Beset by controversy with the West over its nuclear weapons program, Iran’s fundamentalist rulers must dream up new tricks to get the vote out for a successor to Mohammad Khatami, who completes his second term in four months.
Eight years ago, Iranian voters were lured to the polls by the promise of a reform candidate. Khatami was elected by an overwhelming majority of 22 million ballots. However, he failed to deliver on his grand promises, and reform-minded Iranian voters burned once will be leery of any new candidates claiming to champion reforms.
The candidacy of Hojjat-Ol Eslam Mahdi Karrubi, speaker of Iran’s parliament, therefore faces the uphill task of winning the people’s trust. He started out this week by admitting he was aware of the high hopes raised by Khatami’s promises of reforms. But the candidate stopped short of finishing the thought, that these hopes kept the Iranian masses docile and averted uprisings. All he promised was that he would not be a pushover like the incumbent and would press for full presidential powers.
Karrubi may claim to lead the pro-reform camp, but his record tells a different tale. Back in 1979, he served Islamic republic founder Khomeini as ringleader of the radical students who seized the American embassy in Tehran. He later took part in the secret guns-for-hostages “Irangate” negotiations with White House aide Colonel Oliver North and Admiral John Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan‘s national security adviser.
In his four years as parliamentary speaker, Karrubi successfully tacked back and forth between reformists and hardliners. Now, he believes he has a real shot at the presidency. But, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iran experts, Karrubi’s shortcoming is his lack of popularity among young Iranians who make up more than 60 percent of the electorate.
Mostafa Moin, a former education and cultural minister in Khatami’s government, who was purged by the radicals, is another reformist hopeful. His trouble is his colorless image and lack of support aside from the president’s brother, Mohammad-Reza Khatami, leader of the Mosharekat party.
Incredibly, Iran’s unelected strongman and “spiritual leader” Ali Khamenei has planted his brother Hojjat-Ol Eslam Hadi Khamenei, in the so-called reformist camp (sic) and told him to back Karrubi. This camp may try to line up behind a single candidate, probably Karrubi, although its reformist pretensions are unlikely to impress the long-suffering electorate.
A surfeit of radical candidates
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Tehran, the openly radical camp is also badly divided, hard put to choose among five candidates.
The frontrunner is ex-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Khamenei. He is a tough anti-American advocate and a hawk on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
The other four are:
· Ali Larijani, a former state radio and television director who won distinction for censoring out all references to Khatami and his feeble reforms. A live wire, his own speeches receive blanket coverage on the airwaves.
· Mohsen Rezai, chairman of the all-powerful (unelected) Expediency Council and a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. Rather more moderate on relations with the United States, he is hardly likely to win the backing of the hardliners. (Ankara has its own view on this candidate as reported in a separate article in this issue.)
· Hojjat-Ol Eslam Hassan Rouhani, who leads Iran’s delegation at the International Atomic Energy Agency and its negotiating team with the IAEA and the European Union.
· Ahmad Tavakkoli, the weakest of the five.
Before picking their presidential candidate, Iran’s ruling extremists are awaiting a decision from Hojjat-Ol Eslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, himself a former president and second only to Khamenei in Tehran’s power stakes. But Rafsanjani was stung painfully by fellow hardliners when he signaled he might seek the office again.
The radicals’ allegations against Rafsanjani, seen in the West as a pragmatist, were never disclosed publicly, but our sources report they were linked to two issues: financial corruption in his family – mainly his sons’ illegal business dealings with the West; and his women’s rights-crusading daughter, Faezeh. She is “accused” of delivering notorious feminist speeches as a legislator 10 years ago. Nonetheless, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources believe all his rivals will withdraw if he decides to run. He has already promised Velayati and Larijani plum positions and generous budgets in return for dropping their candidacy.
Rising clamor to amend Islamic constitution
The issue of voter turnout is becoming more acute amid a spreading popular demand for a boycott of the election. Outgoing president Khatami has ended eight years in power looking like a rubber stamp for policies hatched by unelected clerical dictators.
Responding to the vox populi, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, a popular prime minister during the war with Iraq, rejected a call by the so-called reformist camp to accept its nomination.
Boycott-minded Iranians are preparing as an alternative to a meaningless election a proposal for a national referendum on amendments to the Islamic constitution which grants supreme powers to religion above elected authority.
Referendum advocates include prominent political prisoner Nasser Zar-Afshan, a defense lawyer for the families of dissidents executed by the clerical regime. The pro-referendum camp seeks a vote on a constitution based on the UN Human Rights Charter under international auspices. This formulation sidesteps any dangerous calls for direct regime change, which this group hopes to achieve by peaceful means.
The Islamic regime is not seriously expected to adopt the referendum proposal because it would expose its lack of popular support and whip up greater pressure for democracy.
Although beset by its own electoral problems, Tehran is not averse to subversive meddling in foreign democratic processes, those taking place in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. It has in fact become a stamping ground for a procession of foreign seekers of influence.
Ahmed Chalabi, Iraqi National Congress leader, has been accused by the Iyad Allawi government and the Americans of passing information to the Iranians. He has admitted to having visited Tehran secretly, but claimed he went for consultations at the request of the Baghdad government.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, chairman of the former Iran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and the heads of the two Iraqi Shiite parties, Ad-Dawa and Hezb-Allah of Iraq, also paid visits.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the Iranian capital learn that top Palestinian official Farouk al-Kaddoumi also held secret talks in Teheran in the last week of December.
His longest meeting was with Baqer Zolqadr, deputy commander of the militant Revolutionary Guards who runs Iran’s terror machine.