One man shouting in a corner

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

The candidates against Ahmadinejad in the upcoming Iranian elections are so far Mir-Hossein Musavi, Mehdi Karrubi and – since last week – Mohsen Reza‘i, a ‘moderate conservative’. However there is one more interesting yet overlooked candidate: Akbar A‘lami, the most outspoken critic of the power establishment to run for presidency. Yesterday, A‘lami blasted ‘the power mafia’ of Iran in an extremely harsh fashion.


A‘lami is a former MP of Tabriz. On his personal website and throughout his political life, he has always emphasizes the fact that he is an Azeri representing Tabriz. Yet A‘lami himself grew up in the poor southern part of Tehran, and as a teenager, he worked odd jobs, driving busses, painting buildings etc. In his very frank and detailed autobiography, A‘lami explains that he was not a good student and that he didn’t even pray. However at some stage, he entered an Islamic study circle, through which he finally found interest in studying and praying. This interest led him from the holy books and leaders over to role models such as Ali Shariati and Khosrow Golsorkhi, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. With this interest came political activities – a part of his life A‘lami describes as ‘from pilot academy to guerilla activities aimed at reaching utopia or nowhere?!’.

A‘lami quit training to become a pilot when he realized this line of work would prevent him from political activities, and instead he was drafted as a soldier and stationed in Kerman and Esfahan. When Khomeini issued a fatwa for resisting the shah’s regime, A‘lami fled his military base and went into hiding while the police interrogated his father. Together with a friend who had been trained in guerilla warfare in Lebanon, A‘lami created a ‘political-cultural armed cell’ that participated in the Islamic Revolution. A‘lami was wounded in battles with the Shah’s forces but was treated by a kind doctor (who, A‘lami laments, was later forced by the ignorance of radicals to flee Iran for the US).

So far, A‘lami’s biography is pretty standard stuff for Iranian politicians. But it differs in one fundamental way: A‘lami writes that while he fought for the revolution, he did not know that one day, the revolution would fall into the hands of ‘the likes of Jennati’. Ayatollah Jennati is a powerful cleric and head of the Guardians Council in Iran. He is a hardliner and an outspoken supporter of president Ahmadinejad. A‘lami writes that in the early days of the revolution, there was no such thing as ‘left and right wing’, ‘reformist and principlist’ – indeed, this was before the days of ‘baseless political godfathers of various factions’, he writes, obviously criticizing the political elites of contemporary Iran.

Despite “fraud” and despite a very meager financial basis, A‘lami won an unprecedented majority of votes in the Tabriz area, and as a reformist candidate he entered what he sarcastically calls “the institution known as the People’s House” in 1999. A‘lami continued for nine years as an MP known for stinging attacks on the conservatives, until “the lords who seek prosperity on earth” questioned his beliefs in and pledge to Islam. In other words, despite his nine years as an MP, the Guardians Council rejected A’lami’s candidacy before the 2008 parliamentary elections. Like so many other candidates, this unelected council found that A‘lami was not sufficiently loyal to Islam and the Islamic Republic.

Now, A‘lami has declared his intentions to run for president. It is far from certain that he will be accepted and allowed to run. Yet his case deserves attention since he represents those seeking change within a political system that does not accept or tolerate them – those who are more reformist than ‘the reformists’. Yesterday, A‘lami spoke in the city of Orumiye in Western Iran, and his views were presented.

He began his speech with congratulating the audience with Teachers Week and International Workers Day, and thus praising two segments of the Iranian society who are currently mobilizing protests and are witnessing widespread government repression. A‘lami spoke in Azeri Turkic which is still rather unusual for politicians in Iran. He then went on to criticize “the media boycott” against him, and the fact that both foreign and domestic media only reports on the activities of Ahmadinejad, Musavi, Karrubi and Rezai. He blasted the authorities for preventing him from speaking before public audiences, even in mosques. If the constitution were put into action without discrimination, argued A‘lami, it would lower discontent in the population that once voted for this same political system, which is now repressing them.

A‘lami argued that “freedom, independence and territorial integrity” are three basic elements that cannot be separated: “[No-one], not even The Leader, the President or the Parliament have the right to take away the nation’s legitimate freedoms when introducing a law or even on the excuse of protecting the country’s independence and territorial integrity”, stated A‘lami; indeed, the people should use all “civil methods” to fight for their rights against any authority that tries to take away their rights. Iran belongs to all people, no matter ethnicity and tribal loyalties, race, language, etc., argued A‘lami, and stated that people should be allowed to use “local and ethnic languages” in press, media and in teaching local literatures in public schools alongside the teaching of Persian.

The slogan behind A‘lami is in Azeri and reads something along the lines of “As long as my mother exists – my mother tongue will persevere”

The latter claim is a rather sensitive one in Iran, where Persians are only about half of the population, the other half consisting of various ethnic groups such as Azeris like A‘lami, Kurds, Lur, Arabs, Baluch, Turkmen etc. The question of language – and in particular, the right to teach the mother tongue in ethnic minority areas – has recently become a crucial topic to some ethnically aware Iranians. It is also a topic with which A‘lami, in the position of representative for an Azeri-majority area, has been occupied. A‘lami was outspoken in his defense of the protestors during the Tabriz unrest of 2006, when Azeris poured into the streets to protest a racist cartoon ridiculing Turkic-speakers in a state-run daily – and at the same time, to demand respect for their indigenous culture and language in a country dominated by Persian language. A‘lami even threatened, during an interview, to beat up a journalist who insisted that the unrest was a conspiracy against Iran guided from abroad. In parliament, conservatives blasted A‘lami for his ‘anti-Iranian’ statements.

However, the most sensitive topic of A‘lami’s speech was that of the political system and the role of The Leader. A‘lami stated that erroneous interpretations of this system would endow The Leader with powers well beyond the abilities of one person and well beyond legal prerogatives. A‘lami stated that “as long as power is in the hands of a collection of some 200-300 persons, who have shifted power around amongst themselves since the revolution, and have taken 70 million Iranians as their hostages … change is impossible and the situation is becoming worse day by day”. A‘lami called both “the reformist and conservative gangs” for “a handful of professional policy-players” who are simply hungry for power and will dress up in new clothes anytime in order to cling to this power.

They are all the same, A‘lami argued, and they have all participated in repressing the people and their freedoms. They are monopolists and totalitarians, and they see religion and notions of democracy as mere instruments with which they can gain power. “70 million Iranians are caught in the political games of this power mafia”, A‘lami proclaimed, and with its complete control of the country, it has made people believe that there are no-one more suited for the job than the mafia itself.

Indeed, A‘lami recently posed a crucial question to all candidates for this year’s presidential elections: What would you do if you were faced with a State Decree by Ayatollah Khamene‘i? Would you comply or would you resist it? This question concerns the very problem of being a president of a country which is in effect run by a Leader and a couple of unelected, clerical bodies. A‘lami represents those who still believe in the potential of the Islamic Revolution to bring about justice and freedom, but who will not accept the rules laid out before politicians by unelected political elites, who have been running Iran for the last thirty years.

A‘lami will probably never be allowed to run for president, and he will most certainly not be allowed to become one. Yet, among the candidates, he is so far the bravest and most outspoken critic of the arbitrary political system and the abuse of power so prevalent in Iran today.

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