What’s next in Iran?

June 12, 2009

Lee Sustar looks at the background to Iran's tumultuous presidential elections.

MASS ELECTION rallies and bitter mutual denunciations by the leading presidential candidates gripped Iranian politics as voters headed to the polls on June 12.

The no-holds-barred election campaign has been dominated by incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a right-wing populist, and Mir Hussein Mousavi, a cleric and former prime minister who has become the main candidate of the liberal, reformist camp.

In the last weeks of the campaign, Mousavi and Ahmadinejad have been staging a series of rival mass protests in the capital city of Tehran and elsewhere, with crowds estimated in the hundreds of thousands on each side. If neither candidate wins an outright majority, which seems likely, the top vote getters will face one another in a run-off vote the following week.

The rallies, as well as the blistering political debate in the campaign, make nonsense out of the typical U.S. portrayal of Iran as a rigid totalitarian state. Of course, the political debate has unfolded within limits imposed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Council of Guardians, which must approve presidential candidates. But the elections highlighted mass engagement with politics as millions of Iranians consider their future--and the mass rallies were a window into that debate.

Supporters of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi at a rally in Tehran
Supporters of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi at a rally in Tehran (Shahram Sharif)

For his part, Ahmadinejad's turnout reflected his base among the poor, who have been the beneficiaries of a $250 billion surge in oil revenue since the Iranian president was first elected in 2005. This has given his government plenty of opportunities to boost spending on local development projects, higher pay for government employees and aid to the poor.

Also backing Ahmadinejad is the most political section of the armed forces, the Revolutionary Guard, and the paramilitary organizations known as the basij. These organizations are dominated by conservative men who, like Ahmadinejad, are veterans of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.

These right-wing elements now constitute the backbone of Ahmadinejad's administration, which initially got firm backing of Khamenei as an answer to George W. Bush's military encirclement of Iran through the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The hardliners around Ahmadinejad argued that the previous government of President Mahmoud Khatami was too accommodating to the U.S. and the West, and that Iran had to redouble its efforts to develop its nuclear enrichment program and strengthen its alliances with Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the occupied Palestinian occupied territories.

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Four years later, however, it's far from clear that Ahmadinejad has consolidated his political base, either among the poor or within the different factions of the Iranian ruling class.

THE PRESIDENT'S most visible political enemy is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, himself a two-term former president, former speaker of parliament and one of the wealthiest men in Iran. Rafsanjani is not only Mousavi's main backer--he funds and staffs the reformer's campaign office.

But he's also reportedly putting money behind a right-wing dark-horse candidate, Mohsen Rezai, a former head of the Revolutionary Guard who attacks Ahmadinejad from the right. By orchestrating a split in the conservative vote, goes the speculation, Rafsanjani hopes to maneuver Ahmadinejad into a run-off vote against Mousavi.

Ahmadinejad has struck back at Rafsanjani by publicly, and repeatedly, accusing him of corruption. While this is hardly the first time Rafsanjani has been painted as a crook--his family dominates Iran's lucrative pistachio-export business--it was a shock in Iran to hear such a charge from a sitting president. But by attacking Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad can posture as an anti-establishment candidate, even though he is the representative of the most conservative sections of the clerical and state apparatus.

Rafsanjani responded with an open letter to supreme leader Khamenei, demanding that he intervene. But Khamenei himself has shown reservations about Ahmadinejad's leadership. Last year, Khamenei humiliated Ahmadinejad by installing one of his most prominent critics, Iran's former nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, as speaker of the Majlis, or parliament. During the election, however, Khamenei has sought to remain above the fray.

Ahmadinejad has tried to counter all this by stepping up his handouts to the poor--most recently, in the form of potatoes--as well as paying bonuses to civil servants as Iran's election day neared. But while these efforts may help the president shore up his base among the rural poor, the working class is increasingly alienated from the government as the result of high inflation, persistent unemployment, and repression of strikes and independent labor organization.

All this has raised the possibility of a victory by Mousavi, who has the credentials as a leader of the 1979 revolution to capture some conservative votes, but who has also sought former president Khatami's reformist base among the liberal, educated middle class. The reformists, however, were ousted in 2005 because of their failure to deliver to workers and the poor. Mousavi apparently learned that lesson, and his campaign has made more explicit appeals to workers in order to compete with Ahmadinejad's populism.

Also remarkable is the extent to which Mousavi has sought to reframe politics in Iran and its relation to Islam. Rather than compete for the role of most pious candidate, Mousavi has justified his candidacy as the continuity of the nationalist themes of the 1979 revolution.

Moreover, Mousavi has set aside the pan-Islamist internationalism used by Ahmadinejad and previous Iranian leaders as the basis for foreign policy, instead stressing that Iran should take its rightful place among nations. He stresses continuity not only with the Islamists' seizure of power in 1979, but also with the nationalist regime of Mossadeq (overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup) and the constitutional revolution of 1905.

The implication is that while Iran will no longer be plundered by imperialism, it can also make deals with the West.

PUSHING THE debate further to the left is another reformist candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, whose second-place showing in the 2005 presidential contest was erased through fraud committed by Ahmadinejad's supporters.

A former speaker of the Majlis, Karroubi broke a taboo in Iranian politics by calling for equality for Iran's non-Persian ethnic minorities--49 percent of the population, including Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, Lur and others (Karroubi himself is an Azeri, as are about one in four Iranians). Ahmadinejad tried to co-opt that message, claiming that he, too, speaks Azeri, a language closely related to Turkish.

Karroubi also set the agenda on women's issues, arguing that women shouldn't have to be veiled. Mousavi also took up calls for women's equality, and campaigned alongside his wife. (Ahmadinejad, who months ago had to drop a pro-polygamy law after women protested, also organized a women's rally, with supporters bused in to Tehran from poor areas.)

Furthermore, Karroubi attacked Ahmadinejad for his flirtation with the denial of the Holocaust, saying, "The Holocaust is a fact. Whether the number of people who perished is 6 million or 6,000, denying it is of no benefit to Iran."

Adding to the heat in this campaign was a televised presidential debate in which Ahmadinejad's challengers denounced his economic figures as fake--the Iranian president has cited inflation figures of 14 percent, rather than the 23.6 percent reported by Iran's central bank. "Do you think I came from the desert, and that I don't know anything about figures?" said Karroubi.

In fact, voters' views on the economy will likely shape the outcome of the election--leaving aside a likely effort by Ahmadinejad supporters to stuff ballot boxes as they did in 2005.

Despite record-high oil and gas prices in recent years--which accounts for 80 percent of Iran's revenues--Ahmadinejad's government did little to set aside money for long-term investment to create jobs. Unemployment, officially 12.4 percent, could be as high as 17 percent, according to some estimates. Joblessness is a particularly pressing issue for people under 30--who account for 60 percent of Iran's 66.4 million people.

Persistent poverty is another problem. Iran uses the standard of $2 per day or below as the definition of extreme poverty, a level that has been reduced from 13.5 percent in 1995 to 5.6 percent by 2006. But according to the Central Bank of Iran, which considers the poverty line as the amount of income needed to purchase food for minimum dietary needs, some 19 percent of the population in urban areas is poor.

Ahmadinejad is betting that, nevertheless, the poor will remember him favorably on June 12, as well as the scheduled runoff. Whatever happens, the election campaign will leave its mark on Iranian politics for a long time to come.

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