Tuesday, June 21, 2005

POLITICS-IRAN: Reformers Struggle to Beat Back Hardliner By Whine After They Lose

POLITICS-IRAN: Reformers Struggle to Beat Back Hardliner: "POLITICS-IRAN:
Reformers Struggle to Beat Back Hardliner
Saloumeh Peyman

TEHRAN, Jun 20 (IPS) - Iran's defeated reform candidates and their backers are warning of "fascist footsteps approaching" after a hard-line choice beat them out for a place in this week's run-off presidential election.

The 4.7 million votes received by Tehran Mayor Dr Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad, about 20 percent of around 29 million votes cast Friday, has shocked many middle-class Iranians. He finished secondly only to former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is known as a supporter of the status quo.

The two will face-off in a second vote on Friday.

The defeat of Mostafa Moa'n, the leading reform candidate in the eight-man field, was an unexpected blow to his backers, who saw him running close behind Rafsanjani before polls opened Friday. IPS phoned several of Moa'n's campaigns officers after the results came in, but found all of them too disappointed to talk in length.

Esa Sahr Khiz, the reformist journalist who headed the Moa'n campaign, released a statement attributing the defeat to the "conspiracy of militia and vigilante groups". Moa'n and a second reform candidate, Mahdi Karrubi, issued separate statements to warn Iranians "fascism's footsteps can be heard".

The reformist camp is now desperately trying to bring at least 12 million votes to Rafsanjani, as the supporters of two other defeated hard-line candidates are urging their sympathizers to vote for Ahmadinedjad, whose base is a nationwide network of mosques, vigilante groups and Basij (volunteer forces) militia..

Many supporters of Karrubi, the former speaker who finished third with less than four million votes, took to downtown streets near the former U.S. embassy Saturday night to protest what they called "Basij militia and vigilantes' direct involvement in polling, (vote) rigging or vote manipulation".

In an open letter to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenie, on Saturday, Karrubi resigned his position on the State Expediency Council as a protest against what he called a "coup d'etat-like plot" for buying votes by (a) part of the revolutionary guard corps and the Basij.

Interestingly, Rafsanjani endorsed Karrubi's protest and warned, "an extremist reading of Islam is emerging in Iranian politics".

But one frustrated analyst and backer of current President Mohamad Khatami told Baztab.com (Persian news service) that while "Khatami received 42 million votes in two four-year terms due to his integrity, honesty and merits, the two claimants of reformism, Moa'n and Karrubi, together could not receive more than four million votes, therefore the new claimants of reform did not deserve the votes of the people."

The Rafsanjani camp is predicting a gloomy future in the event that Ahmadinedjad becomes president, for example spreading the rumour that he will segregate public parks (for men and women) and bury the remains of the soldiers killed in the eight-year war against Iraq in public places.

Some analysts believe such a strategy will succeed and will spur a vote shift toward Rafsanjani among the middle class.

"Honestly speaking, although I hate Rafsanjani too, I might vote for him to ward off the danger of Ahmadinedjad's presidency. I am sure the mayor will put us under 'chador' (the full-length dark veil)," said Ziba Shirzad, 24, an electronics engineer who boycotted the first round of voting.

Friday's result was a blow to activists who urged Iranians not to vote, in hopes that such an act would accelerate the collapse of the system created after the country's 1979 Islamic revolution.

According to the interior ministry, about 63 percent of eligible voters above 15 years of age took part in the election. "To my dismay, the majority of eligible people voted -- there is no hope for democratic change in our country," Zozan M, 24, a dental secretary in the well-to-do area in the north of the capital Tehran, told IPS.

"I followed the 'No Vote' campaign advocated by unlawful opposition groups both at home and abroad, but it seems we have been defeated too," she added.

Like many people IPS spoke to for this story, Zozan did not want to give her full name.

Amir Kavian, 43, has been jailed as a prisoner of conscience during Khatami's presidency and was one of the signatories of a petition for boycotting the election. He says the high voter turnout will not prevent the inevitable.

"All of the seven candidates were unable to address the deep-rooted problems in Iranian social, economic and political spheres. In fact, I am happy that the regime will be more monolithic and as a result, headed for doom," he said in an interview.

Some analysts believe that Karrubi's supporters may again take to the streets and that there is a likelihood of street clashes between them and vigilante and militia groups.

Around midnight Saturday the militia supporting Ahmadinedjad spilled into the streets in the eastern area of Tehran to celebrate their favourite candidate's achievement of finishing a close second to Rafsanjani, a well-seasoned mullah and politician.

"If (Ahmadinedjad) becomes president, Enshaallah (God willing) the lofty ideals of the Islamic revolution will be revived and he will fight against injustice, corruption and discrimination," said Ali Reza Hussainabadi, 23, a bearded man selling Islamic CDs and cassettes opposite Tehran University.

Ahmadinedjad issued a statement thanking God and his rivals and adding, " I am not a member of any political party or institute.. I simply rely on God, the wise supreme leader, and the grassroots people and campaign for justice and removing discrimination and alleviating poverty."

Some reformists believe Ahmadinedjad is the man to put Iran on a collision course with the administration of U.S. President George W Bush. "If he becomes president, he will not only not negotiate with America but also speed up the uranium enrichment process," said political activist Ehsan K, 26.

Gholam eza Agazadeh, the president of the Iranian Nuclear Agency, openly expressed his opinion that "only Mr Rafsanjani is capable of settling the dispute over the nuclear issue".

Added Hasan Rouhani, the chief negotiator of the Iranian delegation in nuclear talks, "we cannot deny that the future president's personality will have an impact on the process of negotiation, though the whole nuclear issue is decided by the consensus of all top leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran".

Ahmad Azimi has two children, both studying in the United States. "I think if Rafsanjani is in the presidential office, he'll be able to settle the dispute over the nuclear issue and uranium enrichment. Even if any compromise is needed, he has the guts to sell it to the people and persuade the radical supreme leader," he told IPS. (END/2005)"