Iran on the move

Omid Memarian
11 June 2009

Iran has experienced one of the most exciting presidential elections since the Islamic revolution of 1979. All of the four candidates who appear on the ballot-paper in the first round of voting on 12 June 2009 may be handpicked by Iran's Guardian Council, and each can be considered either a father or a child of the revolution. But two are reformists who embrace progressive agendas, and whose popular campaigns suggest that millions of Iranians - 70% of whom are under 30 years old - believe that Iran needs reform.  

For Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it wasn't supposed to be like this. The leader elected in June 2005 expected an easy contest from opposition candidates who could be easily discredited for past failures or outflanked on nationalist rhetoric. Instead, he has been forced to grapple with harsh criticism of his economic policy, foreign policy and human-rights record - and is resorting to extreme denunciation of his rivals as a way of shoring up his core support. Omid Memarian is a journalist who writes for the IPS news agency. He was a World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, 2007-09. Omid Memarian's blog is here

Also by Omid Memarian in openDemocracy:

"Under the radar: an Iranian and America" (17 August 2006)

"Iran and the United States: time to engage" (2 May 2007)

"Ahmadinejad, Iran and America" (15 January 2007) - with Dariush Zahedi

"Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Whatever the result on election-day - and it is likely that no candidate will receive a majority, thus ensuring a second round of voting - Ahmadinejad's image has been severely damaged in the last two months of the campaign.  The shortcomings of his government, and his abrasive personality, have been exposed in unprecedented fashion via the internet, during the candidates' live debates on national TV, and in hundreds of rallies throughout the country.

A political fire

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have been mayor of Tehran before he swept to the presidency in 2005, but his lack of national profile and record protected him from close scrutiny. Now, after four years in office, he is being forced to defend himself - and he doesn't like it.

This was apparent in one of the startlingly frank and combative one-to-one TV debates that have been such a feature of the 2009 campaign. During the debate between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Moussavi - his main reformist rival - the president mentioned two influential religious figures in the country (Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Nategh-e-Nuri) as figureheads of Iran's corrupted political system (prompting Rafsanjani to write an unprecedented open letter of appeal to Iran's supreme leader); trashed the achievements of the five administrations before him (whose tenure covers almost two-thirds of the Islamic Republic of Iran's life); and offered some unpleasant insinuations about Moussavi's own high-profile wife, Zahra Rahnavard.

The weaknesses in the president's approach were quickly exposed. In 2005, Ahmadinejad's anti-corruption agenda had been an important weapon in his electoral defeat of Hashemi Rafsanjani. Since then, he has long promised to reveal the names of influential yet corrupt officials, but has not done so. Corruption is if anything more widespread than ever - and the president's anti-corruption credentials are being assailed by Iran's middle class, including journalists and university students.

Even some of Ahmadinejad's conservative allies criticise his promise to fight intra-regime corruption. In questioning why he hasn't rooted out corruption already, they conclude that his agenda on the issue is more a political gimmick than a true policy.

In the same debate, Ahmadinejad boasted of Iran's economic improvement during his term in office, citing falls in the inflation (to 15%) and unemployment rates. Yet Iran's central bank and international organisations reported at the same time that annual inflation was running at 25%.

The response here too was instant. Within a few hours of the debate, dozens of newspapers, websites, and hundreds of blogs were discussing and dissecting Ahmadinejad's inaccurate claims and misdemeanours in office. Many of them portray Ahmadinejad as Pinocchio, the puppet whose nose grows longer as he tells lies, an image that has come to define the president in the imagination of many.

There is more. As the campaign has built to a climax over the past month, a DVD entitled Navad Siasi has been distributed throughout the country. The first word of the title ("ninety") refers to a popular national TV soccer show - but the second ("politics") highlights Ahmadinejad's more dangerous "game". The film collates many of Ahmadinejad's controversial remarks on foreign policy, the economy, social issues and human rights - in each case revealing his inconsistencies, lies and risky decisions. It encourages people to participate in the election and support the opposition candidates.

The two reformists among these candidates - Mehdi Karroubi, the former speaker of the majlis (parliament) as well as Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who was Iran's prime minister during the war with Iraq (1980-88) - promote an agenda which appeals to such sentiments: reform of Iran's constitution, a moderate foreign policy, support for civil freedoms and women's rights.

The base of power

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retains a political base among millions of Iran's poor - those who believe that one of them, a man of humble background and unadorned character, really will distribute the country's oil wealth to the people. They could yet decide the result of the election.

The president has other assets too, including a network of powerful supporters. Many people believe that they could use underhand methods to prevent a reformist victory. The news that the Revolutionary Guards will (for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic) replace Iran's police and take charge of the security of a large number of the polling-stations and ballots is a sign of the government's preparations for an unfavourable result. A political analyst in Tehran told me that if the Iranian people suspect that Ahmadinejad's government has manipulated the outcome, there could be violence in the streets.

Indeed, even if the incumbent wins fairly, this does not mean that politics will remain frozen. Ahmadinejad's intolerant policy-style makes it likely that he will attempt to suppress civil society and control the political sphere even more than in his first term. But an enhanced atmosphere of fear, arrest and paranoia might also provoke demonstrations, strikes, and civil uprising. For Iranian society is on the move.

After the vote

In the event that one of the three anti-incumbent candidates - Mir-Hossein Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi or Mohsen Rezaei - wins the election, Iranian society will face another period of serious tensions between different fractions holding power in the country's complex structure. The immediate consequences for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government and his allies would be bad: many who believe that he has misused Iran's huge oil revenues (around $238 billion over his four years in office) would in the aftermath of his defeat pursue seek to embarrass those in the ex-president's circle, and diminish their chances in the next cycle of parliamentary and city-council elections.

The reformists have learned lessons since 2005. An administration they lead would now be likely to form coalitions with moderate conservatives and fold them into the new government. They know that it would be too hard to fight two fronts of the conservative establishment at the same time, and that they will need partners.

But regardless of the outcome of the election, it is apparent that the Iranian political elite understand that the Iranian people will no longer tolerate an administration which has isolated them from the outside world, earned their country a series of resolutions and sanctions from the United Nations Security Council, delivered them a fragile economy, and overseen a notorious human-rights record. Iranians want change. One way or another, they will get it. 

Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005) 

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005) 

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005) 

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006) 

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)  

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) 

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007) 

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007) 

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008) 

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 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)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

Sanam Vakil & David Hayes, "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: a blind leap of faith" (2 June 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's evolution and Islam's Berlusconi" (9 June 2009)

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