Tag Archives: Iran elections 2009

Keeping up-to-date with Iran protests

I do not have the time and resources to follow the many developments in Iran. Fortunately, others do! I recommend the following three live bloggers (even though much of their material is hearsay, rumors and unconfirmed reports, they are doing a great job):

niacINsight

Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish

Nico Pintey at Huffington Post

Twitter has become one of the most important sources for information right now. Search #IranElections.

Many Iranian websites – both oppositional and pro-government (including, on and off, Fars, Press TV, Balatarin, and Tehran Bureau) – are down due to DoS attacks from both sides; pro-reformist journalists are constantly arrested and sites closed, but more often than not, they are freed and sites opened again after short time.

I will bring a list of good analyses later today…

Reactions to yesterday’s event in Iran

There are so many interesting analyses out there, but here’s a handful to get started with:

Tehran Bureau: ‘Another coup for the Hardliners’ and ‘Faulty Election Data’ (UPDATE: The statistical evidence of the TehBureau article is questioned here)
Abbas Djavadi: ‘An Electoral Coup in Iran
ISN: ‘Iran: Ahmadinejad’s Palace Coup
Ali Akbar Dareini, Anna Johnson: ‘Iranian Election Results: Ahmadinejad Declared Winner
Blake Hounshell: ‘Game over in Iran?
Juan Cole: ‘Stealing the Iranian Elections
TIME/CNN: ‘Protests Greet Ahmadinejad Win in Iran: “It’s not possible!”

Furthermore, I recommend niacINsight where they are liveblogging on reactions to yesterday’s political event in Iran. Here, you can read about following reports and rumors: Khatami’s brother has been arrested together with many other leading figures of the reformist wing; leading politicians and clerics going to Qom to deliberate with Sources of Emulation; Rafsanjani to resign? etc etc…

UPDATE:

There are now many reports – most of them verified – of a huge clampdown on reformists: Mohammad-Reza Khatami (the former president’s brother), Zahra Eshraqi (wife of Mohammad-Reza and Khomeini’s granddaughter), Mohsen Mirdamadi, Zahra Mojaradi, Saed Shariati, Zohre Aghajari, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Behzad Nabavi, Taqi Rahmani, Emad Bahavar, Mohsen Aminzadeh, Ahmad Zeidabadi … practically all prominent reformists have been arrested. UPDATE: Farda denies that Aminzadeh and Tajzadeh have been arrested.

It has also been reported that Karubi, Musavi and Gholam-Hosein Karbaschi are in house arrest; UPDATE: however, Karubi has just spoken in Tehran, allegedly. UPDATE: Musavi is not under house arrest, according to Newsweek article (see below), but deliberating with Rafsanjani.

There have been clashes between protesters and security forces throughout Iran and in many universities. The mobile phone network is closed, internet speed is extremely low, access to main internet sites such Facebook and Youtube is closed, etc. etc.

I recommend following articles:

Tehran Bureau: ‘Widespread Clashes in Tehran

Gary Sick: ‘Iran’s Political Coup‘ (highly recommended reading)

Brian Ulrich: ‘Rise of the Military

MideastAnalysis: ‘What Happened in Iran?’

Maziar Bahari / Newsweek: ‘“It’s a Coup d’État!”

… and that’s it for today! Apparently, Ahmadinejad’s supporters are going to rally and celebrate tomorrow at Tehran’s giant Mosalla mosque. Musavi (who is not, after all, under house arrest – it seems!) has called for his supporters to show up at his headquarters at 12:30 Tehran time.

UPDATE 2, Sunday:

Rafsanjani’s resignation was nothing more than a rumor, his son has stated; Mohammad-Reza Khatami, Mohsen Mir-Damadi, Behzad Nabavi and Sa‘id Shari‘ati have either been released or never arrested; and Musavi or Karubi are not under house arrest. Whether all these rumors are spread by those in power or by the reformists themselves is hard to say. Nonetheless, there seems to be quite a few reformists and ‘religious nationalists’ (melli-mazhhabi) still behind bars.

Ahmadinejad likens the unrest to a football match – and we can expect massive rallies in favor of the president today.

Election Frenzy in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

There have been so many interesting developments up to the Iranian presidential elections that I don’t know where to start. I guess the most important development is the fact that Iran is witnessing an election frenzy not seen in many years. From skeptical forecasts and early pessimistic judgments on the prospects of Ahmadinejad’s opponents, many people – most notably Tehran’s young – have moved to almost ecstatic joy and overly confident expressions of political activism. To Mir-Hosein Musavi’s supporters – and they are clearly growing exponentially in numbers – Ahmadinejad will face a crushing defeat on Friday.

Over the last week, Iranian state TV aired a series of live debates between the four candidates. It is of course disputed who won the debates. Ahmadinejad was, as always, a master speaker and extremely self-confident. Yet his attempts to vilify his opponents were very disgraceful. He even waved an intelligence file of Zahra Rahnavard, Musavi’s wife, in the face of his opponent, claiming she did not have the right credentials for filling her post as university chancellor. In each show, Ahmadineajd threatened to reveal ‘dirty secrets’ and he ridiculed his opponents’ track records. He also implied that Rafsanjani and his mafia-like family is behind Musavi.

Even though they lacked Ahmadinejad’s knack at rhetorical twists, his opponents were sometimes successful in portraying Ahmadinejad as an incompetent manager who manipulates statistics. Musavi even called Ahmadinejad a liar in front of the 40 million viewers.

No matter what, the TV debate series was historical in its own right. And they have helped to intensify the election fervor.

Yesterday, a massive rally allegedly stretched all the way from Meidun Rah-Ahan in southern Tehran to Meidun Tajrish in the north. A ‘Green Human Chain’ of Mir-Hosein Musavi’s supporters walked and drove the 20 km. distance, celebrating what they now see as the end of Ahmadinejad’s period as president.

Most were dressed in green T-shirts, shawls, improvised hats – green being the color of Musavi’s campaign. They were carrying placards, posters and banners clearly condemning Ahmadinejad and ridiculing his recent statements in the debates: ‘A Liar is God’s Enemy’ and ‘2 + 2 = 10’. They carried pictures of Musavi, and in particular, the now famous shot of Musavi holding his wife’s hands – a picture that seems to have had particular positive significance to female voters.

Most strikingly, perhaps, were the many placards that resembled newspaper front pages, reading ‘Ahmadi Raft’ (Ahmadi[nejad] has gone). This placard is made to resemble the historic headline that read ‘Shâh raft, Emâm umad’ (The Shah has gone, the Imam has come), printed during the Islamic Revolution. Another placard, in English, read ‘A New Greeting to the World’. I recommend the following picture series (123) and this video from yesterday’s rally.

At the same time, the rumor bazaar is – surprise, surprise – overloaded. One rumor alleges that Interior Ministry officials, in an open letter, have complained over a fatwa by Ahmadinejad’s mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, which legitimizes election fraud. Read more here.

Another theme is the Ahmadinejad election system’s alleged breakdown. There are rumors that the president’s election offices are closed and that his press secretaries are ‘unavailable’. Ahmadinejad didn’t show up for a major rally today. And his website has been hacked by Musavi supporters.

It is wise to keep in mind that Ahmadinejad is far from defeated. He still has a very strong base among the poor, the Basij and veteran families, in mosque networks and in several provinces. Yet, it is also impossible to rule out that Musavi can win. For the first time, Musavi appears a very serious contender for presidency. No matter the result, Friday will be a historic day for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

One man shouting in a corner

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

The candidates against Ahmadinejad in the upcoming Iranian elections are so far Mir-Hossein Musavi, Mehdi Karrubi and – since last week – Mohsen Reza‘i, a ‘moderate conservative’. However there is one more interesting yet overlooked candidate: Akbar A‘lami, the most outspoken critic of the power establishment to run for presidency. Yesterday, A‘lami blasted ‘the power mafia’ of Iran in an extremely harsh fashion.


A‘lami is a former MP of Tabriz. On his personal website and throughout his political life, he has always emphasizes the fact that he is an Azeri representing Tabriz. Yet A‘lami himself grew up in the poor southern part of Tehran, and as a teenager, he worked odd jobs, driving busses, painting buildings etc. In his very frank and detailed autobiography, A‘lami explains that he was not a good student and that he didn’t even pray. However at some stage, he entered an Islamic study circle, through which he finally found interest in studying and praying. This interest led him from the holy books and leaders over to role models such as Ali Shariati and Khosrow Golsorkhi, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. With this interest came political activities – a part of his life A‘lami describes as ‘from pilot academy to guerilla activities aimed at reaching utopia or nowhere?!’.

A‘lami quit training to become a pilot when he realized this line of work would prevent him from political activities, and instead he was drafted as a soldier and stationed in Kerman and Esfahan. When Khomeini issued a fatwa for resisting the shah’s regime, A‘lami fled his military base and went into hiding while the police interrogated his father. Together with a friend who had been trained in guerilla warfare in Lebanon, A‘lami created a ‘political-cultural armed cell’ that participated in the Islamic Revolution. A‘lami was wounded in battles with the Shah’s forces but was treated by a kind doctor (who, A‘lami laments, was later forced by the ignorance of radicals to flee Iran for the US).

So far, A‘lami’s biography is pretty standard stuff for Iranian politicians. But it differs in one fundamental way: A‘lami writes that while he fought for the revolution, he did not know that one day, the revolution would fall into the hands of ‘the likes of Jennati’. Ayatollah Jennati is a powerful cleric and head of the Guardians Council in Iran. He is a hardliner and an outspoken supporter of president Ahmadinejad. A‘lami writes that in the early days of the revolution, there was no such thing as ‘left and right wing’, ‘reformist and principlist’ – indeed, this was before the days of ‘baseless political godfathers of various factions’, he writes, obviously criticizing the political elites of contemporary Iran.

Despite “fraud” and despite a very meager financial basis, A‘lami won an unprecedented majority of votes in the Tabriz area, and as a reformist candidate he entered what he sarcastically calls “the institution known as the People’s House” in 1999. A‘lami continued for nine years as an MP known for stinging attacks on the conservatives, until “the lords who seek prosperity on earth” questioned his beliefs in and pledge to Islam. In other words, despite his nine years as an MP, the Guardians Council rejected A’lami’s candidacy before the 2008 parliamentary elections. Like so many other candidates, this unelected council found that A‘lami was not sufficiently loyal to Islam and the Islamic Republic.

Now, A‘lami has declared his intentions to run for president. It is far from certain that he will be accepted and allowed to run. Yet his case deserves attention since he represents those seeking change within a political system that does not accept or tolerate them – those who are more reformist than ‘the reformists’. Yesterday, A‘lami spoke in the city of Orumiye in Western Iran, and his views were presented.

He began his speech with congratulating the audience with Teachers Week and International Workers Day, and thus praising two segments of the Iranian society who are currently mobilizing protests and are witnessing widespread government repression. A‘lami spoke in Azeri Turkic which is still rather unusual for politicians in Iran. He then went on to criticize “the media boycott” against him, and the fact that both foreign and domestic media only reports on the activities of Ahmadinejad, Musavi, Karrubi and Rezai. He blasted the authorities for preventing him from speaking before public audiences, even in mosques. If the constitution were put into action without discrimination, argued A‘lami, it would lower discontent in the population that once voted for this same political system, which is now repressing them.

A‘lami argued that “freedom, independence and territorial integrity” are three basic elements that cannot be separated: “[No-one], not even The Leader, the President or the Parliament have the right to take away the nation’s legitimate freedoms when introducing a law or even on the excuse of protecting the country’s independence and territorial integrity”, stated A‘lami; indeed, the people should use all “civil methods” to fight for their rights against any authority that tries to take away their rights. Iran belongs to all people, no matter ethnicity and tribal loyalties, race, language, etc., argued A‘lami, and stated that people should be allowed to use “local and ethnic languages” in press, media and in teaching local literatures in public schools alongside the teaching of Persian.

The slogan behind A‘lami is in Azeri and reads something along the lines of “As long as my mother exists – my mother tongue will persevere”

The latter claim is a rather sensitive one in Iran, where Persians are only about half of the population, the other half consisting of various ethnic groups such as Azeris like A‘lami, Kurds, Lur, Arabs, Baluch, Turkmen etc. The question of language – and in particular, the right to teach the mother tongue in ethnic minority areas – has recently become a crucial topic to some ethnically aware Iranians. It is also a topic with which A‘lami, in the position of representative for an Azeri-majority area, has been occupied. A‘lami was outspoken in his defense of the protestors during the Tabriz unrest of 2006, when Azeris poured into the streets to protest a racist cartoon ridiculing Turkic-speakers in a state-run daily – and at the same time, to demand respect for their indigenous culture and language in a country dominated by Persian language. A‘lami even threatened, during an interview, to beat up a journalist who insisted that the unrest was a conspiracy against Iran guided from abroad. In parliament, conservatives blasted A‘lami for his ‘anti-Iranian’ statements.

However, the most sensitive topic of A‘lami’s speech was that of the political system and the role of The Leader. A‘lami stated that erroneous interpretations of this system would endow The Leader with powers well beyond the abilities of one person and well beyond legal prerogatives. A‘lami stated that “as long as power is in the hands of a collection of some 200-300 persons, who have shifted power around amongst themselves since the revolution, and have taken 70 million Iranians as their hostages … change is impossible and the situation is becoming worse day by day”. A‘lami called both “the reformist and conservative gangs” for “a handful of professional policy-players” who are simply hungry for power and will dress up in new clothes anytime in order to cling to this power.

They are all the same, A‘lami argued, and they have all participated in repressing the people and their freedoms. They are monopolists and totalitarians, and they see religion and notions of democracy as mere instruments with which they can gain power. “70 million Iranians are caught in the political games of this power mafia”, A‘lami proclaimed, and with its complete control of the country, it has made people believe that there are no-one more suited for the job than the mafia itself.

Indeed, A‘lami recently posed a crucial question to all candidates for this year’s presidential elections: What would you do if you were faced with a State Decree by Ayatollah Khamene‘i? Would you comply or would you resist it? This question concerns the very problem of being a president of a country which is in effect run by a Leader and a couple of unelected, clerical bodies. A‘lami represents those who still believe in the potential of the Islamic Revolution to bring about justice and freedom, but who will not accept the rules laid out before politicians by unelected political elites, who have been running Iran for the last thirty years.

A‘lami will probably never be allowed to run for president, and he will most certainly not be allowed to become one. Yet, among the candidates, he is so far the bravest and most outspoken critic of the arbitrary political system and the abuse of power so prevalent in Iran today.

A rapper will change the Iranian elections!

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

I’m sorry, but this deserves its own post. As I’ve mentioned earlier, there were rumors of presidential candidate and 72-year old revolutionary cleric Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Karubi’s meeting with a group of pop artists recently – among them the underground rapper Sâsi Mânkan (Sasy the Model). It is now more or less confirmed. Since Khatami’s withdrawal, this is the most shocking event of the 2009 presidential elections in Iran!

No doubt, young Iranians can see through this election campaign stunt. Many will see it as a desperate attempt to curry favor with the young. Nonetheless, some will love Karubi for it. It might be a joke, but see what this blogger writes:

“Even if I didn’t vote for the Sheikh [i.e. Karubi] when he promised cash handouts of 50,000 tomân, this will surely make me vote for him! A person who will recognize a guy like Sasy Mankan can be a really fun person; even if [Karubi] did this for the sake of elections and later on states that he does not even know a person called Sasy. Say what you like!

If it becomes clear which one of Karubi’s advisors proposed this meeting, I propose he should become Karubi’s first advisor in the new government.

Yeah, Karubi, you’re so cool, yeah!”

It is also certain that Karubi will be criticized for this over the coming days and weeks. It has been reported that already at the meeting itself, clerical members of Karubi’s entourage objected to the presence of underground rappers. Nonetheless, we should thank Karubi for finally giving this election some color! By the way, Karubi has already said he does not know of any ‘Sasy the Model’ …

Too late for a reformist momentum?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

After a turbulent start, the Iranian presidential election race has entered a new phase. Now, the presidential candidates are aiming their slogans and promises at Iran’s youth. But is it too little, too late to create a reformist momentum?

Over the last two weeks, Mir-Hossein Musavi – the candidate for which Khatami stepped down a month ago – has received support from major organizations on the ‘reformist wing’. The Combatant Clerics Coalition (the main ‘reformist’ clerical body), The Participation Front (the main ‘reformist party’), The Organization of the Islamic Revolution’s Mujahedin (a key political group) and the central committee of The Third Wave (a pro-Khatami movement) have all announced that they will back Musavi in his bid for the presidency (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4). Furthermore, the ‘centrist’ Executives of Reconstruction Party – which is aligned with the powerful Ayatollah Rafsanjani – has also declared its support for Musavi (even though Rafsanjani himself has not yet voiced support for any candidate).

What may be quite important in terms of factional battles is that Musavi apparently received the blessing of most marâje‘-e taqlid (Sources of Emulation: the highest ranking Shiite clerics) during a recent trip to Qom, Iran’s religious center. According to a pro-Musavi weblog, the state-media was ‘shocked’ by this show of support, and have tried to downplay its importance. It seems as if the marâje‘-e taqlid have refused to meet Ahmadinejad as a group. The fact that they met with Musavi can thus be seen to indicate their support for change in government.

Despite the recent string of statements, the support is not unanimous. A key member from the Combatant Clerics Coalition, Mohammad-‘Ali Abtahi, has joined Musavi’s competitor, Mehdi Karubi, as an advisor. Abtahi has stated that other members of the Coalition will vote for Karubi. The Executives of Construction Party may support Musavi, but its secretary-general, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, announced his support for Karubi several months ago. In some ‘reformist’ circles there have been talk of bringing in former interior minister Abollah Nuri as a ‘real reformist’ candidate instead of Musavi. Even in the main ‘reformist’ party, Moshârekat, key members – Khatami’s brother Mohammad-Reza and leading theoretician Sa‘id Hajjariyan – had called for a new candidate, but in the end, they accepted the party’s endorsement of Musavi. In other words, the many declarations of support are not indicative of a universal consensus on the ‘reformist wing’.

In any case, this show of support is far from enough to secure a ‘reformist’ victory. Apart from the fact that the ‘reformist’ vote is split between several candidates, the major obstacle is that the young segment and the politically active students remain hesitant and unconvinced of the ‘reformist’ nature of Musavi – and his ability to change anything. Consequently, Musavi has started currying favor with this segment. A couple of weeks ago, he announced that if he were to become president, he would dismantle the so-called Guidance Patrols (gasht-e ershâd), also called religious police in Western media. These patrols enforce Islamic moral values and dress codes among young Iranians and are hugely unpopular with the less conservative youth. Recent years have seen the implementation of the ‘Social Safety Program’ under which patrols periodically launch harsh campaigns against ‘morally deprived’ young Iranians. By announcing that he will stop these patrols, Musavi is trying to win young votes. Karubi – who has also promised cash handouts to all young Iranians if he is to win – has jumped on this wagon, and announced similar promises. He has threatened to go to Khamene‘i if the patrols continue their harassment of young Iranians.

However, such promises seem like nothing but hot air. Indeed, it is – as pointed out yesterday by Iranian judicial authorities – not up to the president to make such a decision. A judiciary spokesman stated that the patrols are ‘interminable’ and the Disciplinary Forces (niru-ye entezâmi) Commander Ahmadi-Moqaddam blasted Musavi and Karubi, warning that such statements are unacceptable. Nonetheless, Musavi continues his efforts to attract young voters. He has stated that he knows the young and their trends better than any other candidate; that ‘we should trust the youth’ just as in the early years of the revolution; that confronting the young only leads to ‘pessimism’; and that instead of ‘authoritarian methods’, the state must work with cultural means to reach out to the youth.

Musavi is also playing his ‘artist card’ now. An architect and painter (you can see some of his works here), he enjoys some support among Iran’s artists (such as the famous film-maker Dariush Mehrjui), who are hoping for a more tolerant government and less censorship in the future. In a meeting yesterday, reformist politicians praised Musavi as a liberal figure who had defended artistic freedoms even in the early days of revolutionary fervor and cultural revolution. Musavi is not a man who will put up ‘barbed wire to prevent a flood’, one speaker stated, referring to the wave of cultural products flooding the globalized world and, consequently, also Iran. Such statements come at a time when Internet is more widespread and popular in Iranian society than ever; and at a time when the Revolutionary Guards have announced a cyber war on illegal websites.

Thus, Musavi is trying to cash in on the more ‘liberal’ image as an intellectual and artist. Furthermore, we will undoubtedly see more of Musavi’s wife in the coming months. Zahra Rahnavard is a scholar, writer and artist in her own right, and has recently criticized the discrimination of women in Iran.

As I have elaborated on earlier, Musavi is presenting himself as a cross-factional candidate. Since my last post on the topic, this has become even more apparent. Alongside ‘reformist’ statements such as the above on the patrols, Musavi has also stated that he will not work with anyone who tries to ‘break the framework’ of the political system; he has repeatedly stated that Iran must return to the revolutionary path; and he has avoided oppositional figures, pro-democracy student gatherings and visits with the families of political prisoners. Nonetheless, the praise for Musavi, which we have heard from some moderate conservatives the last couple of months, has yet to translate into direct support. Even if conservatives who are fed up with Ahmadinejad should actually support Musavi in his bid for president (and they might do this secretly, a ‘reformist’ has stated), this flirt with conservative forces will probably alienate an important constituency: the politically aware students.

As an example, the pro-Musavi website Qalam recently featured an article with the headline ‘Universities must take steps towards reaching the goals of pure Islam’. The article carried statements by a person identified as head secretary of Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat (The Office for Consolidating Unity), which is the main pro-democracy student body. However, this was the secretary of a breakaway pro-conservative group known as the Shiraz Branch – and not the original group that helped Khatami to power in 1997. Pro-democracy students were infuriated that Qalam brought this article and on various student blogs and websites, the conclusion was drawn that there is no difference in Musavi and Ahmadinejad.

It is the apparent similarity with Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and ideological outlook that is Musavi’s Achilles Heel. Musavi will not be able to change his image without losing that same quality that makes him more acceptable to the ruling conservative elite than Khatami. Half-baked promises of removing the religious police from the streets will not satisfy the politically aware students and young Iranians. There seems to be a feeling that Musavi is either no better or different than Ahmadinejad, or maybe afraid to speak his mind. Furthermore, when it is rumored that even such central figures as Hajjariyan doubts Musavi’s ‘reformism’, it can come as no surprise that others can have a hard time imagining Musavi as a new Khatami.

‘Reformist’ blogger Bahman recently wrote:
“In my opinion, Musavi is not a reformist, just as Karubi isn’t either. Musavi is not representative of what we have fought for and talked about for the last twelve years [since Khatami’s presidential victory in 1997]. Musavi is one of the high-ranking executives of the political system who happens to believe more than most (maybe even most of all) in the political system, who wants to protect it and who wants to make it work efficiently. He sees the political system as a popular system: not in its modern sense but rather in the sense of the Ummah, or Muslim community. That is, to him, ‘the people’ are those he imagines as the real owners of the revolution and the political system.”

Indeed, if Musavi (or Karubi) were to win – would they be able to change anything? This ubiquitous question was formulated in an interesting way recently. Akbar A‘lami – former MP for Tabriz and an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad’s government – has questioned the ‘reformist’ label for Musavi and Karubi. A‘lami himself has announced he will run for president, but it is doubted whether the unelected vetting body, Guardian Council, will admit him into the race. During his recent campaigning, which has received little if any attention from state-run media, A‘lami has invited Musavi and Karubi to an open public debate. In this invitation, A‘lami asked each candidate what he would do if he was to become president and was faced with a ‘state decree’ from The Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i?

This question is crucial as it reveals the impotence of any president in opposing these decrees issued every now and then by the Leader. The opaque yet overshadowing and unhindered power of the Leader is indeed a core problem of the Iranian political system. It is also yet another reason why some find the outfall of the presidential elections unimportant – and thus, participation in the election process pointless.

This is not to say that the presidency is a post completely devoid of significance. The Iranian votes have proved time and again to reflect important shifts in public opinion. Constrained as he might be, the president is nonetheless Iran’s face abroad and a representative of a significant segment and interest in society. Yet it becomes increasingly difficult for voters to discern the differences between candidates’ political outlook – and correspondingly harder for Iranian politicians to persuade the population to believe in the system and the power of their votes in bringing about change.

With less than two months left before the presidential elections, something close to a miracle – or at least, a fundamental change of strategy – is needed. If not, Ahmadinejad will most probably win with a slight majority and continue into his second round as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

[more to follow …]

UPDATE

Just to prove my point that the reformists are desperately addressing the Iranian youth these days:

Mehdi Karubi is reported to have visited a group of pop musicians, including the rapper Sâsi Mânkan (!). This unprecedented move is shocking since the hugely popular underground music, and in particular Persian Hip Hop, is effectively outlawed. As I have commented earlier, the political system sees Hip Hop as a threat to society. It will be interesting to see if state-run media will pick up on this story!

Who is a reformist and what is principle-ism?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Khatami’s recent withdrawal from the Iranian presidential elections came as a shock. The question now is what will happen to the ‘reformists’ before the elections slated for June 12.

However, the debate is obscured by the fact that the terms ‘reformist’ and ‘conservative’ are increasingly inappropriate simplifications of the much more complex and confusing reality of Iranian domestic politics. Indeed, it might be that the ‘reformist’ candidates are not reformists at all; that the ‘conservative’ candidates can attract ‘reformist’ votes; and that everybody wants to be a ‘principlist’!

It is time to review the terminology – and maybe even the mentality behind – when talking about Iranian politics.

The Ubiquitous Principlist
Ever since Khatami’s landslide victory in 1997, Western media and scholars have described him and his allies as ‘reformists’ or ‘moderates’. While ‘moderate’ obviously depends on the observer’s subjective view, ‘reformist’ is interesting since that is how most of Khatami’s allies describe themselves. During his presidency, Iran scholars constantly emphasized that Khatami was only interested in reforming, and not overthrowing, the Islamic Republic. Yet some Western media portrayals nonetheless indicated that Khatami not just represented a liberal interpretation of Islam, but also a gradual secularization. This was reinforced in the portrayal of Khatami’s Other, his rivals, called ‘conservatives’ or ‘hardliners’. Such terms seems to signify this segment’s views on ideology, cultural values and their interpretation of Islam. To the common reader in the West, a picture thus emerged of a rift between a rigidly Islamist ‘conservative’ group in Iranian society and an open-minded, tolerant ‘reformist’ group. While such a picture is not completely devoid of legitimacy, it is not sufficiently nuanced. Indeed, several factors have complicated the use of terms such as ‘reformist’ and ‘conservative’.

The 2005 campaign showed that the ‘conservatives’ were definitely not a united, uniform bloc. Thus, the term ‘neo-conservative’ was coined, mainly to denote the ‘second generation’ of politicians associated with Ahmadinejad. The current president is, however, a self-styled osul-garâ, a word that has led to the rather awkward translation ‘principlist’ or ‘principleist’. Osul-garâ‘i – ‘striving towards principles’ – could also be translated ‘fundamentalism’, as it refers to the fundamental tenets of Khomeinism. However, to avoid confusion with the Sunni fundamentalism of, say, Wahhabists, it seems that ‘principlist’ is now common use. Crudely put, ‘principlist’ became synonymous of the (neo-)‘conservatives’ around Ahmadinejad. The only problem is that it is not just Ahmadinejad who defines himself as a ‘principlist’. After Ahmadinejad adopted the term, other politicians soon declared themselves ‘principlists’, including those ‘conservatives’ who were opposed to Ahmadinejad; and now, even the main ‘reformist’ candidate appears to be a ‘principlist’!

Confusing? Indeed. Let’s look at recent developments as examples of the diverse, interlaced discourses of factional identification prevalent in Iranian domestic politics. The aim is not to re-classify or invent new categories, but rather to nuance the discussion of Iranian politics.

Is The Reformist a reformist?
It seems as if Khatami stepped down since he had promised to do so if another candidate – Mir-Hosein Musavi – would join the race. Musavi dragged his feet, but on March 9, he announced his bid. One question that bothers many now is of course: why did Musavi join the race at all, thus causing the allegedly popular Khatami to step down? A possible explanation is that Khatami knew that he would meet formidable obstacles that Musavi, with his outstanding credentials and political background, could avoid. However, as usual, conspiracy theories abound, one of them being that Supreme Leader Khamene‘i ordered Musavi to join the race in order to force Khatami – a severe challenge to Ahmadinejad and a nuisance to Khamene‘i and his ‘conservative’ clergy allies – to withdraw. The fact that such conspiracy theories exist first of all shows what many Iranians feel about the political game; but it certainly also has to do with the person of Musavi.

Originally a painter, architect and university lecturer, Musavi served as Iran’s last prime minister from 1981 to ‘89, when the position was eliminated. He is recognized across the political spectrum as an impeccable servant of the nation. His time as prime minister and close aide to Khomeini coincided with the bloody war between Iran and Iraq, and Musavi is praised for his attempts to keep Iranian economy alive despite the devastating war. Musavi represented the ‘left wing’ (another obscure term) of Iranian revolutionary politics: he was in favor of a state-regulated economy with a central role for collective cooperatives (ta‘âvon). Musavi could also be termed a ‘radical’ in the sense that he belonged to this ‘left wing’, which, among other things, challenged the historical Shi‘i clerical stance on the sanctity of private property.

Around the death of Khomeini, ‘the right wing’ – primarily based around the traditional clergy and the bazaar merchants naturally opposed to state ownership – finally ousted their foes on ‘the left’ and abolished the prime ministry. Musavi withdrew from politics and devoted himself to the cultural scene. Now that Musavi is the main ‘reformist’ presidential candidate, it is interesting to read his (hitherto very few) statements. After Khatami’s withdrawal, Musavi wrote Khatami a letter, stating that

You know that I too believe that the correct way is reforms alongside a return to the principles…

The use of the word ‘principles’ (osul) is not a coincidence: Musavi is aiming to use his political record and image to attract ‘principlist’ votes. In a recent interview, Musavi elaborated:

I believe that ordinary people are both principlist and reformist in a true sense. For example, the people do not like a politician who will back down on the issue of nuclear technology… [but] the people rejoiced at the launch of a space satellite… [Such feelings] can be seen as ‘principlism’. At the same time, the people do not like it that the state interferes in their personal affairs, or limits their legal liberties, or that the state closes down one newspaper after another for petty mistakes. It is possible to call such a feeling and tendency ‘reformism’… Amongst ordinary people, principlism and reformism are not separate. I think of principlism and reformism just like the people do.

Thus, Musavi is simultaneously laying claim to Ahmadinejad and the ‘neoconservatives’ ’ rhetoric of ‘principlism’ and Khatami’s ‘reformism’. Together with his quasi-socialist discourse of social equality and justice that might succeed in ‘stealing’ from Ahmadinejad’s core voters, the poor masses, this seems to be Musavi’s main message. He might already have attracted support from some unusual corners: former Revolutionary Guard commander and so-called ‘moderate conservative’ Mohsen Reza‘i is rumored to back Musavi’s bid. Musavi recently appeared at a commemoration for a famous martyr of the Iran-Iraq War, alongside Reza‘i and Admiral Ali Shamkhani. Reza‘i is certainly not a ‘reformist’ – yet he supports Musavi’s bid for presidency, maybe due to their background as colleagues during the war.

It is also very possible that other similar figures might follow suit, as indicated by recent remarks from conservative critics of Ahmadinejad in Parliament and by other former Revolutionary Guards commanders. It is even rumored that Nateq Nuri – who was Khatami’s ’conservative’ opponent in the 1997 elections – has been secured a place in the future cabinet if Musavi is to be elected. That would seriously undermine the idea of a ‘conservative’/’reformist’ dichotomy: would such a cabinet, including ‘conservatives’, be ‘reformist’ at all? Indeed, some proponents of ‘reformism’ argue that Musavi should not be seen as a ‘reformist’ – at least not in the ‘Khatamian’ sense. Khatami recently stated that

We have never claimed that Musavi would enter the [presidential race] as the epitome of reforms.

This ambiguous statement indicates that Musavi’s policies will not be anything like those of Khatami’s. An observer recently wrote on the reform-minded website Khordâd that

Mir-Hosein Musavi has plainly declared that he is ‘not a reformist’ … and a few months ago, during a private meeting with [reformist groups], he denied any relation with these [groups]. Mir-Hosein Musavi’s actions and words clearly send a message that he does not want the vote of such reformist groups in society nor the problems associated [with such a vote].

Zahra Eshraqi – Khomeini’s granddaughter and wife of Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the former president’s brother – has also stated that “Mir-Hossein Musavi is a principlist”. It is interesting to note that the political bazaar today is filled with rumors of Mohammad-Reza’s possible candidature. In such an event, we will probably see Mohammad-Reza capitalize on Musavi’s ambivalent political rhetoric and present himself as a true ‘reformist’.

Two sides of one coin

Thus, Mir-Hosein’s currying of favor with the ‘moderate conservatives’ and the ‘principlist’ discourse can easily have a boomerang effect. Despite Khatami’s endorsement, it now seems far from certain that the majority of reformist voters will back Musavi.

According to the daily Ham-Mihan, a public survey institute recently found that 57% of Khatami voters in Tehran would instead vote for Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf – currently the capitol’s mayor, who is often described as ‘a moderate conservative’ but has not yet announced his candidature. Only 29% would vote for Musavi while 14% still hadn’t made up their mind. Even though opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Iran, the report does point to a significant fact: that the idea that Iranians are divided between ‘reformists’ and ‘conservatives’ is somewhat obsolete. Indeed, the whole story is turned upside-down when we take into consideration a recent article in Tehrân-e emruz, a daily connected to Qalibaf. In it, an editorialist wrote that

an analysis of the view and executive-administrative approach of Mir-Hosein Musavi and Mahmud Ahmadinejad reveals the close resemblance of the two

In the piece, titled ‘Two sides of one coin’, it was also stated that Musavi’s candidature was “one step ahead, two steps back”; that Musavi is also a “man of rationing” (referring to Ahmadinejad’s controversial economic policies); and that Musavi has not made clear exactly how he differs from the current government. Sarcastically, the editorialist wrote:

Today, the policy of fattening the state is being executed, the cues [of people waiting for ration coupons and subsidized groceries] have returned to the streets and the most important government debate is how to target subsidies and promote a lessening of consumption … so why has Mir-Hosein, in such circumstances, suddenly rung the bell of danger?

The point is that Musavi’s policy of ‘Islamic Economy’ bears resemblance to that of Ahmadinejad – and, implicitly, that Qalibaf’s differs from these.

However, there are further aspects to this discussion. Qalibaf has presented himself with a ‘modern’ image: he is dressed in chic clothing, sports fashion sunglasses and appears as a suave, cool and youthful type. One of the controversies over Qalibaf was when he allowed Benetton to open a store in Tehran, and allegedly gave Mr. Benetton a private helicopter tour over Tehran’s skyline. Ahmadinejad’s supporters among the Basij militia criticized Qalibaf for being morally corrupt and facilitating the Western cultural invasion. On the other hand, figures such as Ahmadinejad and Musavi present themselves as austere ascetics, dressed in simple, locally produced clothing and living in humble residencies amongst ‘the people’. While Qalibaf’s constituency is the young and affluent, the private entrepreneurs and the globalized elites of northern Tehran, Ahmadinejad’s constituency consists of low-paid public employees, the unemployed masses of south Tehran, the poor in traditional, rural areas – as well as segments of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij.

Another sign that Musavi is tapping into Ahmadinejad’s constituency was his choice of venue for his first speech as presidential candidate. Naziabad is a poor area of southern Tehran. Musavi used to live here and even as a prime minister and despite Iraqi missile attacks during the war, he stayed here. Now, Musavi is looking for support among the ‘dispossessed’ and pious peoples of Naziabad – and other similar destitute areas throughout Iran. Furthermore, Musavi’s regular use of religious, revolutionary and wartime language underpins that he will not be seen as a candidate for the secular-minded liberals.

Thus, the categories of ‘conservative’ and ‘reformist’ once again fails to grasp reality: that a so-called ‘conservative’ (Qalibaf) might eventually score the allegedly ‘reformist’ vote of some liberal-minded Tehranis; and that a so-called ‘reformist’ (Musavi) might score votes in what is traditionally seen as ‘conservative’ areas. This political site is not about ‘reformist’ or ‘conservative’: it is a question of culture and class.

However, facing Ahmadinejad on home ground is not the only challenge facing Musavi. It seems he is lacking broad-based support from a very crucial segment: the students. First of all, the generation born in the 1980s does not know much about Musavi except that he is a ‘man of the system’. Secondly, they have still to see an original and far-reaching agenda for change. Musavi’s old-fashioned rhetoric and his cautious criticism of those in power is simply not an approach that appeals to this section of the electorate.

After Khatami’s withdrawal, an emergency meeting of the youth divisions of Khatami’s organization revealed a lack of support for Musavi. Rather than Musavi, some of the young activists pointed to a visitor at the meeting as their candidate – Abdollah Nuri. Nuri was one of Khatami’s trusted aides and served as his Interior Minister and vice-president. He was sentenced to five years in jail in 1999 for insulting Khamene‘i, ‘disturbing public opinion’ and advocating links with the US. Nuri has not yet announced whether he will join the presidential elections but nothing can be ruled out in the coming weeks and months.

Old wine in new bottles
So, how about the second ‘reformist’ candidate, Mehdi Karubi? Always a controversial figure, Karubi too belonged to the ‘left wing’ of Iranian politics in the 1980s where he was a key parliamentarian. In 2005, he split with the ‘left wing’ clerical body Majma‘-e rowhâniyun-e mobârez (Clerical Combatant Assembly) in order to create his own ‘party’, E‘temâd-e melli (National Trust). It seems that the 71-year old cleric is a candidate for every election, every time – but never wins.

Some facts are, however, in favor of Karubi: a decent result in the 2005 elections (17%); a steady following among some of Iran’s ethnic minorities; vocal criticism of Ahmadinejad and his government’s repression of students, artists, Sufi dervishes and the opposition; support from some of Khatami’s former aides; and his populist promises of cash handouts to all Iranians if he is elected. However despite all this, Karubi is not widely seen as a potential winner. He too seems to lack the broad-based support of the younger generation. And again, there is the question: is Karubi a ‘reformist’ at all?

In Iranian cyberspace, it seems that some do not believe so. A renowned ‘reformist’ blogger, ‘Bahman Aqa’ recently wrote:

In my point of view, Karubi isn’t a reformist. He is one of the leftist clerical leaders of the 1980s who was thrown out of power in the 90s and now wants to come back in. He is very brave and outspoken. He writes a letter to Jennati and tells him everything he wants to tell him

This refers to Karubi’s controversial letter of 2007 in which he severely criticized the high-ranking Ayatollah Jennati for praising Ahmadinejad. ‘Bahman’ continues:

But the fight between Karubi and Jennati is just the continuation of the fight between the [leftist] Combatant Clerics Assembly and [rightist] Combatant Clerics Society of the 1980s. Then, the Supreme Leadership supported those of the ‘Assembly’, today it supports those of the ‘Society’

This view is indicative of the fact that for many Iranians, the intra-clergy and factional struggles are basically irrelevant: there is no significant difference between most of these candidates and even in name, their organizations sound similar. Terms such as ‘reformist’, ‘conservative’ and ‘principlist’ are in constant flux and prone to opportunist abuse from all sides.

The bottom line is that all candidates are loyal to the fundamental ideology of the Islamic Revolution and the fundamental framework of the Islamic Republic. The second common characteristic is that they all utilize populist slogans in one sense or another, even though ‘the people’ to whom they address their rhetoric are from different socioeconomic and cultural strata of Iranian society.

This piece should of course not be seen as an indictment of Iran scholars and observers. I have used (and will continue to use) somewhat simplistic terms such as ‘reformist’, ‘conservative’ and ‘principlist’ when describing Iranian politicians. As analysts working with a controversial field of some interest to public opinion, we are obliged to talk in a plain language with a minimum of exotic words and complex neologisms. We need to describe the general currents in a multifaceted and often ambiguous, obscure political landscape.

Yet, it seems evermore important today to exert caution when choosing words for describing political trends and presidential candidates in Iran. It is evermore important that we refrain from clear-cut labeling and binary definitions of ‘reformist’ vs. ‘conservative’. Iranian politics is dynamic and unpredictable. We might see a ‘conservative’ come to power in the guise of a ‘reformist’ – just as we might see a professed ‘principlist’ reform the country in a direction away from the ‘principles’.

New piece on Iranian student politics

by Rasmus Christian Elling

I have a new piece on the recent martyr burials in Amir Kabir University, the student activist milieu and election politics in Iran. It is featured on MERIP Online here.