That the only real powerhouse in Tehran is the non-elected spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not stopped a crop of candidates from campaigning fiercely for the mostly figurehead presidency in the June 17 election. Even US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice joined the charade; she put off Washington’s decision on measures to stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program until after the poll, although she knows as well as anyone that the election will change very little: the sole arbiter of government and military policies will still be there.
Because Iran’s voters are familiar with this political landscape, turnout for the poll in a week’s time is expected to be lower than ever before in the 27 years since the Islamic revolution.
The outgoing president Mohammed Khatami rode into power with an exceptional 22 million votes because he convinced the country that he would usher in liberal reforms. He had barely sat down in the presidential office, when his powers began walking away. The spiritual ruler immediately grabbed the security forces from the interior ministry. In no time, all matters of national importance were transferred from the government to the arcane Council for Determining the Interests of the Regime – among them, nuclear and missile development and the issue of contacts with the United States.
In his eight years as president, Khatami never got around to a single reform.
Threats to his life put him off protesting the regime’s harsh repressive measures. The strict Council for Preserving the Constitution overturned every new law enacted by parliament (the majlis) to benefit the ordinary Iranian citizen. Finally the majlis was packed with Khamanei’s supporters, who shouted down any measures put forward by the dwindling reformist minority.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that a genuine contest is fragmenting the hard-line fundamentalist camp among rival candidates for the presidency. The single most prominent figure is Hojjat-ol Eslam Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, twice president in the past. He is so sure of victory that he has abstained from traveling around the country and campaigning for votes. National radio and television are in the palm of his hand and foreign media are lining up to interview him.
Rafsanjani secretly solicits support from out-of-favor Montazeri
All the same, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iran experts are not sure he will win the day in the first round of voting, although he has the appeal and charisma to beat any comer in a final round. For the moment, stacked against him is a bevy of runners backed by a very angry Khamenei. In particular, the spiritual ruler is furious over the two acts of defiance he has committed. First, he refused to back down in favor of Khameinei’s favorite Ali Larijani. Second, he was caught surreptitiously soliciting backing from 86-year old Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, who heads a renowned center of learning at the holy Iranian town of Qom.
Montazeri may be likened to Iraq’s most prominent ayatollah Ali Sistani in that his scholarly religious rulings carry more weight than those of any ayatollah alive. But unlike his Iraqi counterpart, he is treated by the regime as an enemy and carries no political weight.
Khomeini placed him under house arrest in the early 1980s. He remains confined ever since for standing up to the Islamic Republic’s repressive practices against individuals and ethnic minorities. The outspoken ayatollah maintains steadfastly that the Muslim faith is based on freedom of the individual and respect for other national groups. While anathamized by the regime, Montazeri’s views make him a much respected and popular figure in the country whose support is valuable.
Rafsanjani asked for Montazeri’s backing as one ethnic Azeri to another; both were born to families hailing from Iranian Azerbaijan. The ayatollah dropped the word to disciples to signal his support for his candidacy.
Larijani, former director general of Iran’s broadcasting authority and latterly adviser to Khamenei, campaigns on an extreme anti-US ticket. Another contestant, Mohsen Rezai, ex-commander of the ferocious Revolutionary Guards (Pazdaran), openly advocates talks with the United States and the resumption of relations.
Another strong contender is Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, who resigned as commander of security forces to run for election. He is best known for the raid he commanded five years ago on Tehran University student dormitories in a harsh crackdown against demonstrators calling for reforms. This has not prevented him from campaigning for greater freedom and benefits for young people.
All the candidates pledge strong action to defeat poverty, discrimination and corruption, if they are elected. Larijani declared: I will draw a red line on these three blights and sack corrupt officials. Ghalibaf speaks openly of senior regime officials trafficking in smuggled goods and accepting kickbacks.
All candidates support nuclear development
They are all working hard to scare voters into turning out with threats that a ballot boycott would suit the enemies of the regime, such as America and Israel. Overseas dissidents are presented as attempting to sway voters in the American interest. Khamenei has told Iranians citizens that it is their duty to vote and confound the machinations of enemies of the state.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts do not expect Iranian voters to be overly impressed by these injunctions.
Round-the-clock Farsi broadcasts beamed to Iran from Los Angeles, California, are busy drumming up a voters’ boycott. HAKHA TV advises voters to pour into the street the day before the ballot and stay home when the stations open. This would show the many foreign correspondents covering the election the real mood of the country and its loathing of the regime. Inside Iran, the only body venturing to call openly for a voters’ strike are the students.
One of the candidates Mostafa Mo-In, the only serious contender on a reform ticket, is focusing on minorities. He has made speeches praising Kurds, Balochis, Arabic speakers, and Azeris as well as Bakhtiyari and Lor tribes, in contrast to heads of the Iranian regime who ignore Iran’s ethnic plurality. Mo-In has also directed appeals to women-voters, to young people voting for the first time, hospital nurses and freethinkers, treating them as disadvantaged segments of society whose lot he promises to improve.
Mohsein Rezai has also made a bid for the women’s vote and pledged to appoint a woman foreign minister to stand up to America’s Rice.
Two common themes run through the campaigns of all Iran’s presidential hopefuls: support for the national nuclear program, and hostility for the Jewish state combined with sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
Rafsanjani-Khameini Tug-o’-war predicted
Otherwise, political divisions in Iran run so deep that even the camp calling itself Seekers of Democracy was unable to unite behind the candidate closest to their views, Mostafa Mo-In.
Wherever they stand on the issues, all the candidates are borrowing electioneering stunts from Western democracies such as hired television camera teams to run off publicity films. Nonetheless the man and woman in the Iranian street remain unmoved by the prospect of an election, certain that whoever wins, their lives will not change for the better.
The political question dominating the election is this: How will Rafsanjani, if he wins the election, get along with the autocratic Khamenei? As elected president, he is sure to put up a fight to restore the executive powers stripped from his predecessor eight years ago. He will not achieve this unchallenged.
Both leaders were reared in the same revolutionary hothouse; both are exceedingly ambitious and experienced political infighters. Rafsanjani, however, always appreciated his limits and knew when to pull back. In recent years, he served Khamenei as close adviser, but then he was passed over in favor of Larijani as the ruler’s favorite for the presidency. The falling-out appears to be serious. Of late, Khamenei’s fundamentalist adherents have been spreading rumors about the Rafsanjani clan’s inordinate wealth.
The date of the second round of a presidential election is not prescribed by the Iranian constitution. It is generally expected to take place a month after the first – that is in the second half of July.