Archive for the ‘Iranian elections’ Category

Can Iran Change?

April 8, 2009



Ever since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first ran for President of Iran, four years ago, he has shown a canny understanding of communications. He has a blog, called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Personal Memos, in which he expounds on God, philosophy, and his childhood, and answers e-mails from readers. The signature videos for his 2005 Presidential campaign were two thirty-minute productions that expertly portrayed him as a man of the people. In one scene, Ahmadinejad is in line for lunch at a self-service canteen; in another, he walks among the poor. The videos were aired on television repeatedly. The campaign tagline was “It’s doable—and we can do it.”

The videos were conceived and produced by Javad Shamaqdari, a burly, bearded man who is the President’s “art adviser.” continue reading…



In the tumultuous story of Iran’s twenty-nine-year-old Islamic Republic, the battle over free speech has captured the world’s imagination, but the debate over free markets goes just as deep. Since the revolution, most industries in Iran have been owned either by the state or by enormous Islamic foundations. Inefficiencies are rampant. Iran’s economy is sustained almost entirely by oil; now that oil prices have fallen steeply, a crisis looms. Since the early eighties, Mohammad Tabibian and other trained economists have advised the government to dismantle trade barriers, drop price controls, and force companies to compete or perish. continue reading…

The Sequel

March 26, 2009

Hot times and cool heads

March 24, 2009

In an unprecedented step, Ayatollah Khamenei responds to President Obama’s Nowruz message himself. Pictured above, before a gathering in Mashhad, his hometown, on the first day of Nowruz. Photo/

As Ayatollah Khamenei endorses possible talks with the United States, Iran’s pragmatic conservatives hope the presidential election will help trim Ahmadinejad’s international role.

Tehran Bureau | election coverage

There are many asymmetries in the U.S.-Iran relationship. The United States is a huge military power and a massive economy. Iranians have a sense of history and geography that Americans simply do not understand.

And there is another asymmetry, at least for now. Barack Obama is a new president elected on a slogan of change — while Iran is approaching a presidential election in June.

The interplay between the international situation and Iranian domestic politics is exorcising the minds of many in Iran’s political class as they contemplate the possibility of talks with Washington.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s measured, and near instant, response to president Obama’s video message to Iranians has signaled that Iran is open to dialogue. Tehran, said the supreme leader, is willing to change if the United States does. This is now well understood in Iran, even if many western commentators claimed Ayatollah Khamenei had “dismissed” Obama’s overture.

For Iran’s pragmatic conservatives, the prospect of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being involved in such a dialogue is an uncomfortable one. This partly explains the current talk in Tehran of broadening out the government after June’s election.

The idea of a “unity” government seems to have originated with Mohsen Rezaie, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, but was taken up last week by Ali Larijani, the parliamentary speaker, who is fast becoming the bête noire of Ahmadinejad supporters.

The experienced hands in Iran’s political class know very well that the maneuvering in the new international situation requires diplomacy and calm heads (even though Iran’s approach will continue to be set by the leadership group, in which Ayatollah Khamenei is pre-eminent). Those acting for Iran should therefore be experienced, trustworthy and reliable.

Ahmadinejad and his closest allies, like Mojtaba Hashemi-Samareh, do not fit the bill. For many regime insiders, talks with the United States should be handled by seasoned hands — the likes of Hassan Rowhani, the former top security official, Larijani or even Rezaie.

Such pragmatic conservatives probably consider it is likely Ahmadinejad will continue as president after June, but they want him as hemmed in as possible. They would welcome a broader range of ministers in domestic portfolios, and they would also like to ensure that what they see as Ahmadinejad’s excitability and populism do not affect Iran’s diplomacy.

In essence, this reflects the dilemma Ahmadinejad has posed for them, and indeed for Ayatollah Khamenei, since he came to office.

On the one hand, Ahmadinejad invigorated Iran’s politics. The 2005 election confounded those expecting a low turnout and showed that a fundamentalist, loyal to the ideals of the 1979 revolution, could appeal to the people.

As president, Ahmadinejad has reached out to every corner or Iran through high-profile trips and made the nuclear programme into a popular mission with an appeal throughout the Muslim world.

But on the other hand, Iran finds itself in a delicate period, potentially more dangerous than at any time since the 1979 Revolution. Washington under Obama may be ready for compromise over the nuclear issue — or it may be ready for further sanctions or even military attacks. And so Ahmadinejad’s radicalism needs to be managed.

The president himself was clearly hoping to breeze through the election campaign by attacking Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president. The spectre of Khatami sparking “social unrest” — as in his previous presidency — was a nightmare for many fundamentalists and was driving them behind Ahmadinejad.

But Khatami’s withdrawal removed a negative pressure for unity in the fundamentalist, or principle-ist, camp. It eased political tension.

It is now more likely that another fundamentalist candidate — possibly Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s mayor — could run, or that some price can be extracted from Ahmadinejad for avoiding such a challenge.

These are busy days for the president. At the same time as dealing with conservative critics, Ahmadinejad needs a new plan to defeat the two surviving reformist candidates, Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, both of whom will emphasize day-to-day economic issues rather than Khatami’s “social freedom.” Mousavi is arguing for a kind of “third way” between reformism and fundamentalism, an Islamist version of the Blairite-Clintonesque appeal for the center ground.

As he struggles also to get his budget through parliament, Ahmadinejad has his hands full. His conservative critics hope they will be so full that he will have to keep them away from where they are not wanted.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

And then there were two

March 18, 2009

Khatami’s withdrawal from the election campaign is bad news for Ahmadinejad.

Middle East

Tehran Bureau | election coverage

The withdrawal of Mohammad Khatami from Iran’s presidential election has disappointed those relishing a Manichean struggle between the forces of light and darkness.

On both sides of the political spectrum, there is frantic readjustment going on. Supporters of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suddenly need a new strategy, one that does not rely on attacking Khatami as a Trojan horse who would willingly or unwillingly undermine the Islamic Republic.

The president’s backers were delighted back in February when Khatami announced his candidacy. Memories of student unrest during Khatami’s presidency of 1997-2005 would, they thought, help rally principlists behind Ahmadinejad, while Khatami’s personal weakness would see him wilt in the heat of political battle.

Now, pressure for unity in the fundamentalist camp has eased. This increases the chances that Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s mayor, will run rather than bide his time for a challenge in 2013. It certainly raises the price Ghalibaf can ask for allowing Ahmadinejad a clear run.

On the other side of the spectrum, radical reformists are just as wrong-footed by Khatami’s withdrawal, with some arguing that Mir Hossein Mousavi, whom Khatami has backed, is not really a reformist at all.

Radical student activists in Tehran hoped a Khatami campaign would give them a focus to demand greater social freedom; and they do not feel any enthusiasm for Mousavi, whom many do not remember as prime minister in the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

But is Mousavi less likely than Khatami to win? Many conservatives have long regarded Mousavi as the more dangerous opponent.

For them, Khatami’s day had passed. As a cleric in a black turban marking descent from the Prophet Mohammad, he was an inspired reformist choice to run for president in 1997. Charming, well-dressed and erudite, he passed Guardian Council vetting and beat his right-wing rival by 13 million votes.

But conservatives later argued Khatami was a safety valve, with his appeal to the young protecting the Islamic Republic in the face of student-led unrest. “Mr Khatami came to cool down their exuberance — to curb their demands by partly meeting them,” said Reza Tarraqi, a leading member of Jamiate Moutalefeye Eslami (the Islamic Coalition Association) in 2004. “He articulated their wishes with ambiguous slogans like freedom, reform, civil society.”

Such slogans also appealed to western observers, and it should be no surprise that many now argue Khatami’s withdrawal from the presidential elections is a bonus for Ahmadinejad.

This is clearly not Khatami’s own view. As Mohammad Atrianfar, former editor of the reformist Shargh newspaper and previously an advocate of Khatami’s candidacy, put it, the cleric from Yazd faced two options: he could run for the presidency and face “heavy political attacks without achieving real changes” or he could back Mousavi “who might implement less reforms but has more chance of being elected.”

Away from the “chattering classes” of Tehran and the more radical university campuses, Mousavi’s egalitarian outlook is more likely to appeal to voters than Khatami’s appeals for a “dialogue among civilisations.” As Amir Mohebian, the political editor of Resalat, pointed out some weeks ago, Mousavi is well positioned to challenge president Ahmadinejad’s whole agenda of social justice.

Although Mousavi has been out of the public limelight since the 1980’s, the strict rules giving access to state television during elections will help him get his message across. It should not be forgotten that both Ahmadinejad and Khatami in 2005 and 2007 respectively were relative unknowns when the campaign began.

Even with Khatami out of the race, Mousavi will not carry the reformist banner alone. His meeting on Sunday with Medhi Karrubi has not brought the latter anywhere nearer withdrawal. Karrubi is as thick skinned as former parliamentary speakers tend to be, but he is still hurt by his treatment by fellow reformists at the time of the last election.

In 2005 Moharekat (Participation front), the main reformist party, scoffed at Karrubi’s chances. Its leading members ridiculed as a gimmick his main policy of giving 50,000 tomans ($55) a month to every adult from oil revenue.

Yet Karrubi recognised that the election would turn on everyday economic matters. He out-polled Mosharekat’s candidate Mostafa Moein, who highlighted issues of social freedom and rights for Iran’s ethnic minorities.

Having come third in the poll, behind only Ahmadinejad and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Karrubi was encouraged to establish a new political party, Etemad-e Melli (the National Trust), as an alternative to Mosharekat.

Now, at 71, he is unlikely to easily give up what would presumably be his last crack at the presidency, and he showed in 2005 he could be a wily campaigner.

For Mousavi to beat Ahmadinejad, he must first beat Karrubi.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

The Rise and Fall of Mohammad Khatami (Part 1)

March 16, 2009

Under intense watch: President Mohammad Khatami delivers an electoral address to his supporters at the Shiroudi Stadium in May 2001. Photo/Abbas

Part 1

Tehran Bureau | election coverage

At thirty-five, Ali is too young to remember the 1979 revolution. Because he was four when the Shah fell, he also misses by a technicality the post-revolutionary baby-boom classification, a description that seems to fit him well. The baby boom came about after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Iran and called on the revolutionaries to multiply, to give birth to the future soldiers that would defend the country—and Islam. Many heeded the call. Today, three decades later, about 70 percent of Iran’s 75 million people are under thirty years of age. Shia, but moderate, modern and very well educated, they are a natural antidote to Sunni extremism in the Middle East and Asia—and in that respect, a natural ally to the United States. It was on the force of this generation that the reformist movement came to life.

Ali was born into a very religious Shia family in Tehran. His mother and sisters are chador-clad. His father, a “soft hard-liner,” worked for the government. Unlike the Iranians who fled the revolution en masse, Ali’s family stayed back and helped build the Islamic Republic. Ali is tall and gaunt. Even in appearance—often in a white t-shirt and jeans—he shatters the stereotype of the Iranian man that lingered in my mind for many years: He is neither slick and slathered in cologne, nor does he possess the sallow glow of the clergy-in-waiting type that replaced the disco-decade bourgeoisie.

Ali grew up in a traditional neighborhood, tucked away in the north of the capital. He did well in school and was the first member of his family to attend college. He won a fiercely competitive spot at Tehran University, and pursued training in what is in Iran the most prestigious field: electrical engineering.

He remembers those days at Tehran University, when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was President, as a particularly oppressive time. “It was eerily quiet,” Ali says. “People were dissatisfied, but they didn’t dare speak out. There were no protests. No dissent was tolerated against the government.” The only student upheaval came when Rafsanjani tried to privatize the medical schools, Ali recalls. (Rafsanjani’s nickname was kooseh—shark. That distinction was not meant to reflect Rafsanjani’s predatory nature, but his lack of facial hair. Like a shark, he had only whiskers.) Luckily for Ali and his generation, there was another revolution on the horizon. Even though it was happening far away, it was powerful enough to put a crack in the Rafsanjani armor.

One almost typical day at the university in 1994, a classmate waved Ali over to a computer screen. He had been sitting there himself intently for a stretch. “I have something to show you,” he whispered to Ali, with great conspiratorial excitement.

H-I, the Iranian boy punched into the keyboard.

“Hi,” came the answer, somewhere from America.

Ali smiles wryly as he recounts the moment. It was as if his world had just opened up and another universe had come bounding in. Though only a handful of schools in Iran had a computer terminal then, and virtual chats were confined to techies at other universities (browsers were not yet in popular usage), all this would quickly change. Meanwhile, from the inception of this technology in Iran, Ali sat at the foot of its trickling fountain, drinking as if after a long trek through a vast political desert.

Upon earning a bachelor’s degree, Ali began his studies anew, this time specializing in information systems. Eager to impart his discoveries, and to put the world at other young Iranian fingertips, he published an article about the Internet and dispersed it among college students. What is the Internet, it was called.

Technology is a sign of great advancement among many Iranians. Aghayeh Mohandes—Mr. Engineer—arguably carries more weight than Aghayeh Doctor. Striving to earn that title has filled the country with many engineers (sadly its brightest engineers are also Iran’s greatest export). Iranians are also quite adept at turning disadvantages in their favor. Iran’s isolation in the world and lack of copyright protection, for example, encouraged Iranians to rely on themselves. Textbooks were translated and circulated widely. Source codes were cracked. Software was reverse-engineered, duplicated and sold on the cheap. As the Internet culture boomed in the United States, it did not lag far behind in Iran. And it took hold not only in Tehran, but other far flung provinces of the Islamic Republic, even some remote villages. Most importantly, it provided Iran’s post-Revolutionary generation a vital link to the outside world.

And with that link came an avalanche of news sources, “a smacking towering wall of information,” Ali described in Farsi. Ali began to scale that wall a word at a time, dissecting an interesting article or Web site by the paragraph. He plugged new words and unfamiliar concepts into the search engine, which brought forth more unfamiliar words and more new ideas. And as each new word and idea became the basis on which to launch new searches, layers of the outside world began to peel back.

“Western democracies have had hundreds of years to develop,” Ali says. “For us it came in one blow, with the advent of the Internet.” Though graduating from the university at a time of crippling unemployment, Ali landed a plum government job. “I think I had a novel approach to job hunting,” he says. “I’d say to myself, ‘such and such a place looks good, it’s a big name.’ Then I’d go and plant myself near the building until the president went by. As soon as he did, I’d go up to him and ask for a job.”

In this fashion, scoping the employed passersby, on the hunt for a sympathetic feature that may signal a soul who might hear him out, Ali got his first job at an Iranian television station. He also knew when to hold back. In college he needed to work part-time to support himself. The department head of a prestigious section also ran a government office. “I couldn’t just go up to him during a conference, so I decided to write him a letter,” Ali says. Rather than hand him a letter after a lecture, as a line of other eager students competed for his attention, Ali approached the director’s kindly assistant who took a liking to the industrious young man. “She later called me about an opening they had in one of the government ministries,” he said.

Ali worked at the ministry part-time. Upon graduation he turned it into a full-time job. His first project was the ministry’s library, which had only a small collection of books. His job was to expand it and to computerize their acquisition system. To do that, he needed to plug the ministry into the Information Age.

“For the first time in the history of the ministry, I put them in contact with foreign publishers. I bought a lot of foreign books, as well as domestic ones,” he said.

Ali had an email account since 1994, but he became much more internet proficient while bringing the ministry up to date. Chat rooms, which initially had a lure, were unable to hold his interest for very long.

“Someone would ask me ‘Where are you?’ I would answer, ‘In Iran.’ The guy would then ask, ‘Where is that?’ I would say, ‘In the Middle East,’ but that didn’t seem to give him a point of reference either.”

Ali used his time online paging through news sites and researching foreign universities. He wanted, quite literally, to go where his browser went. He had been appointed project manager of an information systems project and had in his new post gained an interest in business management. Business was a widely undeveloped field in Iran and Ali wanted to be equipped with all the most sophisticated tools. So he continued to cast his net further—eventually finding his way to the United States.

He was admitted to a prestigious university, where he earned a degree in management. The more he studied business though, the more he felt himself gravitating toward politics. Upon finishing his degree, he started another degree in politics. But even then, he never confined himself to that program. Any chance he got, he crashed courses in other departments.


Mohammad is thirty-five years old as well. And like Ali, he was born into a religious family. His even played leading roles in the revolution. “My father wasn’t as religious as his family,” Mohammad says. To separate himself and his family from the more fundamentalist influences that shaped his own life, Mohammad says his father moved his wife, daughter and two sons from a predominantly working class neighborhood in central Tehran, to the north of the city, where Mohammad grew up among more affluent Iranians.

Even so, from the beginning of his education, Mohammad was shipped off to a private religious school, where he got a solid grounding in Shiism. In high school, Mohammad looked up to a science teacher, who also became his adviser. The teacher described his former pupil to me in a phone interview as “free, wild and creative.” “He wasn’t closed-minded,” said the teacher. “He couldn’t be put in a mold. He was always looking for new venues.”

Upon entering high school, Iranian students must pick a concentration. The brightest students study math to become engineers. Natural science is also very popular because it can lead to a medical career. Students on the verge of failing are relegated to the liberal arts. When Mohammad expressed an interest in studying English, his adviser encouraged him because he knew it would be useful. But, “when he said he wanted to study sociology, I gave him a warning,” he said. “It’s not like engineering, where you can line your pockets with money and make a comfortable living.”

In his senior year, Mohammad quit the religious school and enrolled in a regular public school. The next year, he graduated from high school and placed in the top 1 percent of students taking the liberal arts concours, the national university entrance exam named after its French counterpart. “That standing gave Mohammad his choice of top schools, and an opportunity to receive an education in a prestigious field,” his friend Saeed said in a telephone interview from Iran. But Mohammad could not be swayed.

He considered politics, but to major in political science meant studying the subject in a vacuum, Mohammad said. Sociology, on the other hand, was dynamic, a field of study drawing from several disciplines, he said. And why go to a top school to impress anyone? He had other priorities.

“Tehran University is in a dirty and crowded part of the city,” he said. “It required a one-hour commute every day. Metros didn’t exist [in Tehran] then. I had to take the bus and taxis. I didn’t need the hassle.” He opted for an Azad, or an “open” admissions university. Like an American community college, the academic requirement for getting in is quite lax. But it’s not inexpensive. Mohammad picked a private university because he wanted to operate on his own timetable. And, “It was so pretty there, full of trees,” he said. “But the sociology department sucked. The sociology department was so bad I became a little hopeless.”

Mohammad was thrown out after six years. Though he had completed two-thirds of his studies, no student may matriculate beyond that time. He had a high A average after his first semester, but his grades had quickly plummeted. “I did really well on the concours because I was motivated. I wanted to prove to everyone that I was smart,” he explained. “I was also competing against a lot of lazy students.”

Like Ali, and scores of others in his generation, Mohammad found solace in computers and the Internet. After he was expelled from school, he founded a web design firm with a friend. A few years later he got married and moved overseas, “because we could,” Mohammad said, “not for political or economic reasons. It was just because it was something new to do.”

Poster Wars

Mohammad first read about Mohammad Khatami when he was the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. While there, Khatami had drawn the ire of Islamists by championing Iran’s new filmmakers then coming into prominence. Two former architect students were behind Iran’s new cinema wave, Mohammad explains as we sit to tea one evening. The pair enjoyed a close relationship with Mir Hossein Mousavi, prime minister of Iran during the 1980’s, and a close confidante to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khatami was one of Moosavi’s ministers. Through Khatami’s support, these two filmmakers were given some space to develop Iranian cinema in their own vision, said Mohammad. This appalled the conservatives. “The Hezbollahis didn’t like the bleak, abstract outlook of these art films,” Mohammad said. And at one point he read that Khatami had quit his post.

Mohammad never heard of Khatami again until his name was floated as a presidential candidate in the Iranian presidential elections of 1997.


Much of life in Iran takes place behind closed doors and locked gates. Walls wind through much of the capital and the provinces, guarding the rhythms of private life, cloaking rose gardens and the many things that may be labeled a deviance by the Islamic Republic. In the months leading to the 1997 presidential election, Mohammad recalls walking out of the family compound to a blitz of posters of frontrunner Ali Akbar Nategh-Noori, speaker of the Majlis, which were plastered outside all the walls.

“There’s no door-to-door canvassing like there is here,” Mohammad said. “There’s no TV advertising either. The only similarity is the scale of advertising—in terms of billboards and posters. The main drive is word of mouth, information passed on in taxi cabs, mosques, at work, homes, universities.”

Using his power base as speaker of the Parliament, Nateq-Noori was campaigning on promises to improve the economy, and to “keep away the United States and enforce stricter Islamic law,” the New York Times reported. Khatami “the leading underdog,” it said, was pledging “more personal freedoms, more jobs and no more male supremacy.”

“On television, they constantly broadcast pictures of Nategh-Noori going here and there, taking part in ceremonies,” Mohammad said. “It was basically screaming from every door and wall that we should vote for Nategh-Noori. And it got to a point where Ayatollah Khamanei came on TV and said everyone knows who the maslah—the better one—is. Everyone understood that to mean we were supposed to vote for Nategh-Noori.”

But to Iran’s suppressed youth, teeming with testosterone, armed with satellite TV and the internet, there was no competition between the two candidates. To Iran’s persecuted second-class citizens—women—the tremendous support of the conservatives for Nateq-Noori was the strongest reason to vote for any other candidate.

Though Nateq-Noori posters outnumbered Khatami’s by a ratio of 10 to 1, Mohammad said Khatami’s posters were superior. “Khatami had glasses on, the other one didn’t,” Mohammad said. “Khatami’s glasses were key. Later in the campaign, [Noori] also adopted glasses—fake prescription glasses—to appear attractive to women and students.”

Mohammad laughs.

Khatami, “he had a poster like this,” Mohammad said, posing with his chin resting on his hands. “Khatami had great photographers. His posters had a black background. He always had a smile, a big smile that showed off his teeth. Mullahs don’t show their teeth when they smile. At most, they manage something like this,” he said clasping his lips together and faintly turning curving the corners. “Nategh-Noori’s photos were boring—just like photos of the shahs.”


Ali’s recollections of the 1997 presidential campaign are very similar.

“Two months before Khatami was elected, everyone thought Nateq-Noori was going to win, everyone from the BBC and the national press on down,” Ali said. “Noori went to many different cities and towns. He was so well known and so famous that Khatami was just viewed as this mohreh”—a dispensable piece in a chess game.

Campaigning didn’t mean anything until then, not in a Western sense. There was no base that could hire 5,000 people and mobilize them. Any gathering was khod-joosh—simultaneous in a sense, Ali explained. People would seek out pictures of Khatami on their own and spread them around. “It was all very primitive,” he said. “You didn’t know where to go and get these posters. We had no idea where the headquarters were. All of a sudden a friend would show up from somewhere with a stack of Khatami posters.”

One day a stack of these posters found their way to Ali and his friends. They took them back to their neighborhood. “Everyday I would hang a poster of Khatami on our front gate. The next morning it would have a tear in it. I’d put up a new poster, and I’d find it torn again the next day,” he said.

Well aware that word of mouth was the ultimately engine that drove the campaign, Ali set out to do a lot of talking. “I didn’t bother with urban dwellers and university students,” he said. “We were already like-minded. I worked the peripheries, the ‘quiet places’ where many had perhaps not have heard much about Khatami.”

Any relative he could engage in a conversation, he engaged in a debate about the presidential election. “‘Who are you voting for? Why aren’t you voting?’ I would ask.”

Before Khomeini came to power in 1979, rumors spread that electricity and public transportation would be provided for free to the poor. “During the Khatami campaign the rumor was that if he wins, meat”—chunks of meat in thick Persian stew is an indication of a household’s wealth—“would become cheaper,” Ali said. “It’s ridiculous. But when I was sitting there listening to this, I thought, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ but I didn’t say anything. When you’re campaigning, you don’t say, ‘No, no, no, this isn’t so.’ But now I think you should spell these things out for people: If the administration changes, meat is not going to be half price. It may be more expensive.”

Still, “there was something significant about those debates,” he recalls, and “when you went to the parks, there were beautiful girls passing flowers and [pro-Khatami] flyers to passing motorists. These were all significant events. They marked publicly the emergence of a new force, a shift in society.”

Separately, Mohammad adds, “It was a lot like the Howard Dean campaign—anti-establishment, grass-roots, and with no real party backing. It was the hip thing to support Khatami and that’s why a lot of people got involved in politics. Lots of young people had posters of Khatami on their car windows and drove around picking up girls.


According to Mohammad, the government conducts polls in secret, and based on those predictors during the 1997 campaign, the conservative camp sensed doom.

“There were a few polls out toward the end of the campaign—we didn’t know it then, we found out later—that showed Nategh-Noori losing. There are polls in Iran, but they’re confidential. Sometimes certain newspapers with close government sources will reveal something. But polls are generally taken in secret.

Mohammad continues, “Voting was a few days after Ashoora”—a solemn religious holiday where Shiites commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein. “So the right-wing, the Hezbollahis, gathered a bunch of soo-sool boys”—metrosexual types—“supplied them with posters of Khatami to wave, then had them go out to play music and make a lot of noise on Ashoora. They had the girls with them act immodestly. It was supposed to turn off a lot of the religious types that were leaning toward Khatami.

“They filmed a lot of the things [this group] did and broadcast it on the news. I remember seeing it. When they wanted to give a roundup of the Khatami campaign, they showed those scenes. They kept showing a girl leaning out a window. The girls, wearing thick makeup, and in short manteaux, had kerchiefs running down their heads, and were yelling, Khatami! They wanted to say, ‘Look at the [corrupt] types supporting Khatami.’ They wanted Khatami himself to come out and tell these people to stop, therefore turning off the young people. Many people thought this was all genuine. Later we found out it was staged by the right-wing. The reformers, the Khatami people, later exposed them.”

The reformist newspaper Salaam had come out the day before the election and announced a Khatami win, Mohammad remembers. “It’s not a paper I read then, but it came out and said Khatami was winning. I didn’t believe it.”

Ali was just as incredulous.

“Up to two weeks before the elections, I sometimes thought it was going to be a farce like the previous elections,” Ali said. “But all of a sudden the students started holding discussions, engaging with the public.”

During this time, newspaper kiosks pulsed with new life. Ali went to the newsstands every afternoon and picked papers like wildflowers from a field. He piled a stack of them into his arms and hurried home to bask in every line.

“One week before the election, there was a certain energy in the city,” he said. “At moments it felt like this may really happen. Even so, until the last moment it wasn’t 100 percent that Khatami would win. Nobody believed it.

“Two days before the election, Resalat newspaper carried on its front page a political forecast that the conservatives would win in every town and city—except Yazd, which is Khatami’s hometown.

“Everyone was sure Noori was going to win. Even on the day I went to vote, my friend and I could only dream of a Khatami win. As we were walking to the polls, we entertained fantasies of Nateq-Noori failing to get the votes to sweep the election and we would have to move to a second phase. Though we were among the optimistic, a Khatami win was still an unattainable dream to us.”

“Those who were conducting polls knew Khatami would be elected. Salaam newspaper, which supported Khatami, published a big photograph of Khatami the day before the election with a banner headline that read Salaam bar Khatami”—Hello, or Peace be upon Khatami.

On the morning of the election, Mohammad and a friend went to the polls near his house. “There were a lot of religious people there, a lot of young people, of course, and surprisingly a lot of chic women, too. All had turned out to vote for Khatami—all of them. This was such a great opportunity to say, ‘Mr. Khamanei, we desperately need a change.’ The vote was a message to Khamanei more than anything else.

That morning, Ali had an information systems exam. “At 8 in the morning, I still had no news,” he said. “At 10 a.m., when I left class, the radio announced that in the votes counted so far 6 million were in favor of Khatami, 2 million in favor of Nateq-Noori. It was obvious Khatami was going to win then. It was quite sweet.”

At 9 p.m., when Khatami was officially announced the winner, Mohammad and his friend got in the car and headed jubilantly toward the center of Tehran. “People appeared to be more or less excited,” he said. “Some honked their car horns.”

“Around Taghteh Tavoos,”—a major thoroughfare—“we stopped. We saw a Japanese reporter interviewing someone. I got out of the car to tell this [reporter] how excited we were. We had just won! It was as if we had won a soccer match. All of a sudden though, a Hezbollahi van pulled up and a group of these mean-looking types got out. They were headed for the Japanese guy. We fled. I don’t know what became of that poor guy.”

Mohammad pauses for a moment.

When at the end of the campaign the mille-fueille of posters came down, they were in themselves as thick as a wall, he says, demonstrating the width of the paper wall with a stretch of his thumb and forefinger.

To be continued.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

Will the Principlists rally behind Ahmadinejad?

March 15, 2009

As the June 12 presidential election draws nearer, there is sudden talk of ‘unity’ in the fundamentalist camp

Middle East
Tehran Bureau | election coverage

Once Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the 2005 presidential election, it was easy to forget the fear among fundamentalists during the campaign that their divisions would bring defeat.

For even when Mohsen Rezaei, the former Revolutionary Guards commander, withdrew just two days before the poll, there were still three candidates left who saw themselves as “principle-ists” or fundamentalists.

As many feared, the vote split between them. But as many hoped, Ahmadinejad had just enough votes to beat three reformists and pass through to the run-off ballot when he trounced Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In office, Ahmadinejad has done little to unify the fundamentalist camp, preferring outreach with ordinary Iranians through provincial tours to bridge-building in Tehran.

His choice of ministers and conduct of government business has often alienated people who should be allies. He annoyed senior clergy in Qom by failure to consult them over decisions including the admission of women to football matches.

And president Ahmadinejad has faced growing difficulty gaining support in parliament. Conservative control of both the presidency and the Majlis has brought not agreed, coherent policies but rather a roller-coaster of spending buoyed by rising oil prices and now followed by sudden retrenchment.

Indeed, next year’s budget is still stuck with deputies, along with the president’s plan to phase out costly universal subsidies, even though the new Iranian year is just days away.

Ahmadinejad is vulnerable on the economy – after all, he won in 2005 on a slogan of “putting oil money on the people’s sofreh” [the dining cloth placed on the floor by poorer Iranians]. This can certainly cost him the election, especially if his opponents move from criticising his government’s economic mismanagement to communicating to Iranians some clear alternatives.

This is partly why Ahmadinejad’s supporters were so pleased by the announcement from Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president between 1997 and 2005, that he would contest the June 12 poll.

No-one is more likely to encourage unity among fundamentalists, who believe that Khatami, however committed to the Islamic Republic, would in office undermine it through encouraging “radical” elements. The fundamentalists’ sense of danger has been suitably sharpened by the likes of Mohammad Atrianfar, former editor of Shargh newspaper and an advocate of Khatami, relishing a “full-fledged confrontation” between Khatami and Ahmadinejad.

Hence the sudden talk in the fundamentalist camp of the need for unity. Amir Mohebian, political editor of Resalat newspaper, recently argued that if Ahmadinejad could “display an appropriate element of flexibility, and his flexibility were not seen as an election [ploy], he would make a very good choice” for all fundamentalists to support.

Mohebian, as ever, shows mixed feelings about Ahmadinejad. On the one hand he recognises the “skill and acumen in understanding the political arena of elections” that brought the blacksmith’s son to office in the first place. But on the other hand, he argues that “the views [of the principle-ist candidate] must be compatible with the consensual views of the principle-ists” .

This has hardly been the case during the four years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, but in recent weeks Ahmadinejad has launched a charm offensive with meetings with Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, a potential challenger, with clerics in Qom and with leading members of Motalefeh, the Islamic coalition party.

Suddenly, there are whispers of realignment with the aim of establishing a government after the election with support of the whole fundamentalist camp.

It is a difficult choice for Ahmadinejad. He has the momentum of incumbency – and when push comes shove, especially if Khatami does not withdraw, fundamentalists may feel obliged to back him. But on the other hand, if a single reformist clearly emerges as a challenger, the fundamentalists may worry they could lose the election.

A key figure in this could be Ghalibaf, the 47-year-old Tehran mayor, who seemed set to offer voters a more consensual style of fundamentalism and who several months back gathered celebrities and economists in his support with a slogan of “restoring tranquility.”

It may be that Ghalibaf, at the right price, will fall in behind Ahmadinejad.

A former national police chief and wartime military commander, Ghalibaf gained 4.08m votes in the 2005 election, missing the run-off ballot by only 1.6m votes, although his slick election style, including broadcasts, alienated many fundamentalists.

As Tehran mayor, Ghalibaf has enhanced his reputation for effective management without capturing the imagination the way he did as national police chief with simple ideas like the 110 emergency line and shifting policemen from Paykans to Mercedes.

So it may be that Ghalibaf can be persuaded to bide his time for a challenge in 2013, when he will still be 51, rather than face a second defeat now and become what one parliamentary deputy called a “burnt pawn.”

The 2009 presidential elections still have a long way to run.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

Iran’s Presidential Elections, Part II: The Political Groups

March 7, 2009

RUNNING THE OTHER WAY: Mir Hossein Mousavi, characterized above, was the reformists’ first choice for a candidate in the presidential elections of May 23, 1997 (2 Khordad on the Iranian calendar). The red apple signifies the Iranian presidency. Mohammad Khatami stepped in that year after Mousavi refused. Mousavi has announced however that he will run for the office this year. Some grand strategy, or is he splitting the reformist vote?

Tehran Bureau | election coverage

Iran’s tenth presidential election will be held on Friday, June 12, 2009. Through this series of articles, I will describe the major candidates, their political affiliations and the groups that support each. I will also provide an analysis of what each candidate’s victory will mean for Iran in the short and long term.

Part I of the series laid out the domestic and international landscape. In the present article, I describe all the major political parties and groups in Iran, including their respective ideologies. Article 26 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic formally recognizes the existence of political parties. The Majles (the Iranian parliament) passed a law in September 1981 that regulates the formation of political parties. In particular, Article 10 of the law specified the formation of a commission (known as the Article 10 Commission) in the Interior Ministry to grant permits to groups that wish to form (or to order them to dissolve, if they act illegally). The Commission is made up of one member from the Interior Ministry, two from the Majles, and two from the Judiciary.

Before embarking on the task, I should briefly discuss a few important facts regarding the power structure in Iran, and the differences between political groups and parties in the West from those in Iran.

(1) Iran’s political power structure is neither democratic, nor a classical totalitarian one. It is true that there are even quasi-fascist forces in Iran that would like to control all levers of power and create a completely closed society. These forces are currently even present in the political establishment. But there have always been democratic forces within the country that have opposed the totalitarian ideology. In fact, over the past 30 years, such democratic forces have even been able to gain a presence in the Majles (parliament), in the government, or both.

(2) With some exceptions (see below), many of the political parties in Iran are little more than small groups of like-minded people (almost always men), who gather once in a while to discuss the important issues and release a statement to announce their positions on them. That explains why there are more than 220 officially recognized political groups and parties in Iran. Such political parties do not usually have any known headquarters, nor do they really have any process of party registration in order to attract members. In fact, there tends to be no official log or list of members who claim to be affiliated with a political party. More often than not, these groups do not have an official newspaper or publication. The reformists and democratic groups, for example, are prohibited by the hardliners from having their own newspaper or publication.

(3) Due to the weakness of political parties, and because there is usually no party registration or official party affiliation, party discipline (or party loyalty) is relatively weak. Most political experts consider the lack of political discipline and party loyalty to be major hurdles in Iran’s political evolution toward becoming a mature democratic state.

(4) At the same time, most of Iran’s political parties are interested only in victory. They have no long-term plan for the sake of the country or even their own future. If they are defeated, they often disappear and then reappear under another name. If they do not disappear, there is usually no discussion about the reasons for the defeat. More often than not, they blame others for their defeat.

(5) Many of Iran’s political groups and parties rely excessively on the strength of personal charisma or the popularity of a few political figures to achieve victory. This may be true in any country, but it is to the extreme in Iran. Many political groups are born and die on the strength or weakness of the charisma of a particular figure. But, at the same time, a long tradition in the Iranian political scene has been the fact that the most popular figures are usually either those who are not part of the power structure, or do not show much enthusiasm for being the figure to lead the country. Good examples include former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, and former President Mohammad Khatami.

Having explained the limitations of Iran’s political structure and its differences with those in the West, I will now turn to the political groups by dividing them into three general camps: the reformists, the conservatives and fundamentalists (or the principlists, as the hardliners preferred to be called), and the dissident groups. Let us consider them one by one. In the discussions that follow, when I refer to a leftist group, I mean relative to the hardliners (although leftist groups in the true sense of the word do exist as well).

The Reformist Camp

The idea of reform in the political structure of the Islamic Republic gathered steam towards the end of Iran-Iraq war. In the 1980’s, especially during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s political scene was extremely polarized. But the two poles were not left and right; the Iranian leadership considered the two poles consisting of the revolutionaries and the counter-revolutionaries. The polarization led to the execution of thousands of political prisoners, and the elimination of all secular, and even some Islamic political groups. That caused considerable dissatisfaction and anger, even among the ranks of the clerics.

In 1988, the leftist clerics left the Association of Militant Clergy, an umbrella group for the politically-inclined clerics that had played an important role in the Revolution, and with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s blessings formed their own organization, the Association of Combatant Clerics. The first group is known in Iran as the Roohaniyat, whereas the second group is referred to as Roohanioon, to which Mr. Khatami belongs. The Roohanioon believed that the right-wing Roohaniyat and their supporters in the security forces had gone too far in suppressing dissident groups in Iran during the 1980’s. The year 1991 proved to be a pivotal one for Iran’s political evolution.

A leading figure of the Roohanioon, Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, who had been the spiritual advisor to the students who took American diplomats hostage in November 1979, had been very close to Ayatollah Khomeini. He founded the first reformist newspaper, Salaam, in 1991. Its editor was Abbas Abdi, a leading figure among the hostage takers and later an outspoken reformist who was jailed for his views.

About the same time, in November 1991, Kiyan, a monthly magazine, was launched by Mostafa Rokh-Sefat, Mashalla Shamsolvaezzin and Reza Tehrani, who were influenced by the political thinking and philosophy of Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush. (His real name is Hossein Haaj Farajollah Dabbagh). Dr. Soroush is a chemist by training and one of the most influential Islamic thinkers and reformers in the world. Many of the Iranian reformist journalists who emerged during Mr. Khatami’s first term in office worked either at Salaam, Kiyan, or both. The hardliners shut down Kiyan in 1998 and Salaam in 1999.

That same year, the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization (IRMO), a leftist group, restarted its activities after being dormant since 1985. This was following an internal split between its left and right wings (discussed below). The IRMO began publishing Asr-e Maa (Our Era), a biweekly devoted to political and ideological matters. There were other publications in which the reformists and democrats were active, such as Iran-e Farda (Iran of Tomorrow), published by the Nationalist-Religious Coalition (see below).

While these were positive developments, there was a major negative development in the same year as well. The Guardian Council (GC), a constitutional body that supervises most elections in Iran, bestowed upon itself the power of vetting the candidates who would stand for elections. The first test of this power came in the spring of 1992 when the GC disqualified en masse almost all the leftist candidates for the 4th Majles. This caused considerable concern among people who believed in democracy.

During the early 1990’s, there were also weekly meetings that were known as the ‘Wednesday Meetings’ in which many of the presently well-known reformists and human rights activists such as Emad Baghi (a leading human rights advocate), Dr. Saeed Hajjarian (a leading reformist strategist and the author’s classmate at Tehran University from 1972 to 1974), Akbar Ganji (an investigative journalist), Mohsen Aminzadeh (Deputy Foreign Minister in Mr. Khatami’s administration) and others participated. The meetings were held in a restaurant and were devoted to discussing political issues facing Iran and finding ways to help the country address them. These activists were concerned about the political crisis in Iran after the elections for the 4th Majles, and the fact that Iran appeared to be moving toward a complete dictatorship. The right-wing camp was trying to create a single-voice society. Smaller meetings were also taking place in the central office of Kiyan. Many of the reformist ideas were the result of such discussions.

The reformists decided to field a candidate for the presidential election of May 23, 1997 (Khordad 2 in the Iranian calendar). Their first choice was Mir Hossein Mousavi, but he refused to run. Thus, the reformists turned to Mr. Khatami, a leftist cleric who had resigned from his post as the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. He had left protesting increasingly harsh censorship in the administration of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The reformists did not actually believe that they could win the elections. They were rather hoping to attract several millions votes, which would allow them to form a strong opposition party.

But people’s dissatisfaction with the status quo ran too deep, and Mr. Khatami won a landslide election with 76 percent of the popular vote against the establishment candidate, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, the then Speaker of the Majles. That allowed the reformist groups and parties to flourish.

Which of these groups are still active?

Islamic Iran Participation Front: the IIPF was formed in 1998 by 100 of the leading reformists, including Dr. Mohsen Mirdamadi (its present Secretary-General), who was one of the three main leaders of the students who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979 (the other two were Habibollah Bitaraf, the author’s college contemporary and classmate in the 1970’s; and Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, an engineer); Mr. Abdi, Dr. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the former President’s younger brother; Mostafa Tajzadeh (Deputy Interior Minister in Mr. Khatami’s first administration); Dr. Hajjarian, and others. The IIPF is the largest political party in Iran, with thousands of members, tens of thousands of activists and sympathizers, and offices in most cities and towns. It has a serious platform and program for running the country, and many of its members worked in Mr. Khatami’s administration.

The IIPF has no official mouthpiece. Several newspapers published by the IIPF, most notably Norooz (New Day), a popular daily, were shut down by the hardliners. Its official website is

The IIPF aspires to represent the middle class and upper middle class, and particularly the educated. That is, perhaps, its main weakness. A large segment of the population in Iran is poor. The IIPF has made not made much of an effort to connect with this segment of the population. In the presidential elections of 2005, while most people were grappling with the economy, the main theme of the IIPF candidate, Dr. Mostafa Moein, former minister of higher education, was the formation of a “democracy and human rights front.”

The Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization: the IRMO was formed right after the 1979 revolution as a coalition of seven Islamic groups that had opposed and fought the Shah’s government. The seven consist of the Mansooroon, Ommat-e Vahed, Movahhedin, Fallah, Badr and Towhidi-ye Khalgh. They were bitterly opposed to the Mojahedin-e Khalgh (MEK), which is now a terrorist cult in exile, but was a leading leftist Islamic group opposed to the Shah at one time. Many of the IRMO members formed the core of the high command of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) when it was formed in 1979. When in June 1981 the MEK took up arms against the government, the IRMO played a key role in defeating the MEK and forcing it into exile.

In 1985, the leftist wing of the IRMO split from its rightist faction. The rightist faction included such people as Ali Reza Afshar, Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr (both currently top commanders of the IRGC), and Mohsen Rezaei (who was the IRGC top commander during the Iran-Iraq war and is now Secretary-General of the Expediency Council, a constitutional body) who stayed with the IRGC. The left wing remained silent and inactive until 1991, when it restarted its activities under the name of IRMO again. It began publishing the biweekly Asr-e Maa. It was shut down by the hard-liners a few years ago.

The IRMO and IIPF form the backbone of Iran’s reformist movement. Like the IIPF, many members of the IRMO served in the Khatami administration, ranging from Mohammad Salamati, the IRMO’s Secretary-General (who was Deputy Agriculture Minister), to Mr. Aminzadeh (Deputy Foreign Minister), Mr. Tajzadeh (Deputy Interior Minister), and Abdollah Naseri, director of IRNA, Iran’s official news agency. In addition, the IRMO chief spokesman Mohsen Armin and Behzad Nabavi, a leading member (who negotiated the Algiers Accords of January 1981 with Warren Christopher that ended the hostage crisis) were Deputy Speakers in the 6th Majles. The IRMO also includes such notable figures as Dr. Hashem Aghajari, a popular university professor and reformist Islamic thinker, and Feyzollah Arabsorkhi, whose family has a long history of fighting against the Shah, as well as participating in the Iran-Iraq war.

The IRMO has no official newspaper. Asr-e Maa (Our Era) was shut down by the hardliners. It now publishes the periodical Asr-e No (New Era), which is intended however for internal distribution among members and supporters. Its official website carries news and analysis by the the IRMO and can be found at The Website Emruz ( is also closely associated with the IRMO.

One main weakness of the IRMO is perhaps its somewhat rigid ideological thinking. Its members view most issues, even membership in the organization, from an ideological perspective. In the author’s opinion, this has hindered its development as a full-fledged political party. Its membership is limited, and they have few offices or organizations in the provinces.

The Executives of Construction Party: the ECP was formed in 1996 and consists mostly of technocrats who served in the administration of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Its Secretary General is Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a highly competent technocrat and former popular mayor of Tehran and Esfahan. Many of its members also served in the administration of Mr. Khatami. There in an interesting history behind the founding of ECP.

In the elections for the 5th Majles in 1996, the Rafsanjani faction and the right-wing groups wanted to run common candidates. However, the right-wing factions rejected five of the candidates suggested by Mr. Rafsanjani, including his own daughter Faezeh; Abdollah Nouri, a progressive and dissident cleric; Ataollah Mohajerani, former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Mr. Khatami’s administration; and Dr. Moein. That forced the technocrats around Mr. Rafsanjani to split from the conservatives to announce the formation of their own political group, the ECP, which did score major victories in the elections, including Faezeh Hashemi receiving the most votes in Tehran.

Unofficially, the ECP is divided into two factions. The Kerman faction, which is more conservative, is led by Mr. Rafsanjani’s younger brother, Mohammad, and Hossein Mar’ashi, a vice president in the Khatami administration and also a brother of Mr. Rafsanjani’s wife (Mr. Rafsanjani’s hometown, Rafsanjan, is in the province of Kerman). The Esfahan faction, which is more liberal, is led by Mohammad Atrianfar (a chemical engineer and journalist), and Gholamhossein Karbaschi. But while Atrianfar is a strong supporter of Mr. Khatami, Mr. Karbaschi has aligned himself with Mehdi Karroubi, Secretary General of the National Trust Party and a presidential candidate both in 2005 and in the upcoming elections (see below and Part III).

The ECP has no official newspaper. Its official mouthpiece, Kaargozaaraan (the Executives), was shut down in December 2008.

One main weakness of the ECP is that it consists mostly of technocrats who have served in various administrations over the past three decades. It does not have a widespread organization throughout the country, nor does it have a wide membership. There is also a constant struggle between the two factions.

The National Trust Party: the NTP was formed in 2005 by Mehdi Karroubi, the Speaker of the 3rd and 6th Majles and a constant figure on the Iranian political scene over the past three decades. After he was defeated in the presidential elections of that year, he accused the government of voting fraud, wrote an angry and public letter to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to protest the interference of the military and Ayatollah Khamenei’s own son, Mojtaba, in the election. He resigned from the Association of Combatant Clerics and formed the NTP.

The NPT has tried to organize itself throughout the country. It publishes a daily newspaper, Etemad-e Melli (the National Trust), and has tried to attract the disaffected reformists who are not happy with the IIPF, or IRMO, or the ECP. Mr. Karroubi has repeatedly accused the IIPF and IRMO of being “extremists.” In return, he is also accused by many reformists of playing it solo, going his own way and not paying any attention to the plight of the entire reform movement, often trying to please the Supreme Leader in order to win himself favor, and creating obstacles for the work of the reformists in the 6th Majles, particularly when they wanted to revise the press law.

In the author’s opinion, the NPT is more like a moderate right-wing party than a true reformist/democratic organization. Its daily, Etemad-e Melli, is often engaged in publishing the same type of unfounded criticism against reformists as the right-wing camp is, albeit with a more moderate tone. The NTP’s small faction in the 7th Majles, led by Esmail Gerami Moghaddam and Valiollah Shojapourian, was ineffective and is today even smaller and less effective in the present Majles.

Association of Combatant Clerics (ACC): As described above, the ACC was formed in 1988, after leftist and moderate clerics left the conservative Association of Militant Clergy in protest. Its Secretary General is Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha (see above), a leftist cleric. Its most famous member is Mr. Khatami. The ACC has a significant number of followers and sympathizers among the younger clerics, and among some of the most senior ayatollahs, including Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili, Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, and Ayatollah Jalaloddin Taheri. Its unofficial daily is Aftab-e Yazd (The Yazd Sun), and its official website can be found here.

The Association of Followers of the Imam’s Line: Followers of the Imam’s line was the name of the group of students who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November of 1979. It is now used as one way of distinguishing the left and right among the clerics. The Secretary General of AFIL is Hadi Khamenei, a midrank cleric and a younger brother of the Supreme Leader. His newspaper, Hayaat-e No (New Life) was shut down by the hardliners. The AFIL takes moderate positions.

Other groups: In addition to the above, there are several other small parties and political groups that align themselves with the reformist camp. These include the Solidarity of Islamic Iran Party, founded by Ebrahim Asgharzadeh (one of the three main leaders of the students who took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran) and others, which publishes the daily Hambastegi (Solidarity); The Workers’ House, led by Alireza Mahjoub, a moderate conservative; and the Islamic Labor Party, led by Abolghasem Sarhaddizah, who was jailed by the Shah for his opposition to him and for founding the Islamic Nations Party, and Soheila Jelodarzadeh, a former Majles deputy. In addition, several professional organizations, such as the Society of Graduates of Indian Universities, the Society of Engineers, the Islamic Medical Society of Iran, the Society of Industrial Managers, the Association of Islamic Women, and the Association of the Majles Deputies, are all aligned with the reformists.

A major weakness shared by all the reformist groups is that they never express their position about whether they support revising Iran’s Constitution. While prominent dissidents among the clergy (and non-clergy), such as Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri and Abdollah Nouri, have openly talked about revising the Constitution to limit the powers of the Supreme Leader, the reformist groups and parties have more or less avoided the issue. That is one reason they, and in particular the IIPF and IRMO, have lost some support among university students and intellectuals.

The Principlists
All the right-wing parties and political groups in Iran are more or less fundamentalist, but prefer to refer to themselves as the “osoolgaraa” or the principlists. Like the reformist camp, the principlists are not united. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s failure to improve the economy, create employment and control the inflation has caused rifts among the principlists. But, generally speaking, they can be divided into two groups, namely, the radical (reactionary) right, and the traditional conservatives. There is a third group, sometimes referred to as the modern conservatives, but which has gradually inched its way toward the reformist camp. Let us consider them one by one.

The radical right

The radical right is the backbone of support for Mr. Ahmadinejad. It is, in fact, a coalition of reactionary clerical groups led by Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, an ultra-conservative ayatollah who is openly against democracy and the electoral process. The radical right includes groups that consist of former members of the IRGC and their supporters.

Hojjatiyeh: The clerical reactionary group of the coalition represents the continuation of Hojjatiyeh (although not under the same name), an ultra-conservative, anti-Bahaei, anti-communist group that was originally founded in the 1950’s and tolerated (and even aided) by the Shah’s government. But it was banned by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1983. The group consists mostly of former students of Mr. Mesbah Yazdi who graduated from his school, the Haghani School (a religious school and seminary in Qom, founded in the early 1960’s and named after a wealthy person who provided the funds for the school), and other ayatollahs who hold views similar to Mr. Mesbah Yazdi’s, such as Ayatollah Khazali (a former member of the Guardian Council), and their supporters. Mr. Khazali’s son, Mehdi, created a sensation recently when he declared that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s family has Jewish roots.

Another ally of this group is Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the powerful Secretary General of the Guardian Council. He has fully supported Mr. Ahmadinejad and his views, and has been a powerful ally of the reactionary clerics.

Interestingly, all of Iran’s five Intelligence Ministers, including the current one, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, have also been graduates of the Haghani School. All but Ali Younesi, Mr. Khatami’s Intelligence Minister, have been hardliners. All but Younesi, and in particular Ali Fallahiyan, Mr. Rafsanjani’s Minister, have been accused of a variety of crimes, including ordering the murder of dissidents, or at the very least not doing anything to prevent them from happening.

The Hojjatiyeh was against the revolution of 1979 (although it now claims otherwise). Its members believe that they should prepare the country for the return of Mahdi, the hidden Imam, who is supposed to reapper some day. Ayatollah Khomeini famously said this about them: “They cannot even run a bakery, let alone a country.” They espouse a quasi-fascist ideology, and publish the hardline Portow-e Sokhan, a weekly publication that advocates the views of Mesbah Yazdi and his disciples.

The non-clerical groups in the radical right camps are as follows:

The Sweet Scent [Glory] of Service [to people] or Raayehe khosh-e khedmat, founded in 2006, which has no precise translation in English. Some of the main members of the SSS are former commanders and members of the IRGC. Its Secretary General is Mohammad Ali Ramin, a close ally of Mr. Ahmadinejad who used to work at Kayhan, the newspaper run by Hossein Shariatmadari, a hardliner. Mr. Ramin also lived in Germany for many years and is rumored to have associated with the neo-Nazis and the far right there. He is believed to be the prime mover behind Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about Israel and the Holocaust, and was the secretary of the Holocaust conference that was held in Tehran in 2006.

The SSS publishes, officially and unofficially, two daily newspapers, Khorshid (the Sun) and Vatan-e Emrooz (the Homeland Today), both of which have low circulations. In addition, many websites have sprung up, such as Raja News, which support Mr. Ahmadinejad. The Fars NewsAgency is also closely allied with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s supporters among the security forces. In addition, Kayhan, is an ardent supporter of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

A hallmark of the SSS is its attacks on the administrations of Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Khatami, claiming that not only did they not do anything for the nation, but that they also helped the country deviate from the “fundamental principles of the 1979 revolution” — an apparent attempt to justify the SSS’s own failures.

Despite its rhetoric and use of public resources, the SSS was defeated badly in the elections that were held about two years ago for the city councils. One reason was that the SSS was not willing to form a coalition with other right-wing groups. Their candidates received only 4 percent of the votes, and only three of their candidates for Tehran were elected (after the vote count was reportedly altered). In contrast, four of the reformist candidates for Tehran were elected, and credible reports indicated that the actual number was 8, before the vote count was changed. At the national level, the reformists received 60 percent of the votes for the city council elections. The SSS did only slightly better in the March 2008 elections for the 8th Majles.

Society of Islamic Revolution Devotees: The SIRD started its political activities in March 1995, but was formally founded in February 1997. In Iran the SIRD is known simply as the Isaargaraam. Isaar is an Arabic word for altruism, and an Isaargar is someone who is willing to selflessly sacrifice for a sacred cause. The SIRD consists mainly of the former Basij (a militia controlled by the IRGC) and IRGC veterans of the Iran-Iraq war. Its Secretary General is Hossein Fadai who was jailed during the Shah’s reign for his political activities, and worked with the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq war as a combat engineer. He has repeatedly accused the reformists of being supported by the United States. The SIRD chief spokesman is Lotfollah Forouzandeh. Mr. Ahmadinejad himself was a founding member. The SIRD was fiercely opposed to Mr. Khatami, and issued many statements against him and his administration, criticizing practically every policy of the former president. But even though the reformists won the elections for the sixth Majles in March 2000, about 40 candidates backed by the SIRD were also elected.

The SIRD has always been a fierce supporter of Mr. Ahmadinejad, even though it has had its differences with him too. Without publicly acknowledging it, in the elections for the city councils in 2003, the SIRD formed a separate group called the Islamic Iran Developers Coalition. Aided by a generanl apathy for voting in those elections, fifteen of the candidates supported by the ISDC were elected to Tehran’s City Council, which then elected a SIRD member, the then little-known Mr. Ahmadinejad, as the mayor.

In the presidential election of 2005, the SIRD initially supported Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, former commander of the IRGC air force. That seemed strange, since the SIRD was supporting a non-member over a member. Many saw that move as a Machiavellian maneuver however. Indeed, after he was defeated and did not make it to the second round of the elections, Mr. Qalibaf bitterly complained about his supporters. The move created a fissure within the SIRD, as deputy secretary general, Ali Darabi and a central committee member, Abolhassan Faqih, joined Mr. Ahmedinejad’s campaign, while another one, Ali Ahmadi, headed Mohsen Rezaei’s campaign.

But the SIRD was the only political group that formally supported Mr. Ahmadinejad in the second round of the 2005 presidential election. Several of its members served in Mr. Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, including Davood Danesh Jafari as the Finance Minister. It also has a relatively small faction in the Majles, including Mehdi Kouchakzadeh, a fiercely anti-reformist deputy. The unofficial mouthpiece of the SIRD is Siyaset-e Rooz (the Daily Politics), whose editor, Ali Yousefpour, is a member of the SIRD.

The Basij: the Basij militia, although officially neutral, has been acting increasingly as a radical-right political party, supporting all the radical-right and reactionary candidates. It has around 400,000 active members and hence represents a potent group. It is controlled by the IRGC. Not only has the Basij been acting as a radical-right political group, but it also uses its members to suppress dissent at universities through its university branches, and to disrupt meetings of the reformist groups. The Basij was one main reason for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s surprise victory in 2005.

The traditional conservatives

Several groups and parties, some old, belong to the traditional conservative camp. They are as follows:

The Islamic Coalition Party: The ICP is one of the oldest political groups in Iran. It was formed in 1964 as a coalition of three religious groups that were opposed to the Shah. It was the first Islamic group since the Safavid that was opposed to the monarchy. Its current Secretary General is Mohammad Nabi Habibi. It is also one of the most organized and disciplined political groups in Iran. They hold monthly meetings and have offices in virtually every town and city. It is instructive to briefly review the ICP history.

In 1965, Iran’s Prime Minister, Hassan Ali Mansoor, was assassinated by Mohammad Bokharaei (who was seventeen years old). Four members of the ICP, Bokharaei, Haj Sadegh Amani, Morteza Niknezhad, and Reza Saffar Harandi, were convicted by the Shah’s military tribunals and executed. Several others received long prison terms, including Haj Mehdi Araqi (who was assassinated after the Revolution). Habibollah Asgar Oladi and Asadollah Badamchian, two main leaders of the present ICP, were released after long prison terms, because they wrote a letter to the Shah and asked for clemency. The ICP strongly supported Ayatollah Khomeini before the Revolution, and was run and led by a committee that consisted of Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini who was assassinated in 1979; Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, a key figure in the Revolution who was assassinated in June 1981; Dr. Mohammad Javad Bahonar, the Prime Minister in summer of 1981 and assassinated in September 1981, and Ayatollah Mohyeddin Anvari.

After the Revolution, the ICP was first active within the Islamic Republican Party that had been founded by five religious figures, including Ayatollah Khamenei. But, when the IRP was dissolved, the ICP began its activities as an independent political group. It was bitterly opposed to the government of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, as it represents mostly the interests of the powerful Bazaar (represented in the ICP by Asghar Rokh Sefat, Habibollah Shafigh, and Saeed Amani, all rich and powerful Bazari figures), but Mr. Mousavi was a populist leftist.

Due to the long-lasting relations between the ICP and its Bazaari patrons on the one hand, and many influential ayatollahs and religious figures in Qom on the other hand, the ICP always played an important role in all the post-Revolution governments, until the election of Mr. Khatami in 1997. In particular, during Mr. Rafsanjani’s second term as the president, his cabinet was dominated by the ICP, as was the 4th Majles (with support from the Association of Militant Clergy).

But, beginning with the presidency of Mr. Khatami, the influence of the ICP began to decline. Although the ICP supported Mr. Ahmedinejad in the 2005 elections, his administration did not appoint any member of the ICP to any significant cabinet post. That has made the ICP very bitter, because it was used to having the Basij and other right-wing groups as its foot soldiers to consolidate its power. But now the same groups have essentially expelled the ICP from the government.

In a recent interview, Mr. Asgar Oladi, former Secretary General of the ICP and a still influential figure, declared that the Supreme Leader wants a “more effective government,” hence signaling that the ICP wants a candidate other than Mr. Ahmadinejad. He also said that the ICP would support the president “until his last day in office,” signaling again that the ICP will not support Mr. Ahmadinejad for a second term.

By forming an organization called the United Front of the Followers of the Imam’s and Leader’s Line, the ICP has tried to retain its influence on the selection of a candidate for the presidential elections. Members of the Front include several conservative groups: (i) the Zeinab Society, a conservative women’s organization led by Maryam Behroozi; (ii) the Islamic Society of Engineers led by Mohammad Reza Bahonar (a Majles Deputy Speaker); (iii) the Association of Militant Clergy (see below); and (iv) the Islamic Association of Bazaar.

The ICP’s unofficial mouthpiece is Resalat (Mission), a conservative daily managed by Morteza Nabavi, a leading conservative, in which such conservative journalists as Amir Mohebbiyan and Naser Imani publish their columns. The ICP also publishes a low-circulation weekly called Shomaa (You).

The Association of Militant Clergy (of Tehran): The AMC was formed in 1977. At that time, it represented an umbrella group for most of the clerics who were opposed to the Shah, and included many influential figures who are still active, such as Mr. Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Khamenei. Its Secretary General is Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, an old but extremely influential conservative cleric who served as the Prime Minister in 1981-1982. Its chief spokesman is Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghaddam, a midrank cleric.

The AMC has always played an important role in post-revolutionary Iran. In fact, candidates backed by the AMC controlled the 4th and 5th Majles. Many of its members are still Friday prayer Imams around the country, and it also enjoys considerable backing from conservative and important ayatollahs, such as Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani and Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini. Its influential members also include Dr. Hasan Rohani, former Secretary General of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator.

Other Groups: Two small conservative groups are the Association of Islamic Revolution Loyalists, led by Dr. Hassan Ghafourifard, a U.S.-educated engineering professor at Amir Kabir University of Science and Technology in Tehran who has served in several administrations; and the Moderation and Development Party, led by Mohammad Bagher Nobakht. The latter group is a coalition of supporters of Mr. Rafsanjani.

The declining influence of the traditional conservatives

All traditional conservative groups linked to the clerics are losing influence, because the coalition of security/military forces is gradually expelling the clerics from government. The coalition represents a younger generation whose formative experience was the Iran-Iraq war. Members of the coalition feel that they were the ones who protected the country and should therefore have the strongest say in the affairs of the state. Recent revelations by Abbas Palizdar, in which he accused many important clerics of becoming fabulously and allegedly illicitly rich, indicate the push by the younger generation to wrest away control of the country from the traditional conservatives, and in particular the clerics. Although Mr. Ahmadinejad’s group dissociated itself from Palizdar, the signs all point in the same direction: eventual elimination of the clerics from positions of power.

The Dissident Groups

In the third and last group there are two dissident groups. Though more or less tolerated, they are not usually allowed to field candidates for elections. The two groups are as follows:

The Nationalist-Religious Coalition: This group consists of older revolutionaries who actively opposed the Shah, and even spent years in jail before the 1979 revolution. Members of the group played important roles, including serving as ministers, in the first post-revolution government of Prime Minister Mahdi Bazargan. But after his government was effectively toppled by the students who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979, the members of the NRC left the government and joined the opposition. The chief spokesman of the group is Ezatollah Sahabi, a widely respected political figure, particularly among university students. He has been imprisoned by both the Shah and the Islamic Republic. There are two main groups in the coalition:

(i) The Freedom Movement: the FM is an old political organization founded in the early 1960’s by Mr. Bazargan; Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Taleghani, a revered figure among the leaders of the Revolution who passed away in September 1979; and Dr. Yadollah Sahabi, Ezatollah’s father. Its current Secretary General is Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi who served as Mr. Bazargan’s Foreign Minister in 1979.

(ii) Movement of Militant Muslims: the MMM is led by Dr. Habibollah Payman, a dentist. The group’s roots go back to a social democratic group called Socialist Worshippers of God founded by Ahmad Nakhshab (1922-1975) in the 1940’s. Nakhshab and his group believed in socialism, but also in the spiritual teachings of Islam. For the first two years after the Revolution, the MMM published a popular daily, called Ommat (People), which espoused an anti-imperialist, social democratic philosophy. But once the bloody crackdown of the opposition groups started in June 1981, Dr. Payman ended the publication of Ommat and dissolved his group in order to protect its members. During Mr. Khatami’s era, however, the MMM began a gradual comeback.

Office for Consolidation of Unity: Founded in September 1979, the OCU is a umbrella group of the Islamic Associations formed in every university and institution of higher education in Iran. In the 1980’s the OCU was a strong supporter of the government. But as the Iran-Iraq war came to an end, the OCU gradually withdrew its support for the government and became a critic. It played a crucial role in the victory of Mr. Khatami in 1997, and even had its own faction in the 6th Majles, which was controlled by the reformists. It sent to parliament in 2000 such notable figures as Fatemeh Haghighatjou, Ali Tajernia, Davood Soleimani, and Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoeini.

Recognizing the potency and popularity of the OCU, the hardliners attempted to break up the organization. First, they provoked the more conservative elements to break away. Thus, a small minority group called the Shiraz Spectrum (named after the city where the break up was first announced), left the group. The rest were referred to as the Allameh Spectrum (named after Allameh Tabatabaei University in Tehran, where the faction met for the first time). But the Shiraz Spectrum proved to be unpopular among the vast majority of students and gradually faded away. Some of the leaders of the Allameh Spectrum, such as Ali Afshari (an engineer), were jailed. Afshari later moved to the United States and was effectively eliminated from Iran’s political scene.

In the most recent development, the Ministry of Higher Education, which supposedly regulates the activities of the Islamic Associations in the universities, has claimed that the OCU is an illegal organization. However, aside from its absurd nature of such a claim, the assertion does not take away the fact that the OCU is widely popular among the students and has remained a sharp critic of (and a source of concern for) the hardliners.

The above was a brief description of all the important political groups in Iran. I did not discuss the exile groups because, (i) they are too small and weak, and (ii) they have essentially no influence on internal developments in Iran.

Part III of this series will describe the main candidates for Iran’s presidential elections.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

Three not so wise men

March 6, 2009

Splitting the vote? Former president Mohammad Khatami (R) and former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi (L) February 2004. AFP/Getty Images. Pictured above: former parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi, January 2008. Photo/Reuters.

Iran’s reformists may run three candidates for president, boosting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chances of being re-elected.

Tehran Bureau | election coverage

In 2004, around 80 reformist deputies staged a sit-in and “political fast” in Iran’s parliament when disqualified by an Islamic watchdog from parliamentary elections. Their protests brought indifference from most Iranians and mockery from their conservative opponents, as Kayhan newspaper published a long list of food items being sent in for those on the fast.

Five years later, the reformists show only limited signs of recovery. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the fundamentalists president elected in a 2005 landslide, has presided over rising inflation and unemployment. His foreign policy is less than a resounding success. And yet Ahmadinejad has a fighting chance of retaining office in the presidential election on June 12.

Part of the reason for this is the reformists’ inability, or unwillingness, to learn or apply the lessons of their defeat in 2005.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, vice president under Mohammad Khatami, identified the core problem: “We focused our attention on elites and forgot the ordinary people who are trying to get their daily bread.”

While the fundamentalists had policies and slogans based on economic concerns, the reformists spoke of social freedoms and a “dialogue among civilizations.” The right exploited demographics: a declining birth rate since the late 1980s meant Iran’s baby-boomers, born in the early years after the 1979 revolution, were aging and more concerned with the costs of marriage and homes than with politics.

No-one ran with day-to-day issues more than Ahmadinejad, who promised oil wealth on the sofreh, the dining cloth from which poorer Iranians eat. In 2005, reformist election headquarters around Iran were invariably on university campuses, while Ahmadinejad took more humble offices, sometimes in religious halls (husseiniyah) that expressed his roots in the organic beliefs of the mass of Iranians.

In five years of office, the president has used regular trips around the country, dutifully covered by state television, to both publicize himself and to sponsor facilities and projects far away from leafy north Tehran.

The reformists call this “populism,” but they have offered little alternative. Many have never lost their sense that Ahmadinejad would never be able to run Iran if he alienated intellectuals. At a time when the reformists should have been developing new policies ­– and communicating them to the electorate – many instead hark back to the golden age of 1997-2001, when Khatami won large majorities.

And then there are the small matters of tactics and candidates. The reformists are unsure whether one, two or three candidates will stand.

It is an important issue. The system used for Iran’s presidential election sends the two best-placed candidates, even if only a whisker ahead of the others, into a second-round run-off ballot. Such a set-up almost certainly favors any political camp that can unify around one candidate.

Mehdi Karoubi, a former parliamentary speaker, has been the most decisive of a reformist trinity, insisting he will run come what may. After all, his supporters argue, in 2005 Karoubi was within 600,000 votes of beating Ahmadinejad in the first round as Karoubi pushed a simple idea of giving 50,000 tomans (around $55) monthly from oil revenues to every adult.

Second into the fray is Mohammad Khatami. His announcement in February that he was a “serious” candidate followed months of hesitation that reinforced his reputation for dithering. Khatami earlier said he would prefer to back Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a prime minister during the 1980-88 war with Iraq who has been out of the public eye since then.

But there is now word that Mousavi will before the end of the Iranian year (March 20) announce that he will, after all, stand. All three men have established campaign headquarters, and deadline for nominations is not until May 8.

Why can’t the reformists agree? Ego is an important factor. So is age. Khatami is 65, Karoubi 72 and Mousavi 68. Each sees his perhaps last chance to become president.

The more prescient reformists realize running three candidates would prove disastrous, but there is no obvious way to resolve the issue. Supporters of each argue their man will emerge as the most popular by the final weeks of the poll and that the others will then somehow melt away.

The fundamentalists are delighted. Amir Mohebian, the canny political editor of Resalat newspaper, recently welcomed the prospect of three reformist candidates. He also suggested the most formidable sole reformist would be Mousavi, whose experience from the 1980-88 war could help challenge Ahmadinejad on his chosen ground of “social justice.”

But for most of Iran’s 50 million voters, the debate in Tehran’s chattering classes over the merits of Khatami, Karoubi and Mousavi must seem a long way away.

Iran’s Presidential Elections, Part I: The Landscape

February 28, 2009

Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Second National Congress of “Fajr Afarinan,” honoring Muslim political prisoners before the revolution. January 29, 2009. Photo/TehranBureau.

Los Angeles
Tehran Bureau | election coverage

Iran will hold its presidential elections on Friday, June 12, 2009. Although some Iranians, particularly those who live in the diaspora, may dismiss the elections as being ineffectual and devoid of any possible meaningful consequence, the truth is that the significance of the upcoming elections cannot be over-emphasized. The reasons are twofold. One is that at no time in the past 100 years has Iran faced as many problems and crises as it is grappling with now. (I will return to this point shortly.) The second reason has to do with the fact that no other election in Iran has held such importance in the contrasting and fundamentally different views it represents in the path Iran should take domestically, as well as internationally.

One side espouses a fundamentalist, confrontational approach to both domestic and international problems. Internally, it wants to suppress all the dissidents, even among its own ranks, and silence any voice of moderation. Internationally, it advocates an aggressive and uncompromising approach. In contrast, the opposite camp favors an open society at home, which can move on a democratic path, albeit slowly, while advocating a rational and sober diplomatic approach to the international problems that Iran is facing.

Therefore, no election in Iran has ever been so polarized.

In this article and the sequels, I discuss the main players in Iran’s upcoming elections, the messages that they have, the political groups that support the candidates, and the possible implications of the victory of the reformist or fundamentalist candidates on Iran’s future. In the present article, I describe Iran’s political landscape; that is, present conditions, on both the domestic and the international level. Part II will describe the political groups in Iran, and the extent of popularity that they enjoy. Part III will describe the main candidates and their chances for getting elected. Part IV will discuss the implications for Iran of the victory of each of the main candidates.

The International Landscape

Consider first the situation and problems that Iran is currently facing in the international arena. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there have been many developments in the Middle East that have benefited Iran and its national security. Although in his infamous speech of February 2002, former U.S. President George W. Bush made Iran a charter member of his absurd “axis of evil,” and even though the situation looked totally bleak for Iran after Saddam Hussein was easily overthrown by the British and American forces in April 2003 and Bush declared “mission accomplished,” we now know that the invasion has benefited Iran’s national security. While Iraq’s invasion was illegal, and has resulted in the destruction of much of Iraq’s infrastructure, human loses and suffering at catastrophic scales, its net result for Iran has been the elimination of its arch foes Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi branch of the Ba’ath Party (the Syrian branch has been in a strategic alliance with Iran over the past 30 years). The fact that the Shiite groups that spent their exile years in Iran and were supported and armed by Iran are now in power in Iraq can only benefit Iran. Moreover, because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has been in no position to pose a serious military threat to Iran, at least in terms of a land invasion.

At the same time, the overthrow of the Taliban in the fall of 2001 eliminated another of Iran’s bloody enemies on its eastern borders. Recall that Iran and the Taliban almost went to war in September 1998, after the Taliban murdered 8 Iranian diplomats and a journalist. Given that the enmity between Shiite Islam and the Wahabi sect of Islam, to which the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) adhere, has deep historical roots, elimination from power of the Taliban was also greatly beneficial to Iran. Although the Taliban are now resurgent, they are mainly preoccupied with defeating the Western forces; and from a military point of view, they do not yet pose a major threat to Iran’s national security.

The steep increase in the price of oil, rising to almost $150 a barrel in the summer of 2008, could have also been beneficial to Iran, both economically and strategically. But while the economic benefits to Iran of the oil boom has been minimal (see below), its strategic significance cannot be overlooked. For the next few years at least, the world would not be easily able to replace Iran’s oil exports if they are eliminated from the international market by military attacks on Iran, for example. This fact, together with Iran’s effective control of the Strait of Hormuz, implies that Iran will continue to play an important role in the energy sector.

Therefore, given such developments, it would be natural to think that Iran, with its size, natural resources, young and dynamic population and strategic position, is on its way to become the most powerful nation in the Middle East. While Iran does have such potentials, it also faces major hurdles, many of which have to do with the aggressive, yet what I consider naïve, foreign policy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in particular, and the Iranian fundamentalists, who control all major centers of power, in general. To see this, consider two of the most complex issues that Iran is facing, namely its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, and the possibility that Israel may attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, especially now that a far-right government is emerging in Israel after its recent elections.

Even during its peak revolutionary zeal in the first several years after the 1979 revolution, Iran was not the subject of so many intense discussions and speculations at the international organizations. There were no United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions against it. In fact, aside from going to the UNSC to express its grievances against the United States or Iraq, it was neither forced to go to the UNSC to defend itself, nor was it condemned at the UN General Assembly. Aside from the United States, no country of any importance had imposed any significant sanctions on Iran.

Compare that with the present situation. There are four UNSC resolutions against Iran, namely resolutions 1737, 1747, 1803, and 1835, all filed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter that deals with peace and international security. Although solid arguments can be made against the legality of the resolutions, the fact is that they are there, and so as far as a significant part of the international community is concerned, Iran must abide by the resolutions’ demands, which Iran has so far refused to do. The resolutions have also imposed some economic sanctions on Iran that have begun to hurt the ordinary people in Iran. At the same time, gross violations of human rights in Iran have been the subject of debate at the UNGA and the Human Rights Council of the UN.

The February elections in Israel have brought to power a coalition of right-wing and ultra-right wing parties that are hell bent on attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. If the attacks do take place, they will not only give rise to a war that would engulf the entire Middle East, but also threaten Iran’s territorial integrity, not to mention the great destruction that the war would inflict on Iran. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about Israel (even though what he said about Israel disappearing has been mistranslated), his denial of the Holocaust, and the Holocaust conference that he held in Tehran, only exacerbated the animosity between the two nations.

But that is only half the story. Pakistan has been in a chaotic state for at least 2 years. The Pakistani allies of the Taliban have made great gains, particularly in the Swat valley, to the point of being able to force the Government of President Asif Ali Zardari to sign a peace treaty with them, and allowing them to impose the Islamic Sharia in the regions that they control. The possibility that Pakistan’s Sunni fundamentalists might overthrow the government and take control of the 60 or so nuclear warheads that Pakistan has is truly terrifying. Add to that the fact that a low-intensity war between the great Sunni majority and the relatively small Shiite minority has been going on in Pakistan for several years, and recall that the separatist Jundallah forces have been staging terrorist attacks against Iran in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, and the result is a huge threat to Iran’s national security.

The Internal Landscape

Iran is in a terrible economic situation. Since 2005 it has earned at least $250 billion, and probably as much as $300 billion, from its oil exports. Yet now that the price of oil has collapsed and is hovering around $40 a barrel, the government has difficulty meeting its domestic obligations. Iranian economists predict a budget deficit of at least $30 billion for the new Iranian year that will begin on March 21.

Aside from its fundamental structural flaws, Iran’s terrible economic conditions have mostly to do with the mismanagement — some say incompetence — of President Ahmadinejad’s government, which appears to have no long-range plans for the country. It has scuttled Iran’s 4th five-year development plan, started by former President Mohammad Khatami, and has even ignored the so-called Twenty-Year Outlook — a long-range vision for Iran’s economic development proposed by the Expediency Council and approved and supported by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Close to 60 of Iran’s leading economists warned Ahmadinejad in an open letter that his policies would ruin the economy, but he ignored their advice. The Ahmadinejad administration has dissolved many of Iran’s fundamental institutions, even some that had survived the revolution of 1979, such as the Organization of Budget and Planning.

Many of Ahmadinejad’s actions and policies have been opposed even by some in his own cabinet and administration. He has so far replaced 10 of his ministers, and three Central Bank governors. If he replaces one more minister, there would be a constitutional crisis, because he would have to obtain the approval of his entire cabinet from the parliament again. The Iran parliament, which is supposedly controlled by Ahmadinejad’s supporters, has also fiercely opposed some of his policies.

The Ahmadinejad administration has also been embroiled in one scandal after another. Many of the senior positions in his administration have been filled by young, and relatively inexperienced people. Each Minister who was fired went on to harshly criticize the government and reveal some behind-the-scene developments that the public was unaware of. One of Ahmadinejad’s ministers, former Interior Minister Ali Kordan, turned out to have not only a fake doctoral degree, but also fake M.S. and B.S. degrees, and was forced to resign. His vice president for parliamentary affairs, Ali Reza Rahimi, is strongly and credibly rumored to also have a fake doctoral degree. Another vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Moshaei, who is also a close relative, spoke favorably about Jewish people, and was harshly attacked for it. The present Interior Minister, Sadegh Mahsouli — the third under Ahmadinejad — is known as the “billionaire minister,” for the wealth (close to $200 million) that he has reportedly amassed illicitly. Ahmadinejad’s chief spokesman, Gholamhossein Elham, holds three official positions, which is against the law. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly replaced deputy interior minister for political and security affairs, who is also in charge of administering the elections. Elham’s wife, Fatemeh Rajabi, has been attacking viciously and with immunity all the reformist and pragmatist leaders, from Khatami to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; others, who have criticized the government or its policies, have been jailed.

Politically, Ahmadinejad’s government has been repressive. It has closed all but a few reformist newspapers, which are however heavily censored. It has banned many university student organizations, has jailed many student activists and has clamped down hard on the activities of advocates of respect for human, women, and children rights. Two months ago, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, founded by the Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, was closed, her law office was attacked, and she was viciously criticized by right-wing newspapers. No major reformist group is allowed to publish a newspaper, but there are tens of right-wing newspapers and publications. Bloggers have been increasingly attacked and jailed, and the parliament is contemplating a law that would make it a capital punishment to cross certain red lines.

It is against this bleak backdrop that the Iranian presidential elections are going to take place in June. Part II of this series will describe the main political groups, their positions and their likely roster of candidates.

Khatami Re-Emerges

February 11, 2009

Tehran Bureau | comment

After much speculation, Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president, announced on Sunday, February 8, that he would run in Iran’s presidential election to be held on June 12. The Iranian vote comes at a crucial juncture. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s abrasive rhetoric has put Iran on a head-on collision course with Israel and the West for the past three and half years. With their vote, the Iranian people will send a signal to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds the reigns of power in Iran, in which direction they would like him to steer the Islamic Republic.

Khamenei may be vehemently anti-Western, but he is intelligent and pragmatic. With a black president (whose middle name, “Hussein,” invokes the much-revered, martyred Shia Imam) in the White House, the hard-line camp is intrigued, more so than they have ever been in the past 30 years. Despite the fiery rhetoric from some conservative quarters, even the hardest core hard-liners in Iran are not averse to testing the waters. Just on Tuesday, in a televised address, Ahmadinejad himself told a rally marking the 30-year anniversary of the Islamic revolution, that Tehran was ready for “talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere.”

So do Iranians really want a reconciliation with the West, or are they too hungry to care?

Ahmadinejad’s economic platform has consisted of handouts to the poor and petro-fueled subsidies to his favorite sectors. Though he is an arch-villain in the West, he has been popular with the silent majority of working class and provincial Iranians who see something of themselves in his simple ways. With the crash in the price of oil however, Ahmadinejad is already facing problems keeping those programs afloat. And disfranchised Iranians are bound to remember better economic times under Khatami.

Ahmadinejad’s support base also includes the much-feared security apparatus. On the other hand, even Ahmadinejad had to imply a laxer dress code for women the last time he was on the presidential campaign trail. For the many young women who were terrorized under Ahmadinejad’s watch for wearing their headscarves too loosely, and their manteux too tightly, this is payback time. They could turn to Khatami — who himself likes to appear well-groomed and to wear nice shoes — who appreciates the benefits of good appearance.

Over the past decade or so, Iran’s politics have somewhat mirrored whatgoes on in Washington. In response to smart and affable Bill Clinton, the Iranian people elected Khatami, a soft-spoken cleric who is also a world-class political philosopher. For the combative George W. Bush, Iranians introduced the world to hard-liner Ahmadinejad.

Now, in answer to Barack Hussein Obama, they need a charismatic international star. Figurehead or not, Khatami is the only who has that magic. Even King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — not the greatest fan of Iran’s leaders — has adopted the “Dialogue Among Civilization” mantra made famous by Mohammad Khatami, and reflective of his scholarly expertise in political philosophy.

Still, Mr. Khatami has some hurdles to overcome.

Mohammad Khatami rose to prominence in 1997, in a rock-star presidency — supported by Iran’s youth and televised on CNN — and put Iran abruptly on a different, more conciliatory path — for a while anyway.

Millions of Iranians turned out to vote for him and he won two terms in office with unprecedented margins. Despite his popular mandate, by his second year in office he had allowed himself to be co-opted by the conservative establishment. In 1999, when many of his supporters took to the streets to protest the shutting down of the reformist newspaper Salaam, and the many other abuses that preceded it, Khatami, a former publisher, did not stand up for them — even when they were arrested, jailed and Allah knows what. Many of them have not forgotten that. If they are to support Khatami again, he needs to demonstrate he is a braver and stronger man. And he must show the Iranian people, and his former support base, that he has a workable plan for the country this time.

Despite Khatami’s failures in his two terms, those who want change in Iran must realize that he is still the most likely reformist candidate to prevail upon the Guardian Council, a powerful organization charged with vetting candidates for office, among other constitutional powers.

Since Khatami’s surprise victory more than a decade ago, the hard-liners have resorted to all sorts of methods — ranging from the subtle to the steel-fisted — to disqualify reform-minded candidates from running in all manner of elections, paving the way for them to consolidate their hold on power. For that very reason, it is difficult to believe Khatami would agree to run if he did not have the tacit approval of the Supreme Leader — who may exercise his power not to confirm a president, even after the election. The hard-liners don’t trust the reformists, but if it is the only way forward, they will go along with it.

So does Khatami have a chance? Absolutely. But he needs to be more convincing this time. There is too much at stake.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau – distributed by Agence Global