Iran's young reformers

Hossein Derakhshan
4 July 2005

The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reflects a fractured society, finds blogger Hossein Derakhshan on his return to Tehran; but also one where reformists have a future if they can speak to Iran’s rising generation.

Reform, as a political process for change, is still alive in Iran. I’m saying this because I just came back from ten days in Tehran, where I’ve lived almost all my life, and observing a complicated and thriving society.

Even though weblogs have opened an unprecedented window onto today’s Iran, created bridges between social islands inside and outside the country, and nurtured a space free of the state monopoly on information, visiting Iran is still something else for anyone interest to know what is happening in the country.

This is especially true for someone like myself who, because of his “provocative” political viewpoints – about Israel, Iran’s nuclear programme, its high authorities, its religious figures and ideas – has been away from Iran for the past three years.

Also in openDemocracy on Iranian democracy:

IranScan 1384 – Hossein Derakhshan, Mr Behi, Nema Milaninia, Farideh Nicknazar and others report and discuss Iran’s democratic process and potential

Iran’s road to democracy – a debate opened by Ardashir Tehrani, Hamid Zanganeh, Ramin Jahanbegloo, Bahram Rajaee, Nader Entessar and other Iranians assess the reasons for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory, and the post-election mood in Iran

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

A lifetime in eight years

It was quite clear that, even from the small kitchen of my Toronto apartment where I usually sit at my laptop and blog, the recent election would be the most transparent and exciting one for a long time. Both reformists and conservatives were fragmented, and this caused a great deal of serious campaigning, very close to what we see in the west, including embarrassing publicity stunts, well-crafted TV spots, and nasty smear campaigns. It also made all groups watch their rivals closely for their lies, exaggerations and wrongdoing.

Transparency aside, the fragmented vote of the electorate was in the end the main reason why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the fundamentalist mayor of Tehran, was elected president on 24 June (in this, my analysis differs substantially from Fred Halliday’s openDemocracy article, “Iran’s revolutionary spasm”).

The first round of the election on 17 June was very close. Ahmadinejad, even with all the support he received from the conservative establishment’s massive “get-out-the-vote” campaign, still received only about 19% of the votes.

This statistic was quickly forgotten after his second-round victory over Hashemi Rafsanjani. Soon, everyone was talking about how Iranian society has changed and what new message it is sending to the Iranian citizens. Few remember that eight years ago, when the then challenger Mohammad Khatami faced the conservative establishment’s favourite candidate, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the conservatives had almost the same share of votes. The same pattern was repeated in the 2001 election, with the conservatives winning at best 22% of the votes.

Eight years ago a friend and I went to a polling station at a small school near Shahrzad boulevard in the Darrus neighbourhood, north Tehran, and were overwhelmed by the number of people clamouring to vote for the first time in their lives – for a smiling man who was after all an Akhund (Shi’a cleric). It was western-looking young boys and girls in their late teens and early 20s, and good-looking women with un-Islamic make-up and stylish scarves and polished nails, who voted for Khatami and made him president.

But this time, when I went with the same friend, a journalist intrigued by the idea of watching us voting in the same place, to the same school, there was no sign of the democratic process. “No voting here”, the guy at the door told us.

I should admit it. Despite the sudden surge and excitement that the main reformist party, Jebhe-ye Mosharekat (Iran Participation Front), had seen in the last days of its campaign, people’s enthusiasm for voting that Friday was not even close to what I’d seen eight years before that. The mood was very different.

Mobilisation and forgetting

Mostafa Moin had only about two weeks to organize his campaign as a result of a smart game the religious leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, played. It was clear from the beginning that the conservatives wanted to split their opponents’ votes, especially because they had not managed to choose a single candidate for their supporters to rally round.

So when the unelected Guardian Council, the legislative body that controls the elections, barred Mostafa Moin in May from registering as a candidate, many people were surprised. In principle, the decision could have threatened clerical rule – by precipitating a new coalition of pro-reform groups under one of two well-known and experienced clerics from the early days of the revolution: Mehdi Karrubi, former speaker of the majlis (parliament) or Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president. So many were not shocked when Ayatollah Khamenei stepped in and reinstated Moin as a candidate.

But in any case, hundreds of influential pro-reform figures had already boycotted the elections simply because none of the candidates could represent them. After eight years of conservative blockage of any major reform in the laws and government procedures, the students, academics, business-owners, and homemakers who were among the main reasons Khatami was elected president in the first place had long become depressed, hopeless and apathetical.

Moreover, a new generation of young Iranians had never seen the early tough years of the revolution and didn’t remember the gloomy days of the eight-year war with Iraq when wearing nail polish or blue jeans could easily get you in trouble at school. They were raised in the much more relaxed years of Rafsanjani and Khatami and in a different atmosphere, for which they’d never fought.

Although Moin’s campaign heavily engaged an active group of young supporters to spread the excitement and change the mood in big cities, particularly Tehran, few of their friends were actually interested this time around. Their apathy could not have been overcome in two weeks’ time, despite the overwhelming number of independent Persian weblogs heavily promoting Moin as the most progressive candidate among the seven. After all, the most popular Persian weblog has only a few percent of the readers of an entertainment website featuring celebrity photos and cheesy pop songs.

Then there were satellite TV channels, mostly broadcast out of southern California, by a group of Iranians who have not been to Iran for the past two decades and yet were advising Iranians to boycott the elections or at best to put white ballots in the boxes. Imagine: on one side you have a few TV channels run by the conservatives, with bearded man and women in black chadors constantly praising the Islamic regime, and on the other well-dressed and nice-looking men and women saying the elections in Iran are always a sham and by voting they only help legitimise the regime. Sound argument by nice people; and it had an impact even on the educated.

I had seen the same dynamics during the US presidential election in 2004, when even some Iranian intellectuals, artists, and journalists were supporting Bush. Los Angeles-based satellite TV channels, widely available in urban and even many rural households, had created an atmosphere in which Bush was portrayed as the single most enthusiastic person on earth about democracy and liberty and someone who could make things better in Iran. No one in Iran knew much about the Patriot Act, Guantànamo, Abu Ghraib, Enron, Halliburton, except by watching state TV which was so full of propaganda the truth was lost in there.

Meanwhile, the reformists had few means to get their message out. One newspaper with an approximately 120,000 circulation, a few news websites and a network of supportive blogs couldn’t go a long way.

The fire next time

Yet by travelling to different parts of Iran, speaking to students and other citizens on university campuses and in public squares, the reformists managed to convince at least 4 million people to vote for Moin. This was not too bad – but it was certainly not enough to stop rival efforts: the populist message of Karrubi, the other pro-reform candidate (500,000 rials per month for every Iranian aged 18-50); the unlimited amount of money Rafsanjani was spending to look hip and young; and the voting machine of Ahmadinejad, which was very similar to the one that elected George W Bush for his second term.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad clearly had the support of many lower-class Iranians who, tired of endless efforts just to make even a basic living, were touched by his simple lifestyle and influenced by his populist messages about the income gap and corruption. But a walk along Tehran’s streets made clear that he had only a minimal presence before the election’s first round.

It was only the backing of a powerful voting machine – including a big network of mosques, young religious militias, and the Revolutionary Guards’ committed and faithful personnel – that helped secure Ahmadinejad his place in the second round. This institutional power, backed by the supreme leader, guarantees at least 2 million votes for the favoured candidate.

A version of Hossein Derakhshan’s article was published in the German newspaper Die Zeit.

If nothing else, the reformists pushed the limits much further this time by breaking some of the long-lived taboos around ethnic minorities, women’s political role, and human rights. They also showed they are the closest in terms of social values and methods to the young and educated middle-class urbanites. They proved they understand the potential of the internet to organise and energise their base and produce debate around their message. I saw how they were carefully listening to what their young supporters and staffers were suggesting and how they had taken them seriously.

The coming four years will be a great time for reformists to focus on their message, mobilise their base, and communicate with their potential supporters. They will probably not be present in the power structure of Iran during Ahmadinejad’s term of office, but the reform movement as the best way to reach a peaceful and democratic Iran, is still alive and kicking.

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