Monday, June 06, 2005

Asia Times Online - Limited options for Iran's voters

Asia Times Online :: Middle East News, Iraq, Iran current affairs: "Limited options for Iran's voters
By Safa Haeri

PARIS - The closer Iran's June 17 presidential elections get, the more heated the rhetoric becomes, the more large sections of the general public remain indifferent, and the louder the calls grow for a boycott.

Former president and present current chairman of the powerful Assembly for Discerning the Interests of the State, or Expediency Council, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current frontrunner among the eight candidates and most likely to win, is trailed by General Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, a former chief of police: Ali Larijani, the unpopular former head of the state-owned, conservative-controlled Radio and Television Organization; Mohammad Ahmad Nejad, Tehran's mayor; and Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. The candidates, four of who belong to different and warring conservative factions, are joined by Mostafa Moin, the lead candidate of the reformists, who is expected to garner less than 4% of the vote; Mehdi Karoubi, the Speaker of the previous majlis (parliament); and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, an independent.

According to insiders who spoke to Asia Times Online, Rafsanjani decided to enter the competition after reaching a "gentleman's agreement" with his old friend and now foe, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic who, despite his immense powers, is nevertheless prisoner of other powerful but shadowy forces.

"To free himself of the ultra-conservatives, Khamenei, in order to both survive and preserve the system, needs Rafsanjani, his Machiavellian political skill, his structures, his influence in the private sector and his lobbies inside and outside the country," one analyst pointed out, saying that for his part, in order to also survive, Rafsanjani needs the powers of Khamenei to get the regime out of the quagmire that is engulfing it slowly but surely. "It was a give-and-take agreement," the source told Asia Times Online.

It was probably because of this agreement that Rafsanjani dared to break a taboo imposed by Khamenei over the United States, who banned the press, politicians and even lawmakers from speaking about dialogue with the "Great American Satan". Rafsanjani said that he would place the question of American-Iranian relations at the top of his priorities.

Apart from the participation of the former president in the race, an interesting aspect of the elections is that, for the first time, they are being fought on a multipolar basis, instead of along traditional bi-partisan lines. Each side of the leadership has fielded several candidates determined to fight until the very end.

The race became more interesting for Iranians, as well as internationally, once Rafsanjani decided to run. He adds color, especially when none of the other participants exude much charisma, let alone have serious, concrete, programs for action, except for some slogans to fight corruption and create jobs for the millions of unemployed.

Nejad, a "fundamentalist", regards helping people as a "religious duty" and places "revolutionary management" above other projects to "erase class gaps". Qalibaf wants to become a "Reza but of the Hezbollah type", an odd reference to Reza Shah, the initiator of modern Iran and founder of the Pahlavi dynasty that was toppled by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution of 1979. That explains why he decided to reveal that while between 30% and 35% of smuggling in the country is undertaken by professional smugglers, the rest is in the hands of high-placed officials. He vowed that he would fight this, but without explaining how.

Rezai believes Iranians have reached the point "to choose between the Islamic republic and a prosperous, respectable life", while Larijani, the lead candidate of the Coordination Committee of Revolutionary Forces, is running his campaign under the slogan of "fresh air and government of hope", proposing "progress, scientific economy and competent and active government in line with the ideals of the Islamic revolution".

"Iran for all Iranians" trumpets Moin, who, like Mehralizadeh, was initially rejected by the Guardians Council, but allowed to join the race thanks to the personal intervention of the leader. He is the only one who incorporates human rights in his policy program.

As for Karoubi, the other reformist candidate backed by the pro-reform Association of Militant Clergymen, he says that "the only way of safeguarding the regime is respecting the will of the people and bowing to it." Like Moin, Karoubi believes that implementing reforms will help solve problems in the system and ensure its survival, but he and his backers don't say how they will carry out these reforms, given that outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, elected with more than 20 million votes, was unable to bring about any meaningful change in his two terms.

"In the coming elections, two pro-reform candidates propose to continue the path of Khatami, the same one that ended in an impasse. The conservative runner repeats old revolutionary slogans. As for Hashemi Rafsanjani, he [makes statements concerning] uniting feuding wings, the sensitivity of the Iranian situation or relations with the United States," noted Faraj Sarkouhi, an Iranian intellectual living in Germany.

Rafsanjani, 70, speaking in a television appearance, said: "The situation is changing rapidly. To respond to the legitimate demands of this new generation, new solutions are necessary. Nobody should think that we can act by employing the same literature, the same policies or the same attitudes that we had at the beginning of the revolution or at the end of the [Iran-Iraq] war."

Regretting that the Expediency Council chairman had no place in his policy program for human rights, an editorial published by the independent daily Sharq on June 1 warned, "If Mr Hashemi Rafsanjani wants to be a perfect candidate, he cannot ignore human rights, an issue at the heart of Iran's dialogue with the outside world, including the European Union."

On the issue of Iran's nuclear activities, another subject out of the reach of the president, all candidates are on the same wavelength, meaning that Iran has the right to acquire atomic technology for peaceful uses. "No Iranian official can oppose this absolute right, that is, getting nuclear know-how," stated Rafsanjani. A staunch critic of the Iranian nuclear negotiation team, Larijani said ironically, "If we cannot enrich uranium, let's enrich democracy."

The anti-election camp counts the Office for Consolidating Unity, the largest and most active organization among Iran's students, as well as several popular and influential voices, including Hojjatoeslam Abdollah Nouri, a twice former Interior minister impeached by previous parliaments; Abbas Amir Entezam, Iran's longest-known political prisoner; Naser Zarafshan, a prominent lawyer who is serving a five-year jail term for defending the families of victims in a serial murder case; Shirin Ebadi, the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize; and Akbar Ganji, an investigative journalist and writer who denounced the role of Rafsanjani and his intelligence minister, Ali Fallahian, in the assassination of five prominent politicians and intellectuals in November 1998 at the hands of senior officers of the secret services.

To sum up the reasons they are against the elections, Ganji, in a "Manifesto for Republicanism", points out that under the present political system, the president has no power, no role in decision-making centers like the leader, the Revolutionary Guards, the Judiciary, the Guardians Council or the Expediency Council.

To the claims by the reformists that by their presence in power they can at least curb the conservatives from cracking down further on dissidents, or prevent possible American military intervention in Iran, the anti-election people respond that these arguments are self-satisfying, as seen by the eight years of Khatami's presidency ending in farce. As for American threats, "they are the fruit of the aggressive policy of the ruling Iranian authorities and will continue as long as the current policy is in action".

Dilemma for students
Some student activists are advocating an election boycott. This is not a minor matter - some two-thirds of Iran's population is under the age of 30 (46 million out of a total population of 69 million) and the voting age is 15. Plus, eight years ago, young Iranians helped a relatively liberal dark horse (Khatami) win a landslide victory, reports Bill Samii of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. But although a boycott could show disaffection with the country's deeply flawed political system, it is unlikely to have any real effect.

The students have not been bashful. In mid-May, students at several universities staged sit-ins to show their unhappiness with the country's stifling political climate. Leading members of the Office for Consolidating Unity, met in Teheran on May 19 and expressed unhappiness with the restrictions placed on them. They also suspended the branch from Saduqi University in Yazd because it has expressed support for the candidacy of Rafsanjani. The Office for Strengthening Unity leadership noted that this stance contradicted its ban on political involvement.

Soon thereafter, 35 university student associations issued a statement expressing concern about the course of political developments in the country. Their statement said, according to the reformist Aftab-e Yazd newspaper on May 23, that students were questioning the effectiveness of elections given the authoritarian trend in the country. They warned of a social explosion and delays in the democratization of the country. They warned the hardline political figures that sooner or later the people will realize that they have a right to choose and elect candidates freely. The students wrote that they see it as their duty to resist the country's authoritarians.

Student activism is encouraging to the reformists, but the numbers are not. The total university student population is 1.2 million, which seems small compared to the total population of about 69 million. Other factors, such as tactical differences, state repression and the resulting lack of leadership, also limit the students' potential.

Students are divided on the political role they should play. The Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat) is divided into two wings. The majority "Allameh" faction wants to withdraw from the political system and generally advocates an election boycott, whereas the minority "Shiraz" faction generally favors participation and operating within the current political framework. Another student organization, known as the Tabarzadi Group for its founder, the oft-imprisoned Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, advocates a more radical approach to politics. In the 1980s, furthermore, the regime created the University Jihad and the Student Basij, and 1998 legislation created a Basij unit in every university.

State repression has dampened young people's political ardor. For example, police arrested some 4,000 people after June 2003 demonstrations over the possibility of paying tuition. Individuals associated with July 1999 demonstrations are still in jail. An ominous phenomenon that has emerged in the past few years is the detention of activists by unaccountable security personnel at undisclosed locations.

The overall lack of forceful and consistent leadership hinders the ability of students to effectively express themselves or to oppose the system. Moreover, the Office for Strengthening Unity, specifically, and young voters, generally, are disappointed by the result of the elections. The individuals they voted for - Khatami in 1997 and 2001, and reformist legislators in 2000 - could not accomplish anything substantive because their efforts were countered by unelected but powerful institutions and individuals.

Under these circumstances, the student activists' tactical approach has changed. By early 2000 they had adopted the policy of "active calm" (aramesh-e faal), to avoid a violent crackdown by the security forces and their vigilante allies. By March there were calls for a boycott of the presidential election from a wing of the Office for Strengthening Unity. In early May, more than 500 critics and dissidents signed a letter saying they will not vote in the June polls. These calls have picked up steam.

Most of the candidates have, at one time or another, met with student groups in an effort to gain their support. Moin is the only candidate who counts on student support, particularly from the majority faction of the Office for Strengthening Unity. The minority faction of the student organization tends to back Karoubi. It is noteworthy that after his candidacy was reinstated, Moin said the Guardians Council actions caused unhappiness in the country, "especially among the students".

Whether or not they boycott the election, opponents of the current setup, including the students, face a no-win situation. The victory of a hardline candidate - and this includes Rafsanjani - is almost certain if most Iranians do not vote, because the hardliners have well-mobilized constituencies. In the absence of neutral election observers, furthermore, the regime can manipulate the figures to show a high turnout, which it will inevitably depict as a sign of its legitimacy and high level of popular support.

Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.

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