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Reformists on the Rise

06 Jun 2009 18:00No Comments
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Former Iranian premier Mir Hossein Mousavi speaks during a press conference after registering his candidacy for the upcoming presidential election at the interior ministry in Tehran on May 9, 2009. Getty Images

Iran's Presidential Elections, Part VI: Ahmadinejad in Retreat, Reformists on the Rise

This is the author's sixth 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. Part V documented the growing panic in the hardline camp. The present article is about the ascent of the reformists.

By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

With only a week to Iran's presidential election, the campaign has entered a critical stage. Election fever has gripped Iran. The entire country has come to a practical standstill; everyone is discussing the election and almost nothing else. Sporadic (and so far isolated) violence has also broken out in various parts of the country, mainly between frustrated supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Basij militia who sense his imminent political demise, and supporters of the reformist candidates, particularly those of the former Prime Minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who all the credible polls show the front runner.

The violence has been serious enough to prompt Mr. Mousavi and the second reformist candidate, Mr. Mahdi Karroubi, to issue strongly-worded statements, calling on their supporters to stay calm and disciplined, and not provide any excuse for the election thugs to disrupt their peaceful campaigns.

Who is Supporting Who?

Even though all the important groups and national figures have declared their support for one of the four candidates, there were some major movement in the voting blocks this week. While Mr. Ahmadinejad broke no new ground, Mr. Mohsen Rezaee (former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards) and the two reformist candidates received new endorsements, or saw their support increasing.

Mir Hossein Mousavi

Mr. Mousavi continued to receive major new endorsements. The Movement of Militant Muslims, led by Dr. Habibollah Payman (a dentist) and part of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition (see Part II), endorsed Mr. Mousavi. Moreover, Mr. Ezatollah Sahabi, the leader of the Coalition, announced his explicit support for Mr. Mousavi. Nearly 360 former Majles (parliament) deputies, more than 800 actors and actresses, and two major music figures, Messrs Hossein Alizadeh and Kayhan Kalhor, also announced their support of Mr. Mousavi's candidacy. In addition, Ali Daei and Ali Parvin, famous former soccer players and very popular sports figures, also declared their support for Mr. Mousavi.

In another piece of good news for the reformists, Yaas-e No (New Jasmine), a leading reformist newspaper that had been shut down three weeks ago only one day after it had started publishing after 5 years of suspension by the government (see Part IV), announced that it would start publishing again starting Saturday (June 6), only one week before the election.

Mahdi Karroubi

Mr. Karroubi's support also seems to be on the rise. Due to the endorsement of the Office for Consolidation of Unity (known in Iran as Tahkim Vahdat), an umbrella group for most of the university student organizations, Mr. Karroubi's support among the university students seems to be strong. In addition, Mr. Karroubi's honest, frank and courageous discussions of the major problems the country is facing, and his strong attacks on Mr. Ahmadinejad's record has won him widespread admiration.

Many polls indicate that the two reformist candidates attract about 80% of the likely voters, which bodes well for the reformist camp. But success of the reformists hinges on two key points: again, as already noted, a huge turn-out, and the degree of cheating and vote fraud that might take place.

Mohsen Rezaee

Mr. Rezaee is not expected to receive more than a few percent of the total vote. However, his support in his native province of Khuzestan (where most of Iran's oil fields are located) seems to be relatively strong and increasing. In addition, Mr. Rezaee provides those conservatives who are unhappy with Mr. Ahmadinejad an excuse to vote for someone other than a reformist. None of this bodes well for Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Presidential Debates

One of the most important events of the past week was the one-on-one presidential debates that took place between the four candidates: Rezaee v Karroubi; Mousavi v Ahmadinejad; and Rezaee v Mousavi. While the first and third debates were mostly civilized and calm, the debate between Messrs Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, considered the top two candidates, was highly charged and watched by at least 40 million Iranians living in Iran, and a large number of Iranians in the Diaspora.

Since Mr. Mousavi has been out of the Iranian political scene for the past 20 years, he has an impeccable reputation for being pious and uncorrupted. His performance on the economics front as Prime Minister in the 1980s has been widely praised. Mr. Ahmadinejad was unable to dig up anything to attack Mr. Mousavi's character or record, so he resorted to something else: He tried to tie Mr. Mousavi to former president Mr. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful politician some consider to be corrupt. Mr. Ahmadinejad accused Mr. Mousavi of being in Mr. Rafsanjani's camp, whom he accused of being the mastermind behind the challenge to him. He "named names," mentioning several prominent figures of the country and members of their families who had supposedly enriched themselves illicitly.

Holding up a folder stuffed with documents, waving it in the air, he tried to threaten Mr. Mousavi by saying he would reveal its contents to the nation on live TV. Mr. Ahmadinejad then went on, accusing Mr. Mousavi's wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard (see Part III), who has been a valuable asset to his campaign, of breaking the law by simultaneously studying for two masters degrees (one in the arts and a second in political science). An Iranian law forbids a person to simultaneously study for two degrees. However, the law is applicable when the student is studying at a public university; Dr. Rahnavard had been studying for only one of her degrees at a public university. Therefore, Mr. Ahmadinejad's charges against her were baseless.

Mr. Mousavi countered that his wife's -- "the first female intellectual of the country," according to him -- studies and academic degrees are a matter of public record and, therefore, can easily be checked out. He fiercely attacked Mr. Ahmadinejad's foreign policy, telling him that by denying the Holocaust and threatening Israel, he had hurt Iran's national interests and security. He harshly criticized the way Mr. Ahmadinejad handled the capture of the British marines and sailors, who were picked up after crossing into Iranian territorial waters in March 2007. After threatening the British government by saying he would put the sailors on trial, they were abruptly released. They were even clothed in new suits and personally seen off by Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Ahmadinejad countered that he had done so because in a private letter then British Prime Minister Tony Blair had apologized for the incident. (The British government immediately denied Mr. Ahmadinejad's account.)

Mr. Mousavi also accused Mr. Ahmadinejad of having illusions about himself and about the eventual demise of the United States and Israel (which he has been promising). These delusions were particularly dangerous, said Mr. Mousavi, because Mr. Ahmadinejad developed his foreign policy around them. Not only was the dignity of the Iranian people hurt, but so was the value of "their passport," implying that Iranians were widely mistreated by foreign governments because of Mr. Ahmadinejad. Mr. Mousavi said that he entered the election for one, and only one reason: He felt the country was in danger because of Mr. Ahmadinejad and his policies.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's personal attacks on Mr. Mousavi and others were widely condemned by people across the political spectrum. Jomhouri Eslami (Islamic Republic), the conservative daily originally founded by Ayatollah Khamenei, harshly criticized Mr. Ahmadinejad and called for his persecution.

Many interpreted the attacks as a sign of desperation on Mr. Ahmadinejad's part. Polls taken after the debate indicated wide approval of Mr. Mousavi's performance, and sharp increases were registered in his overall approval rating. The debate between Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Karroubi, to be held on Saturday, promises to be just as heated, if not more so: Mr. Karroubi has used very sharp language to criticise Mr. Ahmadinejad and his policies.

To Vote or not to Vote?

Parallel to election developments in Iran, a fierce debate has been ranging among Iranians in the Diaspora, as well as those in Iran, about whether they should participate in the election by casting a vote.

Those who oppose the voting contend that the elections are fancy windowdressing for an otherwise dictatorial regime, and a religious one at that. They argue that Mr. Khatami's presidency demonstrated that the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed from within, and only a revolution of one kind or another will be able to change the system. The extreme fringe of this group, which includes some ardent supporters of the old monarchy, even support military attacks on Iran. This group seems to be made up mostly of Iranians living in the Diaspora and only a small fraction of the total population in Iran.

Within Iran, the conservatives and their supporters always participate in the elections. Among the reformist/leftist camp, both within and outside of Iran, those who argue for participation in the voting process can be divided into two groups. One group argues that Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters (a coalition of intelligence and security forces, plus some ultra conservative clergy and their followers) have put the nation in a terrible situation.

They argue that Iran has become isolated internationally and its economy is hemorraging due to high unemployment and inflation, nepotism and rampant corruption. Add to these ills political repression, they say, and one sees a dark, miserable and uncertain future for the country. Therefore, they argue, the most urgent issue to address at this particular time is the removal of Mr. Ahmadinejad from power. This group does not necessarily believe that the election of a reformist will eventually lead to the democratization of the system; they maintain that these issues are secondary -- let's remove Mr. Ahmadinejad first.

The second group, which mainly consists of the reformist camp within Iran, believes that there are only two ways of democratizing the system: change from within, or through outside interference. Since the vast majority of Iranians reject the latter option, change from within remains the only viable option, part of which is fielding candidates for the elections, campaigning hard and voting.

There is a third block, situated between the two main groups, that favors voting. It consists mostly of the members and supporters of the Office for Consolidation of Unity (OCU) and some political groups in Iran that are not officially recognized by the government, but more or less tolerated. In an analysis released in March, the OCU argued that contemporary Iran has had periods of political expansion and contraction, with the present period being of the latter type. They believe this happened after people became frustrated and disappointed with the virtual failure of the reform movement under Mr. Khatami. It says the present period is characterized by the balance of power in favor of the principlists (fundamentalists; see Part II), people's uneasiness about paying the price for standing up to the principlists, the international conditions that favor hard-liners (a reference to a potential military attack on Iran by Israel and/or the United States), and the inability of the domestic opposition to form a united front.

The OCU declared that (see also Part V) it considers the reformists the "moderate wing of the political establishment," rather than a true opposition, however important a role they play, because they help moderate the behavior of the extremists.

Differences between the Reformists

Are there any differences between the supporters of the two reformist candidates? Yes and no. No, because the positions of the two camps (supporters of Messrs Mousavi and Karroubi) are similar on many issues. And yes, because of the type of supporters that the two camps have attracted.

Supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi

The backbone of support for Mr. Mousavi comes from moderate reformists. They are mostly rooted in the middle class (including its lower and upper layers), and some in the upper classes. People in this group are mostly educated and professional. Mr. Mousavi also has considerable support among the moderate and leftist clergy and their followers. Moreover, the poor economic performance of Mr. Ahmadinejad has opened up the possibility that a major portion of the lower classes and poor people (particularly among those who still remember Iran's economy during Mr. Mousavi's premiership in the 1980s) will flock to his camp and vote for him.

Mr. Mousavi's prominent supporters may not be happy with the Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurists) that bestows upon the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) most of the political and military power, but they do not express their unhappiness openly and often express their loyalty to it with the excuse that they are loyal to Iran's Constitution. They believe that if the present Constitution is truly respected and executed, many of Iran's political problems and difficulties will be addressed (a position disputed by many); perhaps then, at such a point, one can revisit the idea of revising the Constitution.

Supporters of Mr. Karroubi

Although Mr. Karroubi himself and his National Trust Party have consistently expressed their support for the Velaayat-e Faghih, many of their supporters (among the lower and middle class), particularly university students, are among the more radical elements of the political movement. They have openly rejected the Velaayat-e Faghih, either explicitly or implicitly. Many of them believe that the root cause of many of Iran's political and economical ills is this very Velaayat-e Faghih, and therefore, they cannot be addressed unless the fundamental contradiction between many democratic principles of Iran's Constitution and the system of Velaayat-e Faghih, that bestows upon the Supreme Leader vast powers, is worked out in favor of a democratic political system without the position of the Supreme Leader.

Many such supporters of Mr. Karroubi boycotted the 2005 election, and were called the "radicals" by Mr. Karroubi himself when he was the Speaker of the 6th Majles from 2000 to 2004, and again when he was a presidential candidate in 2005. The "radicals" now concede, however, that the boycott was a grave mistake because it helped Mr. Ahmadinejad become president. Therefore, they do not intend to boycott the election this time. By casting their votes for Mr. Karroubi, they are casting "a protest" vote. Mr. Karroubi has sharply criticized Mr. Ahmadinejad and the interference of some military leaders in the electoral process (which, by law, is forbidden), and has backed anti-discriminatory laws for restoring the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities (Mr. Mousavi also supports the same types of laws, but has not spoken as forcefully about them). Mr. Karroubi's outspoken criticisms and support for human and civil rights of Iranian citizens have also attracted the support of some Iranians in the Diaspora.

With only one week to go, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters sense their defeat, are defensive about their records, and are in retreat. In a subtle sign that even Ayatollah Khamenei has sensed the shift in favor of the reformists, he emphasized in a speech on Thursday that, "I have only one vote to cast. I do not tell people whom they should vote for, and it is up to you [the people] whom to elect as the president."

The key to victory of each side remains the turnout. A huge turnout almost guarantees victory for the reformists, whereas a relatively low turnout increases the possibility of voting fraud, which would favor Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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