Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 June 2005
Issue No. 748
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Showdown in Tehran

As the presidential race goes to the wire, Iranians face a choice between international isolation and the possibility of rapprochement, writes Mustafa El-Labbad

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A veiled woman walks past the campaign posters of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and current presidential candidate (photo: AP)

The runoff for Iranian presidential elections is to be held tomorrow, Friday, pitting Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the pragmatic former president, against Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, a conservative candidate. Tomorrow's runoff elections are the first in Iranian history. In all of Iran's eight previous elections, the outcome was decided in the first round. All reformers will rally behind Rafsanjani, Mohamed Reza Khatami, leader of the Participation Front told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The first round produced unexpected results. One was that Ahmedinejad came second with five million votes, although opinion polls showed him trailing behind other candidates. Another was that reformer Mustafa Moin came fifth, although he was second in opinion polls. Mehdi Karrubi came third, slightly behind Ahmedinejad. The turnout of over 65 per cent was also unexpected. President George W Bush's comments about Iranian elections, and his scathing attacks on the Iranian regime, may have something to do with the high turnout. Iranians are always criticising their system, but when it comes under foreign criticism they tend to get defensive.

The presidential elections in Tehran are seen as a vote on the regime's popularity, irrespective of the candidates involved. The outgoing President Mohamed Khatami pledged "loyalty to the revolution's principles and state," while spiritual leader Ali Khamenei stressed the need to participate in the elections, stating: "voting in the presidential elections is voting in favour of the Islamic regime itself." This declaration, shifting voting from a civil right to a religious duty, partially explains the high turnout.

The regime's desire to boost turnout was evident in its extension of the polling period by four hours. What made the government particularly keen on boosting turnout is that foreign- based Iranian opposition -- officially branded as treasonous -- called for a boycott. On the eve of the elections, hundreds of pro-boycott protesters clashed with police in downtown Tehran.

At the campaign office of reformist Moin, a sense of shock prevailed once election returns started coming in. The Weekly followed the news from Moin's office until the early hours of Saturday. Moin left the office early, but his supporters stayed despite the disappointing news.

According to the Iranian Ministry of Interior, Rafsanjani took 21 per cent of the vote, followed by Ahmedinejad with 19 per cent, Karrubi with 18 per cent, and Moin with 13 per cent. There are many ways to interpret the outcome of the first round of elections. One is that Iranian youth want to punish the reformist current for past promises made and then broken by former President Khatami.

Karrubi, who came in third, won a respectable showing; but then he had promised to offer 50,000 tomans (approximately $55) from the state's budget to every Iranian citizen per month. It is widely believed that economic and social problems matter more to most Iranians than international and foreign relations. Karrubi is a member of Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez (the Militant Clerics Association), as is former President Khatami. Karrubi was speaker of parliament until conservatives won a sweeping victory in last year's parliamentary elections.

One can explain the impressive performance of the conservative Ahmedinejad, the previously obscure Tehran mayor, by the clear support he got from higher places in the Iranian state. Sources close to reformist circles say that top-level officials at the Revolutionary Guard (Pasadran), the Parliamentary Volunteer Forces (Basij) and the interior security forces all backed Ahmedinejad. Karrubi has resigned all his official posts in protest against alleged "rigging" of the elections. The extension of the polling period is believed to have helped Ahmedinejad.

The outcome of the Iranian elections is expected to change the balance of Iranian politics. The defeat of the Participation Front of Moin, the largest reformist party in Iran, is expected to intensify the rivalry between Ali Khamenei (who supports Ahmedinejad) and Rafsanjani. The showdown between both of them is most likely to be decided in Rafsanjani's favour, who is now expected to get the entire reformist vote, according to Mohamed Reza Khatami.

The first round of elections was held last Friday, with high turnout reported in Tehran's southern districts and in major Iranian cities, including Isfahan, Tabriz and Mashhad. With bombings having targeted areas in Tehran and Al-Ahwaz days before the elections, the police deployed 130,000 men around the polling centres.

Some 47 million of the country's 67 million inhabitants are above 15 and eligible to vote. All candidates -- even the conservatives -- used reformist terms and slogans, such as democracy, women rights, youth issues and minority rights. This reflects the change of mood that took place since reformist Khatami was elected for his first term in 1997. Over 30 per cent of the voters -- mostly women and youth -- boycotted the elections in protest against Khatami's failure to follow through on his election promises. None of the three reformist candidates -- Moin, Karrubi and Mehr Alizadeh -- measured up to Khatami's charisma.

Seven candidates contested the elections. An eighth -- Mohsen Rezai -- pulled out of the race two days before the elections. The candidates came from across the political spectrum, but all were loyal to the ideology of the Islamic republic. Iranian voters went to the polls to select among those candidates that escaped the "purge" of the original list of candidates. At first, 1,000 candidates were due to enter the race but the Guardian Council -- the watchdog protecting the ideology of the Islamic republic -- rejected the majority. Seculars, women and people with criminal records were all excluded from the race.

The Guardian Council initially eliminated reformists Moin (minister of education under Khatami) and Alizadeh (presidential adviser and head of the Youth and Sports Organisation), but they were allowed to run upon the advice of Ali Khamenei, the country's spiritual guide and top constitutional authority. It is believed that Khamenei wanted to impart a democratic air on the elections, although sceptics say he just wanted to split the reformist vote.

US pressures on Iran may have actually helped Rafsanjani, who has a track record of handling difficult situations and defusing crises. He was the only presidential candidate who instead of shying away from discussing ties with the US dealt at length with Iran's international relations. Rafsanjani's moderate statements on Middle East issues were particularly interesting. Rafsanjani voiced support to Prince Abdullah's peace initiative and to "everything the Palestinians agree to". He was also clear that Iran's international interests must take precedence over those of Iranian allies in Syria and Lebanon.

In other words, Rafsanjani made it clear that the dossiers of Iranian regional allies are part of a larger dossier, which is that of Iran's ties with the US. Foreign policy aside, most Iranians -- 40 per cent of whom live under the poverty line -- are primarily concerned with domestic issues. It is noteworthy that none of the candidates disputes the country's revolutionary policy, which means that neither Rafsanjani nor Ahmedinejad are likely to introduce radical change in domestic policy. Interestingly enough, the two said little about Iran's most pressing domestic issues, such as unemployment, pollution, corruption, and political and social freedoms.

Considering the "constitutional overlapping" between the president's limited powers and the broad powers of the spiritual guide, any change in policy is expected to happen in foreign rather than domestic issues. It was foreign pressure, after all, that stirred the issue of Iran's nuclear programme, boosting Rafsanjani's fortunes as a candidate with a track record of handling thorny international issues. Rafsanjani said he wanted to turn a new leaf in relations with the US, which may spare Iran the consequences of a UN Security Council debate. The change in Rafsanjani's political fortunes is quite dramatic. Only five years ago, he ranked 30th among parliamentary candidates in Tehran.

As for the reformers, few of them believe in Rafsanjani, but they will have to vote for him to keep Ahmedinejad from the top office. Tomorrow will be a decisive day in Iran's history. Either Ahmedinejad would come to power with an agenda that can only worsen Tehran's isolation, or Rafsanjani would once again take the helm and begin mending Iran's international ties.

New look elections

IT IS EASY to guess the political inclinations of voters in Iran, for their clothes and appearance tell it all. Men in Islamic dress, with long beards and wearing rings, vote mostly conservative, as do women who wear the all-covering chador. Conversely, those who go for the Western look vote reformist.

The candidates have clued into the game. In the early days of the revolution, all politicians, including presidential candidates, came out in untrimmed beards and military fatigues to publicise their revolutionary credentials. Not anymore. Most now go for the New Look to assert their modernity. They wear glasses with thin frames, or rimless. They have their names preceded by the title of "Doctor", as is the case with Ali Larijani, Ahmedinejad, and Mustafa Moin, or "engineer", as in the case of Mehr Alizadeh. All dress Western-style, except for Karrubi and Rafsanjani who wear traditional clerical garb.

President Khatami started it all, with his "intellectual" look. Now, even Rafsanjani is trying to shed his conventional look. His publicists have produced a film showing the veteran politician without the turban, sitting for a haircut, and watching football. The film, distributed on CD, shows Rafsanjani recalling the first generation of the revolution, tears welling in his eyes. The former president holds the hand of a young girl and gazes into the distance; then the red, white, and green colours of the Iranian flag explode across the screen.

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