Monday, May 16, 2005

Guardian Unlimited | Iranians Tell Tait What They Think He Wants to Hear and He Buys It - But they are still voting for Rafsanjani

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Voter fury threatens Iranian election: "Voter fury threatens Iranian election

With polling a month away, those in Tehran's conservative bazaar now reject the whole system
Robert Tait in Tehran
Tuesday May 17, 2005
The Guardian
Sitting in Tehran's grand bazaar, once the spiritual heart and financial lifeblood of Iran's Islamic revolution, the man fidgeting with the prayer beads ventured a fiercely uncompromising opinion of his country's ruling elite.
"We won't vote for any of them, they are all robbers," he declared, his voice rising with indignation. "All of them have been lying to us."

The trenchant views of Hasan, 50, a textile wholesaler, might have been unremarkable but for his Islamic background and the staunchly conservative setting in which they were expressed.

Opening his wallet to reveal photographs of religious mullahs, he said: "These are my close relatives. I'm from a clerical family. I took part in the revolution and the war against Iraq. I campaigned for the forces of Khomeini against the Shah. But this is a religion that has tied us up by our arms and legs.
"The first characteristic of a marja-e taqlid [a senior cleric with leadership status] should be courage. None of them have that now. In the past, if somebody insulted clerics, you would argue with them; but why should we do that now? Why shouldn't we criticise them if they have been lying to us?"

Hasan's diatribe was delivered as Iran's election authorities registered a record 1,010 candidates for next month's presidential election.

They include 89 women, challenging a constitutional bar on females serving as president, and such unlikely aspirants as a qualified astrologer and a former goalkeeper of the Iranian football team.

The vast majority will be weeded out by the council of guardians, an unelected body of clerics and judges, which will decide those suitable to contest the June 17 poll, largely on their degree of commitment to the Islamic system.

Of the credible candidates, the strong favourite to succeed the outgoing reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who held the office between 1989 and 1997.

Mr Rafsanjani is campaigning as a pragmatist who can bridge the chasm between liberal reformers allied to Mr Khatami and religious hardliners. His supporters also say he can improve Iran's international standing, particularly its relations with America.

On the face of it, the bazaar should be friendly territory for Mr Rafsanjani, a mid-ranking cleric who was among the original revolutionary cadre that brought the Islamic regime to power in 1979.

A sprawling city within a city in Tehran's rundown southern quarters - far from the liberal attitudes of the affluent northern suburbs - its wealthy traders have been pivotal to Iran's political history as allies of the religious establishment.

In 1979, they were crucial to the mass movement that overthrew the Shah, channelling funds to pro-Khomeini clerics and shutting the bazaar for prolonged periods as the beleaguered ruler clashed with opposition forces.

It may sell bikinis alongside Persian carpets, but the bazaar remains a traditionalist redoubt. It is an exclusively male preserve; computerised ac counting is an alien concept, as businessmen seek to keep transactions from the probing gaze of the tax authorities.

But if Mr Rafsanjani and his allies are counting on the bazaaris' innate conservatism, they may be disappointed. Like Hasan, many say they will not vote, citing deep disappointment with the Islamic governing system.

That is a concern for the senior figures who have repeatedly stressed the importance of a high turnout to bolster Iran's democratic credentials in the face of pressure over its nuclear programme.

It is a personal blow to Mr Rafsanjani that many traders pinpoint his first spell as president, when he introduced free-market reforms, as the root of many of today's ills. These are commonly identified as inflation, unemployment (unofficially put at around 25%), drug addiction, poverty and lack of provision for the poor.

"I don't think anyone will vote for Rafsanjani," said Ali, 38, another textile trader in the bazaar. "During his first presidency, there was widespread poverty and his performance was weak. The only people who will vote in this election are those government employees who need the election stamp on their documents to keep their jobs.

"The bazaar is still religiously and politically conservative, but our souls have been killed. All we have heard is lies."

There was some comfort for Mr Rafsanjani from Hossein Mohammadi, 54, a carpet trader, who said he would vote for him, albeit perhaps not in terms the former president would wish for.

"There are candidates we don't know, and I feel safer with Rafsanjani to solve our economic problems," he said. "If you are not hungry, you don't care about politicians, whether it's Rafsanjani, Saddam, or Hitler.""