Tag Archives: Khatami

Ashura in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Today is an important day in Iran for several reasons. It is Ashura, the culmination of the mourning rituals marked by Shiites throughout the world, remembering the martyrdom of Imam Hossein in 680 AD. It is also the 7th day after the death of the leading ‘reformist’ cleric, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. In other words, there is much at stake and emotions are high.

I wont be able to liveblog today (as you may have noticed, I’m taking some time off from the blog in order to write my thesis!); however, if you want to stay updated, I recommend Enduring America’s blog here and the New York Times’ The Lede Blog here.

Who is a reformist and what is principle-ism?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Khatami’s recent withdrawal from the Iranian presidential elections came as a shock. The question now is what will happen to the ‘reformists’ before the elections slated for June 12.

However, the debate is obscured by the fact that the terms ‘reformist’ and ‘conservative’ are increasingly inappropriate simplifications of the much more complex and confusing reality of Iranian domestic politics. Indeed, it might be that the ‘reformist’ candidates are not reformists at all; that the ‘conservative’ candidates can attract ‘reformist’ votes; and that everybody wants to be a ‘principlist’!

It is time to review the terminology – and maybe even the mentality behind – when talking about Iranian politics.

The Ubiquitous Principlist
Ever since Khatami’s landslide victory in 1997, Western media and scholars have described him and his allies as ‘reformists’ or ‘moderates’. While ‘moderate’ obviously depends on the observer’s subjective view, ‘reformist’ is interesting since that is how most of Khatami’s allies describe themselves. During his presidency, Iran scholars constantly emphasized that Khatami was only interested in reforming, and not overthrowing, the Islamic Republic. Yet some Western media portrayals nonetheless indicated that Khatami not just represented a liberal interpretation of Islam, but also a gradual secularization. This was reinforced in the portrayal of Khatami’s Other, his rivals, called ‘conservatives’ or ‘hardliners’. Such terms seems to signify this segment’s views on ideology, cultural values and their interpretation of Islam. To the common reader in the West, a picture thus emerged of a rift between a rigidly Islamist ‘conservative’ group in Iranian society and an open-minded, tolerant ‘reformist’ group. While such a picture is not completely devoid of legitimacy, it is not sufficiently nuanced. Indeed, several factors have complicated the use of terms such as ‘reformist’ and ‘conservative’.

The 2005 campaign showed that the ‘conservatives’ were definitely not a united, uniform bloc. Thus, the term ‘neo-conservative’ was coined, mainly to denote the ‘second generation’ of politicians associated with Ahmadinejad. The current president is, however, a self-styled osul-garâ, a word that has led to the rather awkward translation ‘principlist’ or ‘principleist’. Osul-garâ‘i – ‘striving towards principles’ – could also be translated ‘fundamentalism’, as it refers to the fundamental tenets of Khomeinism. However, to avoid confusion with the Sunni fundamentalism of, say, Wahhabists, it seems that ‘principlist’ is now common use. Crudely put, ‘principlist’ became synonymous of the (neo-)‘conservatives’ around Ahmadinejad. The only problem is that it is not just Ahmadinejad who defines himself as a ‘principlist’. After Ahmadinejad adopted the term, other politicians soon declared themselves ‘principlists’, including those ‘conservatives’ who were opposed to Ahmadinejad; and now, even the main ‘reformist’ candidate appears to be a ‘principlist’!

Confusing? Indeed. Let’s look at recent developments as examples of the diverse, interlaced discourses of factional identification prevalent in Iranian domestic politics. The aim is not to re-classify or invent new categories, but rather to nuance the discussion of Iranian politics.

Is The Reformist a reformist?
It seems as if Khatami stepped down since he had promised to do so if another candidate – Mir-Hosein Musavi – would join the race. Musavi dragged his feet, but on March 9, he announced his bid. One question that bothers many now is of course: why did Musavi join the race at all, thus causing the allegedly popular Khatami to step down? A possible explanation is that Khatami knew that he would meet formidable obstacles that Musavi, with his outstanding credentials and political background, could avoid. However, as usual, conspiracy theories abound, one of them being that Supreme Leader Khamene‘i ordered Musavi to join the race in order to force Khatami – a severe challenge to Ahmadinejad and a nuisance to Khamene‘i and his ‘conservative’ clergy allies – to withdraw. The fact that such conspiracy theories exist first of all shows what many Iranians feel about the political game; but it certainly also has to do with the person of Musavi.

Originally a painter, architect and university lecturer, Musavi served as Iran’s last prime minister from 1981 to ‘89, when the position was eliminated. He is recognized across the political spectrum as an impeccable servant of the nation. His time as prime minister and close aide to Khomeini coincided with the bloody war between Iran and Iraq, and Musavi is praised for his attempts to keep Iranian economy alive despite the devastating war. Musavi represented the ‘left wing’ (another obscure term) of Iranian revolutionary politics: he was in favor of a state-regulated economy with a central role for collective cooperatives (ta‘âvon). Musavi could also be termed a ‘radical’ in the sense that he belonged to this ‘left wing’, which, among other things, challenged the historical Shi‘i clerical stance on the sanctity of private property.

Around the death of Khomeini, ‘the right wing’ – primarily based around the traditional clergy and the bazaar merchants naturally opposed to state ownership – finally ousted their foes on ‘the left’ and abolished the prime ministry. Musavi withdrew from politics and devoted himself to the cultural scene. Now that Musavi is the main ‘reformist’ presidential candidate, it is interesting to read his (hitherto very few) statements. After Khatami’s withdrawal, Musavi wrote Khatami a letter, stating that

You know that I too believe that the correct way is reforms alongside a return to the principles…

The use of the word ‘principles’ (osul) is not a coincidence: Musavi is aiming to use his political record and image to attract ‘principlist’ votes. In a recent interview, Musavi elaborated:

I believe that ordinary people are both principlist and reformist in a true sense. For example, the people do not like a politician who will back down on the issue of nuclear technology… [but] the people rejoiced at the launch of a space satellite… [Such feelings] can be seen as ‘principlism’. At the same time, the people do not like it that the state interferes in their personal affairs, or limits their legal liberties, or that the state closes down one newspaper after another for petty mistakes. It is possible to call such a feeling and tendency ‘reformism’… Amongst ordinary people, principlism and reformism are not separate. I think of principlism and reformism just like the people do.

Thus, Musavi is simultaneously laying claim to Ahmadinejad and the ‘neoconservatives’ ’ rhetoric of ‘principlism’ and Khatami’s ‘reformism’. Together with his quasi-socialist discourse of social equality and justice that might succeed in ‘stealing’ from Ahmadinejad’s core voters, the poor masses, this seems to be Musavi’s main message. He might already have attracted support from some unusual corners: former Revolutionary Guard commander and so-called ‘moderate conservative’ Mohsen Reza‘i is rumored to back Musavi’s bid. Musavi recently appeared at a commemoration for a famous martyr of the Iran-Iraq War, alongside Reza‘i and Admiral Ali Shamkhani. Reza‘i is certainly not a ‘reformist’ – yet he supports Musavi’s bid for presidency, maybe due to their background as colleagues during the war.

It is also very possible that other similar figures might follow suit, as indicated by recent remarks from conservative critics of Ahmadinejad in Parliament and by other former Revolutionary Guards commanders. It is even rumored that Nateq Nuri – who was Khatami’s ’conservative’ opponent in the 1997 elections – has been secured a place in the future cabinet if Musavi is to be elected. That would seriously undermine the idea of a ‘conservative’/’reformist’ dichotomy: would such a cabinet, including ‘conservatives’, be ‘reformist’ at all? Indeed, some proponents of ‘reformism’ argue that Musavi should not be seen as a ‘reformist’ – at least not in the ‘Khatamian’ sense. Khatami recently stated that

We have never claimed that Musavi would enter the [presidential race] as the epitome of reforms.

This ambiguous statement indicates that Musavi’s policies will not be anything like those of Khatami’s. An observer recently wrote on the reform-minded website Khordâd that

Mir-Hosein Musavi has plainly declared that he is ‘not a reformist’ … and a few months ago, during a private meeting with [reformist groups], he denied any relation with these [groups]. Mir-Hosein Musavi’s actions and words clearly send a message that he does not want the vote of such reformist groups in society nor the problems associated [with such a vote].

Zahra Eshraqi – Khomeini’s granddaughter and wife of Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the former president’s brother – has also stated that “Mir-Hossein Musavi is a principlist”. It is interesting to note that the political bazaar today is filled with rumors of Mohammad-Reza’s possible candidature. In such an event, we will probably see Mohammad-Reza capitalize on Musavi’s ambivalent political rhetoric and present himself as a true ‘reformist’.

Two sides of one coin

Thus, Mir-Hosein’s currying of favor with the ‘moderate conservatives’ and the ‘principlist’ discourse can easily have a boomerang effect. Despite Khatami’s endorsement, it now seems far from certain that the majority of reformist voters will back Musavi.

According to the daily Ham-Mihan, a public survey institute recently found that 57% of Khatami voters in Tehran would instead vote for Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf – currently the capitol’s mayor, who is often described as ‘a moderate conservative’ but has not yet announced his candidature. Only 29% would vote for Musavi while 14% still hadn’t made up their mind. Even though opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Iran, the report does point to a significant fact: that the idea that Iranians are divided between ‘reformists’ and ‘conservatives’ is somewhat obsolete. Indeed, the whole story is turned upside-down when we take into consideration a recent article in Tehrân-e emruz, a daily connected to Qalibaf. In it, an editorialist wrote that

an analysis of the view and executive-administrative approach of Mir-Hosein Musavi and Mahmud Ahmadinejad reveals the close resemblance of the two

In the piece, titled ‘Two sides of one coin’, it was also stated that Musavi’s candidature was “one step ahead, two steps back”; that Musavi is also a “man of rationing” (referring to Ahmadinejad’s controversial economic policies); and that Musavi has not made clear exactly how he differs from the current government. Sarcastically, the editorialist wrote:

Today, the policy of fattening the state is being executed, the cues [of people waiting for ration coupons and subsidized groceries] have returned to the streets and the most important government debate is how to target subsidies and promote a lessening of consumption … so why has Mir-Hosein, in such circumstances, suddenly rung the bell of danger?

The point is that Musavi’s policy of ‘Islamic Economy’ bears resemblance to that of Ahmadinejad – and, implicitly, that Qalibaf’s differs from these.

However, there are further aspects to this discussion. Qalibaf has presented himself with a ‘modern’ image: he is dressed in chic clothing, sports fashion sunglasses and appears as a suave, cool and youthful type. One of the controversies over Qalibaf was when he allowed Benetton to open a store in Tehran, and allegedly gave Mr. Benetton a private helicopter tour over Tehran’s skyline. Ahmadinejad’s supporters among the Basij militia criticized Qalibaf for being morally corrupt and facilitating the Western cultural invasion. On the other hand, figures such as Ahmadinejad and Musavi present themselves as austere ascetics, dressed in simple, locally produced clothing and living in humble residencies amongst ‘the people’. While Qalibaf’s constituency is the young and affluent, the private entrepreneurs and the globalized elites of northern Tehran, Ahmadinejad’s constituency consists of low-paid public employees, the unemployed masses of south Tehran, the poor in traditional, rural areas – as well as segments of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij.

Another sign that Musavi is tapping into Ahmadinejad’s constituency was his choice of venue for his first speech as presidential candidate. Naziabad is a poor area of southern Tehran. Musavi used to live here and even as a prime minister and despite Iraqi missile attacks during the war, he stayed here. Now, Musavi is looking for support among the ‘dispossessed’ and pious peoples of Naziabad – and other similar destitute areas throughout Iran. Furthermore, Musavi’s regular use of religious, revolutionary and wartime language underpins that he will not be seen as a candidate for the secular-minded liberals.

Thus, the categories of ‘conservative’ and ‘reformist’ once again fails to grasp reality: that a so-called ‘conservative’ (Qalibaf) might eventually score the allegedly ‘reformist’ vote of some liberal-minded Tehranis; and that a so-called ‘reformist’ (Musavi) might score votes in what is traditionally seen as ‘conservative’ areas. This political site is not about ‘reformist’ or ‘conservative’: it is a question of culture and class.

However, facing Ahmadinejad on home ground is not the only challenge facing Musavi. It seems he is lacking broad-based support from a very crucial segment: the students. First of all, the generation born in the 1980s does not know much about Musavi except that he is a ‘man of the system’. Secondly, they have still to see an original and far-reaching agenda for change. Musavi’s old-fashioned rhetoric and his cautious criticism of those in power is simply not an approach that appeals to this section of the electorate.

After Khatami’s withdrawal, an emergency meeting of the youth divisions of Khatami’s organization revealed a lack of support for Musavi. Rather than Musavi, some of the young activists pointed to a visitor at the meeting as their candidate – Abdollah Nuri. Nuri was one of Khatami’s trusted aides and served as his Interior Minister and vice-president. He was sentenced to five years in jail in 1999 for insulting Khamene‘i, ‘disturbing public opinion’ and advocating links with the US. Nuri has not yet announced whether he will join the presidential elections but nothing can be ruled out in the coming weeks and months.

Old wine in new bottles
So, how about the second ‘reformist’ candidate, Mehdi Karubi? Always a controversial figure, Karubi too belonged to the ‘left wing’ of Iranian politics in the 1980s where he was a key parliamentarian. In 2005, he split with the ‘left wing’ clerical body Majma‘-e rowhâniyun-e mobârez (Clerical Combatant Assembly) in order to create his own ‘party’, E‘temâd-e melli (National Trust). It seems that the 71-year old cleric is a candidate for every election, every time – but never wins.

Some facts are, however, in favor of Karubi: a decent result in the 2005 elections (17%); a steady following among some of Iran’s ethnic minorities; vocal criticism of Ahmadinejad and his government’s repression of students, artists, Sufi dervishes and the opposition; support from some of Khatami’s former aides; and his populist promises of cash handouts to all Iranians if he is elected. However despite all this, Karubi is not widely seen as a potential winner. He too seems to lack the broad-based support of the younger generation. And again, there is the question: is Karubi a ‘reformist’ at all?

In Iranian cyberspace, it seems that some do not believe so. A renowned ‘reformist’ blogger, ‘Bahman Aqa’ recently wrote:

In my point of view, Karubi isn’t a reformist. He is one of the leftist clerical leaders of the 1980s who was thrown out of power in the 90s and now wants to come back in. He is very brave and outspoken. He writes a letter to Jennati and tells him everything he wants to tell him

This refers to Karubi’s controversial letter of 2007 in which he severely criticized the high-ranking Ayatollah Jennati for praising Ahmadinejad. ‘Bahman’ continues:

But the fight between Karubi and Jennati is just the continuation of the fight between the [leftist] Combatant Clerics Assembly and [rightist] Combatant Clerics Society of the 1980s. Then, the Supreme Leadership supported those of the ‘Assembly’, today it supports those of the ‘Society’

This view is indicative of the fact that for many Iranians, the intra-clergy and factional struggles are basically irrelevant: there is no significant difference between most of these candidates and even in name, their organizations sound similar. Terms such as ‘reformist’, ‘conservative’ and ‘principlist’ are in constant flux and prone to opportunist abuse from all sides.

The bottom line is that all candidates are loyal to the fundamental ideology of the Islamic Revolution and the fundamental framework of the Islamic Republic. The second common characteristic is that they all utilize populist slogans in one sense or another, even though ‘the people’ to whom they address their rhetoric are from different socioeconomic and cultural strata of Iranian society.

This piece should of course not be seen as an indictment of Iran scholars and observers. I have used (and will continue to use) somewhat simplistic terms such as ‘reformist’, ‘conservative’ and ‘principlist’ when describing Iranian politicians. As analysts working with a controversial field of some interest to public opinion, we are obliged to talk in a plain language with a minimum of exotic words and complex neologisms. We need to describe the general currents in a multifaceted and often ambiguous, obscure political landscape.

Yet, it seems evermore important today to exert caution when choosing words for describing political trends and presidential candidates in Iran. It is evermore important that we refrain from clear-cut labeling and binary definitions of ‘reformist’ vs. ‘conservative’. Iranian politics is dynamic and unpredictable. We might see a ‘conservative’ come to power in the guise of a ‘reformist’ – just as we might see a professed ‘principlist’ reform the country in a direction away from the ‘principles’.

Khatami is back – now what?

After a prolonged period of deliberation, rumors and speculation, Seyyed Mohammad Khatami has decided to join the 2009 presidential elections in Iran. Will he stand a chance?

Khatami, who was Iran’s president from 1997-2005, is identified as a ‘reformist’ (eslâh-talab) on the Iranian political scene. Under him, Iran did experience an initial ‘Tehran Spring’ from 1997-99, where young Iranians, women and ethnic minorities enjoyed a significant relaxation in cultural restrictions and where the press, civil society, art and pro-democratic organizations blossomed. The impact of this period was profound and forever changed Iranian society.

However, from the student uprising of July 1999 onwards, the conservative forces in Iranian society, headed by the Supreme Leader, the traditionalist right wing and the institutions they control – including the Revolutionary Guards, paramilitary Basij, intelligence and the judiciary – started a clampdown on the reformist movement. As Khatami and his allies (in the so-called Participation Front coalition) experienced one defeat after another in their struggles with the conservatives, and as the conservative Guardians Council constantly obstructed reformist legislation, Khatami’s popularity dwindled significantly. In the end, his image was close to ruined.

Now that Khatami has finally proclaimed his candidature, Iranian and international media is buzzing with discussion. Here, I will briefly take a look at some of this discussion. Hopefully I will find the time to follow up soon with a piece on the conservative camp and Ahmadinejad’s prospects in the future elections.

Khatami has proclaimed that

“Right now, our duty is to correct the present situation and the way to that goal is through elections. Of course, no-one will claim to [be able to perform] a miracle, and no-one will declare himself as a champion”

Indeed, Khatami did not launch a significant new program or hold an historic speech when he announced his candidature. It seems he is trying to be cool-headed, and lower the expectations of certain parts of the opposition. In respect to this sensible forecast, he can to some extent be compared to Obama – reminding his supporters of the immense tasks in front of him if he should be elected.

But the comparisons to the US do not end here. Juan Cole writes

“You have an economy in shambles, increasing international isolation, the danger of further wars, an unpopular millenarian president who thinks God put him in office to reshape the world, and an alarmed public across the board. And you have a liberal challenger to the woeful status quo who is known for an ability to reach out to conservatives and a dislike of social polarization, who is wildly popular with youth, women and liberals, but who might attract even conservative votes.

Sound familiar? I am talking about Iran.”

Quoting a speech by hard liner Ayatollah Jennati, Cole pointed to the fact that the conservatives see Khatami as a threat:

“The Iranian hard right is most of all afraid that Khatami, if he is reelected, will establish good relations with the US. Ahmad Jannati, a hardliner and chairman of the Council of Guardians (kind of a clerical Senate) told the reformist paper E’temad last week:

‘The people do not want a non-Islamic element to come to power in this country.” He added: “The person who wants to become the next president should in the first place be Islamic, and enjoy the characteristics required for Islamic governance, namely orientation towards justice and devotion to serve the people. In addition, he should fight against corruption and (global) arrogance. Naturally, such a person cannot show a green light to America.’

He went on say: ‘At the moment, with the change in the American administration, a number of members of grouplets (hostile opposition groups), who should really be in prisons, have been exploiting their freedom in the Islamic Republic, and have gone to America and have given its officials some hope about the restoration of relations (with Iran).” Jannati added: “If the pro-American tendencies come to power in Iran, then we have to say goodbye to everything. After all, anti-Americanism is among the main features of our Islamic state.’”

However, before dealing with such profound issues of foreign policy as relations to the US, Khatami have many other hurdles to worry about.

On Gooya, Babak Dad argued that for Khatami, a 100-day marathon with great obstacles ahead has started, and wrote:

“Now, Mr. Khatami is faced with dozens of important questions, that he will have to answer before June 11: questions, that have been troubling the minds of society, and until [people] receive answers, they will not place new trust in him …
[Khatami] wants to prove that he is ‘another Khatami’ and that he will not repeat some of the faults of the reformist government. The first signs of this ‘other Khatami’ have become clear already. But it is not enough; because more than any other, he has realized, that the ‘current Khatami’ will not win votes and is in need of ‘change’ …

Khatami has announced that he will join the presidential race with a new team and that their slogan will be “Political progress – no! Economic progress – yes!”. No doubt, this has a double function: first of all, Khatami signals to his conservative opponents that he will not aim at fundamental reform that would threaten the power of the clergy or the fundamental nature of the Islamic Republic; secondly, it is a way to recognize that the reason for Ahmadinejad’s victory and the reformist defeat in 2005 was that the reformists failed to recognize the economy as the main concern of the broad population. Now that Ahmadinejad has not been able to fix the economy, Khatami is hoping that he can present himself as the one who can bring real solutions.

However the question, as Babak Dad points out, is then: is this the right strategy? I.e., will Khatami be able to present himself as a savior to the many Iranians who see inflation, unemployment and rising poverty as the main problem? Or will Khatami alienate his potential core of supporters by downgrading political reform? The question of whether or not this “change of strategy” is correct “will soon be the greatest discussion” among people, concludes Babak Dad.

On the Âgâhsâzi website, a former political advisor to Khatami, Morteza Mobalegh, pointed to three major challenges ahead:

“The first challenge or worry concerns the widespread reactions, unethical actions and sabotages, which has started long ago, and will be strengthened in the future. These acts of disruption stems from certain groups, mafia rings and extremists in this country”.

It seems Mobalegh was talking about the conservative forces. The second worry, argued Mobalegh, is the question of “healthy elections”: in other words, the fear that elections will be rigged or otherwise manipulated by the abovementioned forces. The third worry was that of bias and partiality in the media as well as in funding and logistical support for the conservatives: in other words, the support of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i – through his massive machinery that includes institutions and state-run media throughout the political landscape – for Ahmadinejad.

However, there is also the question of intra-reformist competition. Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, seen as a ‘moderate, has already stated that he will not join Khatami in a coalition (even though this might change). Karrubi seems to be a candidate at every presidential and parliamentary election, and in 2005, he gained 17% and thus came in third after Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani. Karrubi has build up a strong base of voters, particularly in certain regions and amongst the ethnic minority of Lurs. Indeed, Karrubi has presented himself as the champion of ethnic rights in the 2009 elections.

Another potential rival is Mir-Hossein Musavi, who was prime minister after the revolution until this post was removed in 1989. There seems to have been quite some buzz around Musavi lately, especially amongst some reformist students. It also seems Musavi was very angry at Khatami’s decision to announce his candidature now. Indeed, (although it may very well be one of those anti-reformist ‘sabotages’ mentioned above) the state-run Kayhân daily reported this morning that Khatami had in effect turned around on his promise to support Musavi – and that Khatami had caught Musavi by surprise with his sudden announcement. It remains to be seen if Musavi will also run.

It also remains to be seen what the ‘center’ of the political scene – the forces around former president and powerful cleric Ayatollah Rafsanjani and figures such as Hassan Rowhani – will do. Will they support Khatami’s bid or will they rather present their own candidate? It seems Rafsanjani’s brother, Mohammad Hashemi, who is not a cleric, might run as a candidate for the centrist / ‘technocratic’ group Executives of Construction (Hezb-e kârgozârân-e sâzandegi). Again, this is something we will see within the next couple of months.

So, the question is: with at least three ‘reformist’ candidates, will Khatami stand a chance? In an interview with the exile-Iranian Rooz Online, Mohammad Tavassoli – leader of the political bureau of the more or less tolerated opposition group Freedom Movement (Nehzat-e âzâdi) – stated that this could be a serious problem.

The reformist camp, said Tavassoli, “must choose a single candidate”. If not, “the conservatives will certainly and undoubtedly win the future elections”. Khatami will have to cooperate and deliberate with the other candidates, argued Tavassoli, who presented the recent presidential elections in the United States as a good example of sound election ethics and pragmatism.

Yet, some aspects also speak for Khatami’s possible success. On Tehran Bureau, Golnoush Niknejad writes that

“Despite Khatami’s failures in his two terms, those who want change in Iran must realize that he is still the most likely reformist candidate to prevail upon the Guardian Council, a powerful organization charged with vetting candidates for office, among other constitutional powers”.

In an email, Iran scholar and Informed Comment contributor, Farideh Farhi of University of Honolulu wrote that Khatami

“… will make an argument that despite the protestation to the contrary his foreign policy placed Iran in a better place in the world, his economic policies brought inflation under relative control (relative in comparison to what has happened under Ahmadinejad) and reduced wasteful spending, and cultural policies left the country more open.”

Farhi continued:

“Whether or not [Khatami] remains a candidate until the end or leave the scene in favor of another reformist candidate (either Karrubi or perhaps even Mussavi), Khatami’s entrance will allow Iranians to engage in a conversation about two divergent governing styles and policies. To be sure, not every policy but certainly many policies. More importantly, if … [the elections] ends up being a two-way race between [Khatami] and Ahmadinejad, the Iranian electorate will also be faced with a choice based on policy differences and governing styles.”

In the view of Trita Parsi – Iran expert, author and president of the National Iranian American Council, writing for Huffington Post – Khatami faces three main challenges: firstly, he must “show greater strength and willingness to challenge the political boundaries”; secondly, he “must be able to mobilize his base – the more educated classes in Iran – and make sure they vote”; and thirdly,

”if elected, Khatami must show the courage to ruffle some feathers to implement his program. He has been given an undeserved second chance, an unexpected opportunity to run once more, which is largely due to the way Ahmadinejad’s poor performances has created nostalgia about Khatami. He won’t be given a third chance.”

Indeed, Khatami’s entry into the presidential race is of great importance – no matter what cynics and pessimists will claim. It is now up to “the Smiling Mullah” to re-invent himself and his political agenda: and to enter a vigorous battle with Iran’s current president and the neo-conservatives around and behind him.

Ahmadinejad: Iran is a superpower

The Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad spoke today at the celebrations marking the Islamic Revolution’s 30th anniversary. He said that

“In a loud voice, I declare that – due to God’s grace, divine favour and the Iranian nation’s steadfastness – the shadow of threat has been lifted from the Iranian nation for good”

and that

“I declare officially the Iranian nation to be a true and real superpower”

and that

“The Iranian nation is a prudent and justice-seeking power and the friend of all nations; it has never had an eye to the territories and resources of other nations, and it has always been the helper of nations. Today the Islamic Revolution, in its 30th year, is like a 15-year old kid, full of energy, joy and values, and like a 60-year old, full of experience, prudence and determination”

and that

“Iran is the dearest of nations, and all nations see Iran’s progress as their own progress, and they are happy when they hear news about Iran’s progress”.

On the English-version of their site, the state-affiliated student news bureau ISNA ran the same story however with emphasis on another part of the speech: “Ahmadinejad says Iran ready for dialogue with mutual respect”.

The pro-reformist website Bârân reported that Ahmadinejad-supporters armed with clubs wanted to attack former president and now presidential candidate, Mohammad Khatami – but that those participating in the festivities prevented this attack. The website also claimed that among their slogans, these ‘pressure group’ members (i.e., Islamist vigilantes) shouted ‘Death to Khatami’ (as well as the US, Mujahedin-e Khalq and other usual suspects).

Information Minister Hojjatoleslam Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ezhe‘i claimed that Iranian security forces had thwarted a plot by “enemies” to detonate a bomb during the celebrations. In Arak, former chief of the Revolutionary Guard, General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, stated that “oppressing regimes will in the coming decades be turned into Islamic Republic”.

Stir in weblogistan, new Interior Minister, Rafsanjani’s feminism

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

A selective glance at Iran and Iranian media, November 21.

The (in)famous Iranian weblog writer Hossein Derakhshan – who has caused a stir in ‘weblogistan’ ever since he (allegedly) started the first weblog in Persian – has apparently been arrested in Iran (more here). His critics – and they are many – tend to see the irony in this: first of all, Derakhshan himself moved to Toronto (and later London) to escape censorship and control; secondly, in the past few years, Derakhshan was seen as a supporter of the Islamic Republic and President Ahmadinejad. One of the things that really upset pundits was when Derakhshan, also known by his online name Hoder, implicitly defended the Iranian state’s arrest and interrogation of the secularist intellectual Ramin Jahanbeglu.  Among his many other controversial ideas and actions was his denouncement of the ‘Zionist conspiracy’ – however, not before after he actually went to Israel himself, which is probably the reason why he is in jail in Iran now (i.e. being an Israeli spy). Derakhshan apparently had planned to go back and live in Iran when he was arrested a month ago. The state-run Iranian news agency IRNA has brought what seems as the first part of his ‘confessions’, in which Derakhshan tells how Iranian writers and journalists were “encouraged to leave the country and write against” the political system in Iran “in exchange for financial guarantees” and how the US blackmailed others to criticize Iran. In the ‘statement’, Derakhshan is alleged to have said that these anti-Iran activists now “used tranquilizing drugs” and “attempted suicide” to cope with the pressure put on them. More on this issue later.

Hosein Mar‘ashi, member of the ‘centrist’ Kârgozârân party has stated that Khatami will run for president while a key member of the pro-reformist Participation Front (Jebhe-ye moshârekat) stated that Karrubi’s participation in next year’s presidential elections doesn’t mean Khatami cannot participate too. It now seems certain Khatami will let us wait until last second before announcing his candidature.

Ayatollah Ha‘eri-Shirazi has argued that “the election of a black man in the US is the result of Ahmadinejad’s letters”. According to ILNA (Iranian Labour News Agency), the Ayatollah referred to the letters Ahmadinejad  sent to Bush and lately also to Obama: “Some criticize this letter [to Obama], however the election of a black man to Presidency of the US is itself a result of these same letters”. He also added that ‘Imperialist powers’ had stolen the medieval poet Sa‘di from Iran when they took one of Sa‘di’s quotes and placed it on the UN headquarters building in NY.

Iran’s new Interior Minister is the not-so-experienced politician (but millionaire and ex-Revolutionary Guards member), Sadeq Mahsuli. Even though it seemed he might not receive the Parliament’s endorsement (which was necessary), he was finally approved November 18. It seems he was helped by a campaign of propaganda-by-SMS. I have wondered for some years now about the use of SMS for the purpose of political propaganda in Iran. I do not have any info on the affiliation of telecommunication companies to the state apparatus, but there is no doubt that the authorities can use this medium at their discretion. I received an SMS from none other than Khamene‘i when I was in Iran earlier this year, reminding me to vote in the Parliamentary elections and thereby ‘support the people-serving government’. However, the related question is: how does ‘the state apparatus’ – being so fragmented and run by competing factions – divide the access to SMS distribution channels? Or is it just Khamene‘i who can use this service? In that case, there can be no doubt that the Supreme Leader supports Ahmadinejad and his team – including the new Interior Minister.

It has been known for years that the Iranian authorities are blocking access to many websites. However, now it’s official (wow!). According to Shahab, the official statistics show that 5 million websites are currently ‘filtered’ by Iranian judicial authorities.

Former President and Head of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Rafsanjani has stated that “with the victory of the Islamic Revolution, women found their real place [in society]“. He appeared together with his wife at the 6th Int’l Convention for Female Koran Researchers and said: “For a long period … Muslim women were not active and stayed at home. However, with the Islamic Revolution, the way has been opened [for their participation in society], in the shade of the Koranic blessing’s light; and now we see: 40,000 student dissertations on the subject of the Koran written by women and that shows in which direction women are moving”. He also added that the issue of women should not be treated with radicalism and extremism: “Some interpret women freedom to mean unrestrained behavior; however, one must certainly stay away from such radical and extremist [interpretations]”.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the Turkish TV- and radio-giant TRT has launched its Persian services.

Endorsement, mixed reactions to Obama, security measures

by Rasmus Christian Elling

A selective glance at Iranian media, November 13 / 2008.

Yesterday, the newspaper Vatan-e emruz reported a 3-hour meeting between former presidents (and former rivals) Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Allegedly – and I stress this as it must still be considered within the realm of rumors – Rafsanjani called on Khatami to run for president in next years elections. Khatami – according to this report – will wait until last minute to announce his candidature. Furthermore, in his endorsement, Rafsanjani even stated that another ‘reformist’ candidate, Mehdi Karubi (who seems to run for presidency every time but never succeeds despite a loyal constituency in specific areas), could be persuaded to step down. If this is the case, then Khatami could be the sole ‘reformist’ candidate – a development with profound consequences that demands a thorough analysis.

UPDATE: A spokesman from The Expediency Council, Rafsanjani’s stronghold, has denied the report…

One thing is certain: the conservative forces, despite all their internal differences, would probably have to unite around Ahmadinejad if Khatami enters the race. Other conservatives such as Hojjatoleslam Pur-Mohammadi (who also has announced his candidature) will certainly not be able to unite the different wings; and, personally, I have never thought that ‘Ali Larijani could muster enough support even though he is periodically hyped as a pragmatist with clout and support from the Supreme Leader Khamene‘i.

As the first president of the Islamic Republic to do so, Ahmadinejad congratulated Barack Obama on his election victory by writing a letter. Since then, Ahmadinejad has received a mixed review for this. Not surprisingly, his own Ministry of Foreign Affairs has supported him; Larijani and another key conservative, Tavakolli, have criticized him; and Student Basij, the university division of the hard line Islamist paramilitary force sufficed to claim that Obama had learned his ‘Yes We Can!’ slogan from Ahmadinejad!

Meanwhile, skepticism about Obama’s intention in the Middle East seemed to spread in conservative Iranian media: Fars reported how Zionists rejoiced at Obama’s choice for Head of Staff; the state-run Kayhan daily announced that a ‘Son of an Israeli terrorist is Obama’s first selection’; and Raja News showed a picture of Obama with a skullcap, thus portraying him as “The Zionist Foe”.

Indeed, with the Iranians testing a new long-range surface-to-surface missile yesterday, some Western media expressed skepticism about the much-anticipated rapprochement between the US and Iran while others speculated a pre-Obama Israeli attack on Iran.

Middle East Times, quoting UPI (and Iran’s PressTV) stated that the Kurdish guerilla organization, PJAK (Party for a Free Life of Kurdistan, a PKK-affiliate) has suspended operations against Iran. This would be a surprising turn as the organization has gradually increased its attacks on Iranian border guards since 2005.

At the same time, Iranian security forces were launching unprecedented major exercises throughout Tehran. Over six days, 30,000 officers trained urban scenarios under the banner of ‘Public Security and Tranquility’, reported Shahab News. ‘Quarantine of sensitive and important areas such as the bazaar and banks, 2.5 kilometer long parades in Tehran’s main streets and squares, enhancing security at strategic centers, the swift transfer of forces from other provinces to the capital and the rendering of services to the people in cases of emergency, such as earthquake, were among the goals of this maneuver’, the news agency stated. However, Shahab News rejected claims by ‘some political circles and media’ that the maneuver should be seen in the light of ‘recent changes’ in the command structure of the Security Forces (niru-ye entezâmi); Shahab News also ridiculed reports such as that in Al-Jazeera, which claimed Iran was ‘getting ready for unrest’.

Meanwhile, a debate is raging in Iran over the proposed installment of CCTV in certain areas of Tehran. Ahmadinejad has rejected this idea, floated by high-ranking security officers; later, a commander stated that the Security Forces did not intend to ‘control the personal lives of citizens’ and that only limited surveillance was in the planning.

BBC Persian also reported that the much-dreaded Operative Basij Patrols (gasht-e ‘amaliyâti-ye basij) have returned to Tehran after police replaced them in the years after the revolution. The basij, a paramilitary force known for its hard line Islamist ideology, is going to support the police in Tehran. Even though Tehranis have experienced many different kinds of gasht patrols, this is probably going to be one of the toughest when it comes to moral policing. Last but not least, BBC also reported that Tehran’s governor announced the opening of a new Council for Social Security in Tehran to combat crime and unrest.

In the view of Ahmad Zeidabadi – an experienced Iranian journalist now working for the BBC – there can be a positive and a negative interpretation of all these measures: the positive being that ‘social insecurity’ (that is, crime) has reached a point in Tehran, where such measures are indeed necessary; the negative of course being that the state apparatus seeks to frighten and harass the population, and prevent riots and uprisings – such as those one might expect to occur on the background of constantly rising food prices, inflation and unemployment.

Zeidabadi also pointed out Ahmadinejad’s opposition to the installment of CCTV in Tehran, which seems, to Zeidabadi, ‘mysterious’. Indeed, how come Ahmadinejad has blamed the security forces for creating a bad atmosphere of policing in the capital? Here, Zeidabadi states two possible interpretations: either Ahmadinejad was unaware of the security measures and now feels sidelined (thus maybe showing that the President will not be supported by the security apparatus in the upcoming elections); or that Ahmadinejad pretends he was unaware of the measures in order to paint a portrait of himself as a ‘moderate’ in the public mind (and thus attracting voters). Finally, Zeidabadi also mentioned that some analysts see these measures as part of a preparation for US attacks during the last months of Bush’s presidency.

Fake degrees, possible return and fruit prices

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

A selective glance at Iranian media, week 45/2008

While the Iranian Parliament was busy impeaching Interior Minister Kordan over the embarrassing case of a fake doctorate degree, and while Ahmadinejad was busy defending his controversial minister and closing weeklies critical of him and his government, the exile-Iranian news outlet roozonline.com stated that the Foreign Minister, Manuchehr Motakki, also has a fake degree. Although roozonline.com’s reporters are not always to be trusted, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if it were so – Iran’s many diploma mills taken into consideration.

Despite his own hesitation and despite critics saying it will be a suicide mission, former Pres. Mohammad Khatami might after all be forced to run for the presidency in June 2009. Large groups of artists and film-makers and a wide spectrum of pro-reformist/”Islamic left wing” parties and political figures – including people close to another former president (and former Khatami foe), Rafsanjani, alongside (formerly) prominent “moderate” mullahs and former student movement leaders – have created a so-called Third Wave movement to encourage Khatami to run again. Needless to say, there’s a distinct ‘former’ feel to all this. However, it may be too early to dismiss the so-called reform movement, even though it has been declared dead several times in recent years. Stay tuned for more on this.

On Friday, Tehran’s Friday Prayer Leader, Ayatollah Jennati – who is close to Ahmadinejad – claimed that some newspapers are ‘attacking the government’. According to Advar News, which is the media outlet of the alumni division of the Iranian student organization Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat (The Office to Consolidate Unity), this is a signal foreboding further closures. Jennati followed up on the Supreme Leader’s statement that God will not forgive those who slander the government officials, saying that ‘dozens of newspapers are attacking the government and they say anything they please while claiming that there is no freedom. [Furthermore, these newspapers] are being applauded from abroad’. He too warned that ‘God will not easily forgive those who weaken the government’.

Normally, such a statement by such a high-ranking cleric can only mean one thing: Iranian media should brace itself for another round of closures and clampdown.

While fake Oxford degrees, rumors of Khatami’s possible return and of a coming media clampdown might keep some busy in Iran, another item is probably more illustrative of what concerns many more: The daily Sarmâye noticed that the price of fruit has increased with 40 to 140% compared to the same time last year.