist newspaper, also announced its support for Mr. Mousavi, as did Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Islamic Republic), a principlist daily (originally founded by Ayatollah Khamenei).

In a subtle but unmistakable sign that, if elected, he would work with Mr. Mousavi, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei paid a visit to Mr. Mousavi's ailing father on May 16.

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The Supreme Leader pictured here at candidate's father's house.

Another sign of Mr. Mousavi's increasing strength were two huge rallies, one held in Tehran and another in Tabriz in the Azerbaijan province. May 23 was the 12th anniversary of the election of Mr. Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in 1997, which the reformists celebrate as the birthday of the reform movement in Iran. A huge rally marked this event in Tehran. Thousands of youth flocked to this event donning a piece of green cloth, which is the color of Mr. Mousavi's campaign logo. While Mr. Mousavi was not present at the rally, campaigning in another city, his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, Mr. Khatami, and many other notable figures participated in the rally and harshly criticized Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Khatami declared that, "A magnificent country like Iran cannot be run only by the judiciary and security and military officials," a reference to the quasi-military government of Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose brutal crackdown of critics is supported by the judiciary. Another speaker, the movie director Kambouzia Partovi, declared, "Over the past four years a [political] dwarf [Mr. Ahmadinejad] has humiliated us."

The Ahmadinejad camp retaliated by accusing Mr. Mousavi's supporters of acting like supporters of Adolf Hitler (who used to wear brown outfits), propagating lies, and creating divisions among the people. Mr. Ahmadinejad himself went so far as saying that it was illegal for his competitors to criticize his government!

About 50,000 people gathered for Mr. Mousavi's rally in Tabriz, which is the provincial capital of East Azerbaijan, home to Iran's Turkish population. Mr. Mousavi, a Turk himself, spoke in part in Azeri, the language of the Turkish population there, which provoked huge roars of approval.

A major strength in Mr. Mousavi's campaign has been his wife, an artist and university professor, who has tirelessly campaigned for him. She has been present at all the major rallies, delivering tough speeches criticizing the government, and promising a much more open government if her husband is elected. This has generated considerable support for Mr. Mousavi among the women.

Mahdi Karroubi

The Office for Consolidation of Unity (OCU), an umbrella group representing the vast majority of university student organizations, announced its support for Mr. Karroubi. It issued a long statement in which it analyzed Iran's present political situation, and referred to Mr. Karroubi as belonging to the "moderate wing of the political establishment," not as "a leader for fundamental changes." It stated that its representatives met with those of Mr. Karroubi and presented them with a list of questions and demands. After it received satisfactory responses to its demands, the OCU declared, it decided to support Mr. Karroubi, since Mr. Mousavi's campaign was unresponsive to their request for a meeting. The OCU also criticized those who have called for the boycott of the election on the ground that they are not democratic.

In addition, Mr. Karroubi has attracted the attention of many Iranians in the Diaspora, because he has spoken courageously and with much clarity about the problems that Iran is facing. He has attacked the military/security establishment, accusing them of interfering in the electoral process. He has also spoken clearly about the need for respecting human rights, particularly women's rights, and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

In a bid for attracting more support, Mr. Karroubi announced that, if elected, he will appoint Mr. Gholamhossein Karbaschi, his campaign manager and former popular mayor of Tehran, and who is a member of the Executives of Reconstruction Party (a reformist group; see Part II), as his First Vice President. (There are eight vice presidents in Iran.) The ERP is, however, supporting Mr. Mousavi.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, one of the most influential conservative clerics, and Secretary General of the Association of Militant Clergy (of Tehran Province), the most important conservative clerical group, announced his support for Mr. Ahmadinejad. This was much less than what Mr. Ahmadinejad's supporters had hoped for (they wanted the support of the AMC itself). As described in Part IV, the central committee of the AMC could not agree on supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad. There were widespread rumors that heated discussions took place among the members of the central committee of the AMC. According to these rumors, most senior members of the AMC were opposed to supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad.

The principlist faction in the Majles could not agree on supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad either. Only about 57 of the deputies supported Mr. Ahmadinejad. Most tellingly, the Speaker, Dr. Ali Larijani, and at least 50 other principlist deputies refused to support Mr. Ahmadinejad. Supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad tried to retaliate by preventing Dr. Larijani from getting elected as the Speaker for the 3rd year, but did not succeed.

Mohsen Rezaee

As discussed in Parts III and IV, Mr. Rezaee does not have an independent social base of support. Thus, no major group has supported him. However, a surprise announcement was made by Dr. Larijani, the Majles Speaker, in which he declared his support for Mr. Rezaee. More than anything else, the announcement (which some websites close to Mr. Ahmadinejad denied) indicates the deep fissures within the ranks of the conservatives.

Scandal and Rift in the Military

A major scandal broke out regarding the support of the high command of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) for Mr. Ahmadinejad. Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, commander of IRGC ground forces, wrote a letter to Mr. Ali Saeedi (a mid-ranking cleric), the political representative of the Supreme Leader to the IRGC high command (whose job is to convey the Leader's views to the armed forces), saying,

As I told you in our [recent] meeting, the issue of the presidential election has created fissures among the commanders of the ground forces of the Sepaah [the IRG]. Please advice us on how to address the problem,

hence indirectly soliciting the Supreme Leader's view on the election. In response, Mr. Saeedi wrote,

Dear brother General Pakpour, commander of the ground forces of the Sepaah, the explicit view of the Supreme Leader is the re-election of Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It is mandatory for the commanders of the Sepaah to follow the Leader's view and also convey it to their personnel.

The exchange was published in Yaa Lesaaraat-e Hossein, the mouthpiece of Iran's Hezbollah (which has not supported Mr. Ahmadinejad), and was apparently distributed widely within the IRGC and the Basij militia. The exchange created a huge uproar. It forced the public relations department of the IRGC to issue a denial, which no one believed since Yaa Lesaaraat had printed copies of the original letters. The exchange also took place right on the heels of an interview in which Mr. Saeedi, who is also a member of the AMC, said:

I am asked whether we should obey the explicit orders of the Supreme Leader [that he has only one vote to cast, and the rest is up to the people], or consider and interpret what he has said implicitly [that people should vote for someone who would stand up to the West, i.e., Mr. Ahmadinejad]. I say that we should follow the direction that the Leader has identified for us, which is as clear as the sun, although some people do not see it,

hence implying that Ayatollah Khamenei supports Mr. Ahmadinejad. The uproar over Mr. Saeedi's position was so strong that the websites and newspapers close to Mr. Ahmadinejad accused the reformists of being behind such a plot to discredit him.

Nationally-Broadcast Speeches

Under huge public pressure and after scathing criticism from the reformist camp, the National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRTV) network allocated airtime to all the candidates on its major channels. The candidates used this platform to speak directly to the nation in a live broadcast.

Mr. Mousavi's speech was particularly impressive. In addition to harshly criticizing Mr. Ahmadinejad for his domestic and international misdeeds and the woeful state of the economy, Mr. Mousavi spoke like a true nationalist, bolstering his patriotic credentials and reinforcing what the late Mahdi Bazargan, the first Prime Minister after the 1979 Revolution and himself a major nationalist figure who had also served in the government of Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, had once said about Mr. Mousavi, "He [Mr. Mousavi] is a devout Mosaddeghist," an ultimate compliment to a former revolutionary. The main criticism about Mr. Mousavi's nationally-broadcast speech was that he put too much emphasis on the significance of the first few years of the 1979 Revolution. But, then again, those were Mr. Mousavi's formative years as a national politician.

Likewise, Mr. Karroubi strongly criticized Mr. Ahmadinejad, declaring that, "no one -- professors, students, workers, teachers, anybody -- has been secure over the last four years." He criticized the claim by some of Mr. Ahmadinejad's supporters that they are in contact with Mahdi, the Shiites' 12th Imam who is supposedly hidden and will come back one day. Mr. Karroubi spoke in defense of the rights of citizens and minorities, and other aspects of civil society. He declared his willingness for improving relations with the United States.

Mr. Rezaee played up his military experience and declared that, "If the government falls into our [able] hands, Israel and the U.S. will not dare to attack Iran, because Israel knows that I can destroy it with a single counterattack." He also declared that Mr. Ahmadinejad had taken Iran to the edge of a terrifying abyss.

Mr. Ahmadinejad tried to counter the attacks and criticism by presenting a softer image of himself, talking about all the progress that Iran has made during his presidency (which is disputed by most experts), particularly in the area of uranium enrichment and the confrontation with the West over the issue.

Several Iranian websites reported that support for Mr. Mousavi has sharply increased after his nationally-broadcast speech. It remains to be seen whether this translates into a larger turn-out on voting day, the key to the outcome of the election.

NIRTV has scheduled six one-on-debates between the candidates, starting June 3.

The Revolutionary Guards are Worried

Despite the obvious fissures, even among the IRGC commanders (see the above), the ideological propaganda division of the IRGC has tried to present a united front against the reformists, and has harshly criticized their two candidates. This has led to rumors and speculation about what the IRGC might do if a reformist is elected president.

In its May 25 issue, News and Analyses, an internal daily bulletin published by the ideological department of the IRGC and distributed among its commanders, strongly criticized Mr. Karroubi and accused him of presenting a bleak picture of Iran, and threatened to take him to court over his criticism of the Government during his nationally-broadcast TV speech.

In its latest issue, published on May 25, the weekly Sobh-e Saadegh (True Dawn), published by the political department of the IRGC and distributed among the armed forces and the Basij Militia, accused Mr. Mousavi and his supporters of "violating the Supreme Leader's order not to harshly criticize the Government," and, "presenting a bleak image of Iran, similar to that in the last years of the imperial rules [in the 1970s]." It then described some of Iran's progress under Mr. Ahmadinejad and concluded that, "These claims [the reformists'] are baseless."

In particular, in a strongly-worded article, Mr. Yadollah Javani, a hard-liner who writes regularly for Sobh-e Saadegh, criticized Mr. Mousavi, and claimed that Mr. Khatami has major differences with him, only two days after the huge rally in Tehran in which Mr. Khatami declared his full support for Mr. Mousavi. The website Basirat, which is run by the political department of the IRGC, called Mr. Mousavi "A man from the past that has been thrown into the present times."

Uranium Enrichment as a Campaign Issue

Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters consider Iran's uranium enrichment program their own major achievement. Never mind that the program had actually started much earlier, in the late 1980s. But, boasting about the program is not the only thing that Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters do. They also attack the administrations of Messrs Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani for incompetence on the issue and making too many concessions to the West, hence attempting to discredit the reformists.

Last week, in the latest round of accusations and counter-accusations and in a campaign speech in Semnan, Mr. Ahmadinejad declared that the Sa'dabad Agreement was "one-sided and was imposed on Iran by the Western powers." He came very close to declaring its signing by the Khatami administration treason. Recall that the Sa'dabad Agreement (named after Iran's presidential palace in Tehran) was signed by Iran, Britain, France, and Germany in October 2003, according to which Iran suspended voluntarily its uranium enrichment program, and began carrying out the provision of the Additional Protocol of its Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, even though the signing of the Additional Protocol had not yet been ratified by the Majles (it still has not been ratified). Mr. Hassan Abbasi, a leading supporter of Mr. Ahmadinejad and who is considered an ideologue of the conservatives, also accused the Khatami administration of "promising a ten-year suspension of the enrichment program."

In response, the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) of the Expediency Council (a constitutional body headed by Mr. Rafsanjani that arbitrates the differences between the Majles and the Guardian Council), headed by Dr. Hassan Rouhani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator during the administration of Mr. Khatami, declared that, " We warn the government for the last time that if it does not stop such propaganda, and use this important issue that the nation is facing as a tool for its goals, we will have to publish a lot of documents that would demonstrate the heavy price that the nation has paid for the incompetence of the government."

The CSS also declared that, "Everyone knows that the European countries wanted to pressure Iran into a long-term suspension of its uranium enrichment program, but Dr. Hassan Rouhani, the then Secretary General of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, did not accept it. Indeed, the statement issued after the signing stated explicitly that the suspension was for a limited time and on a voluntary basis." It then called the claims by Messrs Ahmadinejad and Abbasi "a sheer big lie."

Given that Dr. Rouhani is a conservative who does not belong to the reformist camp, such accusations and counter-accusation only show the deep fissures in the ranks of the conservatives.

Cold Hard Cash

Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters have been trying to literally buy votes. The government has been distributing cash and gold coins among various social groups, including teachers, nurses, university students, retirees, social workers, and peasants. But, last week, the government took the buying spree a notch higher. Etemaad (Trust), a leading reformist daily, reported that the government has sent letters to the Majles deputies, giving them checks for 20 million toumans (about $2000) and telling them that they can spend it any way they deem necessary in their districts. The government has also promised to compensate businesses that have suffered as a result of the worldwide recession. It is rumored that the government has spent up to $5 billion so far in this vain.

This has provoked widespread condemnation and protest, even among the conservatives. Dr. Rouhani demanded that the judiciary investigate "such unlawful payments." The Hezbollah issued a strong statement accusing the government of breeding a "culture of money worshiping." The National Inspection Organization, an arm of the judiciary that investigates corruption, has threatened to investigate the issue.

Will such tactics and generosity be effective? No one knows. But, as Mr. Akbar Ne'mat Zadeh, a former deputy oil minister and an aid to Mr. Mousavi said, "The people are shrewd. They take the money, but will not vote for him [Mr. Ahmadinejad]." After all, it is clear that the Government has suddenly become so generous -- so close to the election!

With only two weeks left, election fever has spread throughout the country. All indications, ranging from the scathing criticism of the reformists by the Revolutionary Guards, to fissures among the conservatives, and distribution of cash among people, are indicators that the conservatives are terrified by prospects of a reformist victory.

The key remains the turn-out.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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