Thirty years after the Iranian revolution, there is no shortage of odes and anthems that pay homage to its earthly and holy glories. But as Iran prepares to go to the polls for the first round of presidential election of 12 June 2009, three of the major candidates have raided the pre-revolution archives for their campaign-tunes.
Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs (Portobello Books, 2005). She spent her formative years in Iran, attended university in Britain and worked in London, and then returned to her birthplace to work for an NGO for a number of years. Today she lives in Britain.
Also by Nasrin Alavi on openDemocracy:
"Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fear" (1 November 2005)
"Inside Iran" (14 February 2006)
"Iran: the elite against the people" (22 May 2006)
"Tehran's red card to human rights" (23 June 2006)
"Iran: cracks in the façade" (11 December 2006)
"Iran's election backlash" (19 December 2006)
"Iran's attack blowback" (5 February 2007)
"Women in Iran: repression and resistance" (5 March 2007)
"Axis of Evil vs Great Satan: wrestling to normality" (2 May 2007)
"The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)
"Iran's circle of power" (23 October 2007)
"Iran: the uses of intelligence" (6 December 2007)
"Iran's new order" (28 January 2008)
"Iran's election signals" (18 March 2008)
"Iranians' interrupted freedom" (8 October 2008)
"Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of the majlis (parliament), has taken inspiration from a poem that was penned in response to a bus-ticket increase in 1969. The verse - written by the Hamid Mossadeq (1939-98), the "student movements' poet laureate", was an act of artistic solidarity with hard-pressed, underpaid workers; but its call for a boycott of the buses was extended to a refusal to bow before power and to a demand for the "destruction" of the then monarchical system. Karroubi, the "reformist sheikh", uses the poem as fuel for his campaign slogan: "together for change".
The team of former prime minister Mir-Hossein Moussavi has opted for a familiar song that promises the "end of winter". This one was written for a group of young socialist guerrillas who died fighting the monarchy in the mountains of Siahkal in 1971. A slick cover-version has been broadcast to the well-attended campaign-rallies (25,000 in Tehran, and 30,000 in Tabriz) of mainly young supporters bedecked in Moussavi's green campaign-colours; their wristbands and banners depict patriotic scenes of the days when the country was liberated from invading soldiers.
A song of Iran
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under attack from opponents on two main grounds: his mishandling of the economy, and a needlessly confrontational foreign policy which has led to Iran's international isolation. But he is an accomplished campaigner who knows the electorate and is not be outdone in the patriotic stakes.
The president has countered his two reformist opponents by retro-fitting new lyrics to Iran's "unofficial" national anthem Ey Iran. This one has its roots in 1944, when large parts of Iran were occupied by British and Soviet troops and people were suffering terrible hardship. Hossein Gol'golab, who penned the original lyrics, was a respected professor of biology at Tehran University. Men of Gol'golab's type, who would spontaneously stand erect with lips quivering as this anthem was played, may be gradually fading from the scene, but this song of resistance has often surfaced during student protests.
Ey Iran was adopted for a short period in 1979; when the revolution promised endless possibilities. But its period of greatest popularity was during the prime-ministerial tenure (1951-53) of Mohammad Mossadeq, the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who was ousted from office in 1953 in a joint British-American coup d'état.
Ey Iran is close to the heart of many Iranians simply because - unlike earlier or later anthems - there is no mention of shahs or sheikhs. But the president's team has seen fit to work Ahmadinejad's name and mention of the "nuclear cycle" into their rewrite. His campaign film in cold-war-era style promotes his government as empowering the nation through vast technological advances; it depicts exuberant crowds around the Islamic world greeting Iran's president.
Ahmadinejad's campaign-films are riddled with inaccuracies. They can be aimed only at state-television audiences that may well have no access to any other media. Such viewers see the diligent man that has gone grey in the four years of his presidency dramatically improving the lives of the deprived and forgotten. An elderly woman is shown thanking the president for building her new home, such a contrast to her former shanty existence; an overwhelmed young woman from a nomadic group describes Ahmadinejad as "valiant" and "the first ever president who has ever dared to come amongst the poor".
The president's achievements, such as they are, are built on the oil revenues that account for over 80% of government income; the oil price reached $150 a barrel in summer 2008, enabling the president to offer a string of inflationary yet populist handouts. The price of oil has since plummeted to around $60, leading to a depletion of national reserves; while unemployment and inflation (the latter now over 25%) continue to rise.
The government is undeterred: it has announced a 15%-25 % increase in the wages of all civil servants, and many other group (university students and nurses among them) are receiving cash bonuses. The nation's teachers, as well as 5.5m disadvantaged individuals and 11 million pensioners are to receive $80 each of "justice shares". Iran's former top nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani has described such generosity on the eve of election, when the government faces a severe budget deficit, as "unprecedented" and no different to "buying votes".
A hot campaign
Hassan Rowhani's comment must also be seen in the light of the mounting factional enmity that (for example) saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government in 2007 accuse his then deputy of espionage, and Rowhani's think-tank the Centre for Strategic Research charging the president in turn with manipulating the facts of Iran's nuclear programme. In his election address, Ahmadinejad indirectly talks of the corrupt Islamic "palace dwellers' that have led the country astray; but his close associates and even cabinet members have been less subtle.
The Ahmadinejad administration's open and widespread accusations of "corruption" and "treachery" against establishment insiders has united an equally broad range of political heavyweights around the camp of Mir-Hossein Moussavi. They include the current chair of the Expediency Council (who served as president, 1989-97) Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani; the grandson of the founder of the Iranian revolution, Hassan Khomeini; and Mohammad Khatami (president, 1997-2005).
At this stage no one is holding back. Faezeh Hashemi, a former MP and publisher of the feminist paper Zan alludes to a notorious video-recording of Ahmadinejad describing of his feeling - when giving a speech to the United Nations assembly - of being surrounded by a divine light of the imam Zaman (the sacred twelfth messiah of the Shi'a branch of Islam). Hashemi told the delighted crowd at Moussavi's Tehran rally that if elected again "he'll really think he is imam Zaman!"
Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran's internal politics and foreign relations:
Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)
Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)
Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)
Nazenin Ansari, "Tehran's new political dynamic" (16 April 2007)
Sanam Vakil, "The Iran-American dialogue: enemies within" (4 June 2007)
Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)
Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)
Jan De Pauw, "Iran, the United States and Europe: the nuclear complex" (5 December 2007)
Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's majlis elections: the hidden dynamics" (11 April 2008)
Paul Rogers, "Iran and the American election" (5 June 2008)
Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow-war" (16 July 2008)
Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)
Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)
Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)
Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009)
Sanam Vakil & David Hayes, "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009)Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad's fellow conservative but rival candidate in the race, Mohsen Rezaei (a former head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards) has said that a second term with Ahmadinejad will "heave Iran over an abyss". Rezaei is not a serious challenger, but he could swing some conservative voters away from Ahmadinejad in favour of the reformist candidates.
A high voter turnout will be decisive if a reformist is to win. Ahmadinejad's loyal supporters have proved that they will come out to vote for him. But experts argue that he has a ceiling of support of no more than 12 million. A turnout of above 30 million would prove disadvantageous for the incumbent. If a leading candidate gains less than 50% of the vote, a runoff election is held. No Iranian president has ever failed to get re-elected for a second term; but Ahmadinejad is the only candidate who has had (in June 2005) to face a runoff election to become president.
The concerted effort of the reformists is to persuade apathetic urban voters who were left disappointed with Mohammad Khatami's presidency to return to them. Mohammad Gouchani, a journalist and supporter of Karroubi's campaign, writes that this is not an election "for the thinker of the century... but a man of action".
When a Karroubi election meeting pre-scheduled for 30 May 2009 was "postponed" by the officials at Tehran's Amir Kabir University, the candidate turned up in any event to meet with the eager crowd. The dramatic amateur footage that appeared almost immediately online shows the students chanting "death to dictators" as they break the university gates down and see Karroubi through to their meeting. Karroubi was accompanied by the former Tehran mayor Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, his running-mate and candidate for vice-president. Many of Karroubi's team such as Karbaschi, Abbas Abdi, Emadeddin Baghi, and Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari were prominent casualties of the reform moment and have been imprisoned in recent years.
No one can win this election without the support of young people. 46% of Iran's 48 million eligible voters are under the age of 30; many are highly educated and at university. Karroubi's welcoming, boisterous reception is in stark contrast to Ahmadinejad's' visit to the same location when his pictures were burned by angry students. A number of Amir Kabir students have also been jailed in recent years; many have described Karroubi's pursuit of their cases. Indeed, fifty-four established student groups in an open letter have called for a stand against Ahmadinejad's "persistent onslaught on civil society" and his "reckless" economic and foreign policies that have "endangered national interests". This letter is significant as most of the same student groups had called for a boycott in the 2005 presidential elections, a factor that may have contributed to the conservative victory.
The prospect for Iran
The renowned Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in a passionate letter urging others to vote, talks of being a political prisoner alongside Karroubi during the time of the Shah (r 1941-79) and even sharing a cell with him at one point. He says of Karroubi that "he had a big heart and it was impossible for him to be silent... against injustice", and adds: "I never saw him cry under torture, but there were many a time when I saw with my own eyes his tears at an injustice done to others". But Makhmalbaf's endorsement is nonetheless for the trained architect Moussavi - an artist who "speaks for the people" and who the director praises for competent guidance of Iran's economy through the destructive war with Iraq in 1980-88.
Makhmalbaf's endorsement of Moussavi's presidential bid is emblematic of an election where more is left unsaid. There are no clear election manifestos - just symbols, inferences and ultimately a blind leap of faith.
Yet Moussavi may have more substance than any of his rivals. It has been said that it was the populist ideas of Sorbonne-educated Ali Shariati - a charismatic sociologist and left-leaning Islamic intellectual - that drew the youth of Iran into the revolutionary movement. Some who heard the Shariati's passionate speeches (leftist, Islamist and anti-monarchy) in the 1970s at Hosseiniyeh-Ershad may well also remember his recommendation of the work of a "young idealist couple" - Zahra Rahnavard and Hossein Rah'jo (Moussavi's artistic pseudonym) - who exhibited their work at the same establishment.
Rahnavard herself later became chancellor of Tehran's prestigious Al-Zahra university; her sculpture of a "mother and child" in the city's Mirdadamad Square is a familiar sight to the capital's residents. Today, she has become the first-ever post-revolution political spouse to campaign alongside her husband. Together, the couple seek to highlight what they argue is the betrayal of the egalitarian ideals of the revolution.
Indeed, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's letter of support refers to Moussavi’s work as an architect during his long absence from the political scene, and contrasts his ability to “fix” a damaged house to someone who would “knock it down with a pickaxe”. It is perhaps addressed more than anyone to wavering urban voters such as Sahar, a Tehran doctor who last voted in 1997. She is no fan of the system she lives under and tells me: "It's all charades ... I pity our people who fall for their emotional manipulation. Not a single one of these candidates will tell us what exactly they have in mind for the next four years".
Later, however, Sahar asks me: "Do you remember that wartime song Mamad Noboudi?" I do. The Mamad in the title was Mohammad-Ali Jahanara. The song is about the ordinary townsfolk of Khorramshahr, who under the command of the 26-year-old Jahanara battled against the Iraqi army. They sustained a valiant, inch-by-inch battle for the town before - after forty-five days - it fell to the enemy. The song, written by a comrade who fought alongside Jahanara, says: "Mamad, you're not here to see that our town is free".
Sahar goes on to tell me: "Did you know that Jahanara's father, who lost three children to that cursed war, was in Moussavi's campaign film, supporting him, saying half of their town is still derelict... at least they played the proper Ey Iran anthem.... I may just end up voting for him if only for Mamad Jahanara".