Tag Archives: Musavi

Questions about the crisis in Iran, pt. 4

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Is this a military coup against the clerics?
Ever since the ‘election results’ were announced, observers and protesters have talked about a military coup in Tehran: that the elections itself and the subsequent clampdown were part of a pre-arranged coup masterminded and executed by the Revolutionary Guards (Sepâh-e pâsdârân or IRGC).

Other speculation includes reports about support for Musavi among the powerful Revolutionary Guards (see Ebrahim Nabavi here); and about defections among Revolutionary Guards generals. However, there are no reliable sources or verifiable documentation for these claims. No doubt, some Revolutionary Guards commanders are thinking about the future of Iran these days, and whether or not they are on the winning team. However, in the words of New York Times’ MacFarquhar:

“Anyone attempting to identify divisions within the Iranian security forces that may dilute the government’s ability to stop the protests has thus far searched in vain, according to Iranian analysts and American government officials … Although outsiders may be cheering on the idea of people power, there is no sign yet that any part of the military will switch sides …”

The quite uniform response of Revolutionary Guards commanders leaves us with the impression that the Guards stand united and firm behind the government and the Leader. And it has made some serious and respected scholars talk openly about ‘the coup’. In his recent blog post, Gary Sick writes about the topic that has ‘been ignored’:

“Why did the regime resort to such a frantic manipulation of the vote when it was entirely possible that Ahmadinejad would have made a respectable showing—or possibly even have narrowly won—a fair election, and when the opposition in any event was devoted to the concept of the Islamic republic as it existed? The answer may be that the corporate entity saw this election as one of the final steps in cementing its absolute control. Accepting the Islamic republic as it is and not as they wanted it to be was simply unacceptable. The emergence of a relatively mild reformer—or even a substantial reformist vote—would undercut the kind of absolute authority that they were getting ready to assert. It would, in a word, complicate the coup that they were in the process of carrying out.”

On CNN, Fareed Zakaria and a former CIA-agent assess that there has been a military coup:

“BAER: Fareed, I’m quite sure there’s been a military coup d’etat by the Islamic revolutionary corp in Tehran. They’re taken over. And the fact that the Basij came out so quickly. They could have only done that on orders from the IRGC. The fact that Ahmadinejad’s a former IRGC officer, he has the backing of senior officers. I think what we’ve seen is a military coup against the old clerical establishment.”

He might be right. I just want to add that, that the ‘Basij came out so quickly’ doesn’t prove anything. They have been mobilized in such speedy and massive fashion several times (and of course, such mobilization is ordered by the IRGC; nothing new there) – and authorities had already before the elections announced that there would be a massive security presence.

To Ali Nader of the RAND Corporation, there is no doubt: The Revolutionary Guards are the real winners of the elections:

“The Guards indicated even before the election that they would not allow Ahmadinejad’s challenger, Mir Hussein Mousavi, to succeed. And they are willing to use any means possible, including mass arrests of opposition leaders and the use of military force against protesters, to maintain their grip on power. Iran’s ruling political elite have earned much popular hostility in the last few days, but they appear to have enough military support to withstand the protests for now. Regardless, the Islamic Republic may no longer be able to count on the people’s will to maintain its legitimacy”

Nader sees the recent re-election (which ‘depended on systematic fraud’) as a battle between the younger military elite and the older clerical elite (see also the RAND report ‘The Rise of the Pasdaran’ here). To some extent, I think he’s right: when Ahmadinejad blasted Rafsanjani and Nateq Nuri on live TV for being corrupt, he was in fact sending a stern warning to all senior clerics in Iran, and their families – not just the two mentioned.

However, I still have a hard time buying the idea, floated among some observers, that Ahmadinejad is actually in total control now, and that Khamene‘i is merely his puppet. Surely, many clerics may now be threatened by an emboldened Ahmadinejad; however, it seems to me that:
a) Ahmadinejad could not do without the clergy; he will need their religious credentials to legitimize his government;
b) that so many clerics would not stay silent if they really felt threatened; we will have to see much more criticism from Qom before I can believe that the tables have turned in such a dramatic fashion. This is not to say that there isn’t criticism from Qom – more on that later.

An interrelated question is that of ‘Ahmadinejad’s crusade’ against ‘corruption’. If Ahmadinejad were to succeed in his self-declared mission to purge out the ‘mafia’, he will of course not do so only out of pure, idealistic conviction. The wealth will go to other people in power, and whomever they may be – including the Revolutionary Guards – they will need the aura of legitimacy that only a clergy can endow the religious-political system with.

And the stakes for the Revolutionary Guards are high, as this updated backgrounder from the Council on Foreign Relations point out:

“Political clout and military might are not only attributes of today’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is also a major financial player. The Los Angeles Times estimated in 2007 that the group, which was tasked with rebuilding the country after the war with Iraq, now has ties to over one hundred companies that control roughly $12 billion in construction and engineering capital. Former CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh has linked the guards to university laboratories, weapons manufacturers–including Defense Industries Organization–and companies connected to nuclear technology. Khalaji, of the Washington Institute, lists the Bahman Group, which manufactures cars for Mazda, among guard-owned companies. And Wehrey writes that “the IRGC has extended its influence into virtually every sector of the Iranian market.” The engineering firm Khatam al-Anbia, for instance, has been awarded over 750 government contracts for infrastructure, oil, and gas projects, he says.”

We could maybe describe this as the culmination of several years of militarization in Iranian politics, and a victory for the Revolutionary Guards establishment. Maybe we could also call the elections and the post-elections clampdown aspects of a military coup d’état. However, I still don’t think that the Guards and Ahmadinejad can survive without the sincere and voluntary support of the clergy. I might be wrong. Comments please!

Where are the ‘moderate conservatives’?
Ali Larijani – speaker of parliament, former presidential candidate and a pragmatic politician considered close to the Leader – has made several statements critical of the regime’s brutal response to the protests. He has condemned the violent attacks on Tehran University, called for investigations, stated that he would wish the Guardian Council was impartial and that Musavi should be given a chance to appear again on state-run TV.

To EurasiaNet’s reporter Yasin, Larijani – along with his brothers Sadeq and Mohammad-Javad, their cousin Ahmad Tavakolli and Ali Motahari – represents a ‘third force’ between ‘hardliners’ such as Khamene‘i and ‘progressives’ such as Musavi.

Larijani has recently made yet another interesting statement:

“A majority of people are of the opinion that the actual election results are different than what was officially announced,” Larijani said in comments posted by the Khabaronline website. “The opinion of this majority should be respected and a line should be drawn between them and rioters and miscreants.”

If Larijani is quoted correctly, it is indeed a significant statement. However, it can also be interpreted as pure opportunism – and part of the internal rivalries, as Yasin notes:

“There would appear to be an element of personal animosity at work in Ali Larijani’s relations with Ahmadinejad. Prior to becoming parliament speaker, Larijani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, but was pushed aside by political maneuvering carried out by the president and his neo-conservative allies, and undertaken with the backing of the supreme leader.”

Marsha B. Cohen, writing for Tehran Bureau, has a lengthy and detailed account of Larijani, which is highly recommended reading.

Another ‘moderate conservative’ is Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, former Revolutionary Guards commander and now mayor of Tehran. Qalibaf seeks to appeal to the young voters and is considered a likely future candidate for the presidency.  Qalibaf has stated that the ‘election law is flawed’, that the protest rallies should be ‘legalized’ and he has condemned the violence. However, he has of course refrained from siding with Musavi. There are now calls for Qalibaf to join the new Special Committee which the Guardians Council has created to investigate the opposition’s allegations of fraud. It remains to be seen if Qalibaf would make a difference to the work of this committee.

Ahmad Tavakolli – who is the chief of the Parliament’s Research Center, a former presidential candidate and a prominent ‘moderate conservative’ – might also have made a surprising statement; however, he allegedly did so under a pseudonym.

Ayande News, a reformist website, indicated that Tavakolli used the name ‘Javad Kargozari’ to write a piece on his website Alef News recently (however, Ayande then changed the text of their article making it unclear who is behind the article). Of course, it is impossible for me to confirm this claim.

Nonetheless, if the statement is indeed Tavakolli’s – or if it represents Tavakolli’s opinion – it is remarkable: ‘Kargozari’ severely criticizes the state-run TV & radio for ‘illegal activities’, including the showing of fake declarations of guilt by pro-Musavi protesters, introduced on TV as ‘rioters’. These ‘rioters’ have been arrested during recent protests and allegedly forced to confess to working for Iran’s foreign enemies. ‘Kargozari’ demands to know who has given the state media permission to show such illegal ‘confessions’ before the persons have even been tried in a court.

A major figure among the ‘moderate conservatives’ is of course Mohsen Reza‘i – former Revolutionary Guard commander and himself a presidential candidate who has also rejected the election results. Despite the fact that there are still reports of ‘ambiguities’ surrounding Reza‘i’s votes coming out, and despite his recent letter to the Guardian Council calling for a change in the members of the Special Committee, he has apparently withdrawn his own complaints – citing concern for the security situation.

This does not bode well for Musavi and Karubi, who are now more or less alone with their complaints.

I think that the ‘moderate conservatives’ are following a calculated effort to appear 100% loyal to the system and the Leader while using the opportunity to air their criticism of Ahmadinejad. However, this should not be interpreted as support for Musavi/Karubi or for the protest movement. The ‘moderate conservatives’ are cunning opportunists – and certainly not interested in fundamentally reforming the Islamic Republic or in putting the human rights of the Iranian people at the top of their agenda.

This ‘third force’ is concerned with its own economic interests and political power under the government of an emboldened Ahmadinejad. Nothing more, nothing less.

Reactions to yesterday’s event in Iran

There are so many interesting analyses out there, but here’s a handful to get started with:

Tehran Bureau: ‘Another coup for the Hardliners’ and ‘Faulty Election Data’ (UPDATE: The statistical evidence of the TehBureau article is questioned here)
Abbas Djavadi: ‘An Electoral Coup in Iran
ISN: ‘Iran: Ahmadinejad’s Palace Coup
Ali Akbar Dareini, Anna Johnson: ‘Iranian Election Results: Ahmadinejad Declared Winner
Blake Hounshell: ‘Game over in Iran?
Juan Cole: ‘Stealing the Iranian Elections
TIME/CNN: ‘Protests Greet Ahmadinejad Win in Iran: “It’s not possible!”

Furthermore, I recommend niacINsight where they are liveblogging on reactions to yesterday’s political event in Iran. Here, you can read about following reports and rumors: Khatami’s brother has been arrested together with many other leading figures of the reformist wing; leading politicians and clerics going to Qom to deliberate with Sources of Emulation; Rafsanjani to resign? etc etc…

UPDATE:

There are now many reports – most of them verified – of a huge clampdown on reformists: Mohammad-Reza Khatami (the former president’s brother), Zahra Eshraqi (wife of Mohammad-Reza and Khomeini’s granddaughter), Mohsen Mirdamadi, Zahra Mojaradi, Saed Shariati, Zohre Aghajari, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Behzad Nabavi, Taqi Rahmani, Emad Bahavar, Mohsen Aminzadeh, Ahmad Zeidabadi … practically all prominent reformists have been arrested. UPDATE: Farda denies that Aminzadeh and Tajzadeh have been arrested.

It has also been reported that Karubi, Musavi and Gholam-Hosein Karbaschi are in house arrest; UPDATE: however, Karubi has just spoken in Tehran, allegedly. UPDATE: Musavi is not under house arrest, according to Newsweek article (see below), but deliberating with Rafsanjani.

There have been clashes between protesters and security forces throughout Iran and in many universities. The mobile phone network is closed, internet speed is extremely low, access to main internet sites such Facebook and Youtube is closed, etc. etc.

I recommend following articles:

Tehran Bureau: ‘Widespread Clashes in Tehran

Gary Sick: ‘Iran’s Political Coup‘ (highly recommended reading)

Brian Ulrich: ‘Rise of the Military

MideastAnalysis: ‘What Happened in Iran?’

Maziar Bahari / Newsweek: ‘“It’s a Coup d’État!”

… and that’s it for today! Apparently, Ahmadinejad’s supporters are going to rally and celebrate tomorrow at Tehran’s giant Mosalla mosque. Musavi (who is not, after all, under house arrest – it seems!) has called for his supporters to show up at his headquarters at 12:30 Tehran time.

UPDATE 2, Sunday:

Rafsanjani’s resignation was nothing more than a rumor, his son has stated; Mohammad-Reza Khatami, Mohsen Mir-Damadi, Behzad Nabavi and Sa‘id Shari‘ati have either been released or never arrested; and Musavi or Karubi are not under house arrest. Whether all these rumors are spread by those in power or by the reformists themselves is hard to say. Nonetheless, there seems to be quite a few reformists and ‘religious nationalists’ (melli-mazhhabi) still behind bars.

Ahmadinejad likens the unrest to a football match – and we can expect massive rallies in favor of the president today.

Iranian Presidential Elections 2009

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

With so many interesting developments in Iran right now, I will try and update this post every time I come across news, headlines and blog entries I find interesting. The elections on Friday for the Presidency of the Islamic Republic has finally heated up and the net is buzzing with interesting stuff.

Last update: Sat, June 13

As everyone is probably aware now, Mahmud Ahmadinejad has been announced the winner of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections by authorities. The ‘landslide victory’ sees Ahmadinejad winning 62.63% of over 40 million votes. The reformist-endorsed frontrunner, Musavi, gained 33.75%, Mohsen Rezai 1.73% and Mehdi Karubi 0.85%. Iran’s Supreme Leader has hailed the ‘record turnout’ of more than 80% of the eligible voters. Ahmadinejad has announced that he will speak to the people tonight.

The Interior Ministry has rejected all ‘rumors’ of fraud and has stated that it is willing to give the candidates a chance to recount all the votes.

However, Musavi and Karubi maintains that there has been widespread manipulation. Karubi has released a statement in which he states that fraud has been of such ‘ridiculous and unbelievable’ dimensions, that it is impossible to speak of. He stated that the election had been ‘engineered’ and rigged, and that he will not stay silent. ‘This is only the beginning of the story’, Karubi announced.

Musavi has called the elections for ‘a great game’ rigged in advance, and expressed his protest with ‘clear and numerous violations on the day of election’. He has stated that he ‘will not surrender’ to this dangerous scenario. Musavi promised that he will ‘reveal the secrets behind this process’ and calls on his ‘green wave’ to continue the fight against ‘traitors’. At the same time, he called on his supporters not to act ‘blindly’.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad-supporters took to the streets in many Iranian cities last night and today to celebrate the victory in a ‘national festival’.

The pro-Ahmadinejad website RajaNews has described the elections as Ahmadinejad’s victory over Rafsanjani. Fars has reported that Khatami, Musavi and Karubi visited Rafsanjani today for an emergency meeting. There can be no doubt that Ahmadinejad’s supporters see their victory as a crushing defeat of Rafsanjani, his family and his allies.

However, there are also numerous reports of protests in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities. Opposition websites, talking of a ‘coup d’état’, report fighting between protesters and anti-riot forces (pictures here and here). BBC has brought a film clip from Tehran today and there are several other similar amateur footage of what appears to be large crowds protesting the results (here and here)

Ahmadinejad-supporters state that ‘riots and unrest’ is ‘planned’ by a ‘control center’ of reformist politicians such as Mohsen Aminzadeh and Mostafa Tajzadeh. RajaNews claims that these politicians are commanding ‘rascals and scoundrels’ to create street riots in Tehran.

It is often stated that Iranian politics is full of surprises – this is certainly an understatement today.

There are and will be hundreds of different analyses and views appearing the next couple of days; however, I will not be able to do the same moment-for-moment update, I have done the last couple of days. I will certainly try to post a round-up of links later tonight. I recommend those interested to visit some of the sites mentioned in Blogroll.

Update 23: Fri, June 12

State-run media: Ahmadinejad wins with large margin

Iranian Students News Agency has announced that 30% of the ballots have been counted, and that Ahmadinejad leads with 68%, followed by Musavi with 28%. These ballots seem to be from the countryside.

UPDATE 1: IRINN has just announced 67% to Ahmadinejad, 30% to Musavi.

UPDATE 2: ISNA has announced: 66% to Ahmadinejad, 31% to Musavi, 1% to Mohsen Reza‘i and 0.8% to Mehdi Karubi. This is based on more than 21 million votes.

Update 22: Fri, June 12

Musavi AND Ahmadinejad announced as winner – and other news

Mir-Hossein Musavi has announced himself the certain winner of the elections.

IRNA, the state-run news agency, has announced Ahmadinejad the winner with a large majority of the votes.

Tehran’s governor has announced that any political gathering tonight is illegal.

Pro-reformist news agency Khordâd-e now alleges that Tehran’s public prosecutor has threatened to shut down the publishing houses of those newspapers who will print Musavi’s victory in tomorrow’s newspapers.

The first official statistics is from North Korea where 15 Iranians voted. Ahmadinejad won.

Update 21: Fri, June 12

Voting ends

The Interior Minister of Iran has announced that voting ends at 22 PM (in five minutes). This command seems to be in contradiction with earlier announcements that province governors were allowed to keep voting stations open until the last voter…

‘Attack’ on Musavi offices etc. – More reports of fraud

A violent attack on Musavi’s headquarters in Qeytariyeh, Tehran, has been reported by pro-Musavi web sites. Furthermore, pro-Musavi websites report of widespread vote fraud and manipulation in Esfahan.

Update 20: Fri, June 12

Election time prolonged

Iranian TV has just announced that the Interior Minister has allowed the provincial governors to keep voting stations upon until the last voter has cast his/her vote.

UPDATE: A spokesman for the Guardians Council has announced that there will be printed more ballots.

Update 19: Fri, June 12

Historic turnout – Rumors of fraud – Early predictions

By all accounts – state-run media, oppositional web sites, eye witness accounts and Western journalists’ reports – there has been a historic turnout for today’s elections in Iran. There are many unverified rumors of fraud and manipulation from inside and outside Iran. There are also reports of overcrowded voting stations and a lack (!) of ballot papers.

As far as I can gather (my connection to IRINN is down now), voting stations are due to close right now (9 PM Tehran time). On pro-Musavi websites, commentators have already announced a historic victory for Musavi, even breaking a 30 million vote record. I haven’t yet seen Ahmadinejad-supporters announce a victor, not even on Raja News (as could have been expected).

UPDATE: The semi-official pro-Ahmadinejad news agency Fars has announced that ‘a justice-seeking candidate’ has won win 60% of the votes.

Update 18: Fri, June 12

Voting time prolonged

The time for voting has been prolonged until 8 PM (yes; I have noticed that it is now 8 PM in Iran – but TV has not announced that voting has ended yet…). 20 million ballots have been cast so far, according to Guardians Council via IRNA.

UPDATE: State television has just announced that voting will continue for one more hour (until 9 PM Tehran time).

Update 17: Fri, June 12

Police forces: Show of power under way in Tehran

IRNA reports that a spokesman of the Niru-ye entezâmi police force has just announced a major maneuver in Tehran’s squares. This ‘Power Maneuver’ is aimed at securing ‘order’ until all votes have been counted. He added that so far, there had been no signs of unrest.

Update 16: Fri, June 12

‘Attacks’ on reformist websites – ‘Fraud’ in expatriate elections

Amir Kabir University Newsletter, autnews.us, reports a ‘new wave of filtering’ against critical websites such as that of the ‘1 Million Signature Campaign for Womens Rights’, the pro-reformist Âyandeh News, the pro-Karubi Tribun and the pro-Musavi Nowruz. There are still rumors of the text message system being closed down.

The are also several reports/rumors of ‘fraud’ at voting stations for Iranians in Germany, Dubai and Malaysia. I still haven’t had time to read the ‘reports’ in detail.

Update 15: Fri, June 12

Candidates vote – and other news

Mir-Hosein Musavi: “Until the end of voting, we will all stay awake (/alert)”

Mohsen Rezai: “After the elections, fraternity and serious cooperations must be established” (Source: Tabnak).

Mehdi Karubi: “These elections are exceptional” (Source: IRNA).

It seems as if text messaging services have been shut down in many places (or at least by some companies). Pro-Rafsanjani website: ‘Ahmadinejad’s government has closed SMS text message services’ (Source: Aftab). According to ILNA, Musavi has demanded the services be opened again.

It seems that controversial Grand Ayatollah Montazeri will leave his semi-official home arrest to vote, for the first time in twenty years, today. He has apparently stated he will vote for Karubi. UPDATE: Apparently, Montazeri’s son, Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Montazeri, has rejected rumors that the dissident cleric is voting for Karubi.

When Rafsanjani had cast his vote: ‘There is no better trust than the vote of the people’.

The election committee: Any kind of political gathering is forbidden until the results of the elections has been announced (Source: IRNA).

Ayatollah Jennati, after casting his vote: “The Guardians Council will execute its supervision duty with force and power” (Source: ISNA).

(Pro-Ahmadinejad) Fars News: Participation in villages will pass 90% (source: Fars).

Update 14: Fri, June 12

Khamene‘i votes – Revolutionary Guard warns

Khamene‘i has just cast his vote and held a short speech. I only caught some of it on a poor online TV connection from Iran, but as far as I gathered he warned against lies being distributed by SMS.

Update: Khamene‘i: “Hopefully the best candidate will  be elected”; “Some elements may try to create tensions”; rejects rumors that he has answered Rafsanjani’s letter.

The Revolutionary Guards have released a strong-worded communique. Without directly referring to Musavi’s letter to Khamene‘i (see below), the letter is clearly aimed at Musavi, whom the Guard has ‘reserved its right’ to complain over. The Guards strongly reject this candidate (Musavi)’s claim that Basij and Revolutionary Guards will interfere illegally in the elections as ‘baseless accusations’. The Guards claimed that they had tried to overlook ‘wicked actions’ in the past, but that the latest actions were too much to disregard. The Guards were particularly annoyed with Musavi’s claim that there is a developing split between the commanders and the ‘healthy body’ of Basijis and Guards (Source: Fars News).

Update 13: Thur, June 11

Quiet before the storm?

In Iran, it seems like quiet before the storm (as Robert Dreyfus describes here). No campaigning was allowed on this the latest day before elections. Maybe now is a good time to remember that even though the election frenzy has been of historic proportions this week, nothing is certain. Even though overconfident supporters on both sides have prematurely claimed a massive victory, there is still good reason to believe that the two main candidates will have to enter a second round.

Ahmadinejad is still the hero of many millions of Iranians, and he is supported by significant forces across Iran. Musavi has only recently become the front figure of what is often described as the ‘reformists’, but as I have written earlier, he does not define himself as a reformist – at least not in the Khatamian sense.

If voters do turn out, as expected by most observers, in huge numbers – and if there is no serious unrest or overt military intervention – there will certainly be one winner: the Islamic Republic of Iran, once again endowed with legitimacy through public participation.

Update 12: Thur, June 11

Musavi’s letter to Khamene‘i – Fears of unrest

Musavi has written a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. In the letter, he asks the Leader to intervene to assure that no official bodies manipulate the elections. Musavi writes that the recent election frenzy shows that there will be a massive turnout for the elections, which will strengthen national unity and give Iran international respect. Nonetheless, Musavi warns, some ‘official institutions are not welcoming this pure, popular movement’.

As examples he enumerates: 1) Members of the Guardian Council and election supervisors have openly supported Ahmadinejad; 2) Interior Ministry has violated and interfered in Musavi’s right to station his own representatives at certain polling stations; 3) There is evidence of intereference by some Basij and Revolutionary Guard personnel; 4) The current president has used government facilities and resources in his campaigning and tours around Iran. Musavi finally calls on Khamenei to use his powers to ensure that officials and election supervisors stay neutral.

Furthermore, the internet is full of rumors. It is of course impossible to keep track of them and to verify them, so I will only deal with them briefly:

From the ‘reformist’/anti-Ahmadinejad coalition, there are reports/rumors of secret plans for widespread Basij/Revolutionary Guard interference in the elections and the possibility of a military coup d’etat. Musavi’s own election headquarters have issued another letter, in which Musavi warns of planned attempts to create unrest and riots in order to destroy the ‘reformists” image. Another rumor states that Ahmadinejad will be ‘assassinated’ in order to create an emergency situation in which the president’s supporters can take over.

From the Ahmadinejad front, there are reports/rumors of plans to use a Musavi defeat as pretext for launching a Western-backed ‘velvet revolution’. The pro-Ahmadinejad Raja News reports that after Rafsanjani’s letter, Musavi-supporters are violently attacking Ahmadinejad-supporters and normal people. There is a sense on hard line and pro-Ahmadinejad weblogs that foreign powers are planning to take over Iran through Musavi; and that Ahmadinejad’s victory will be a ‘final’ answer to Rafsanjani. Indeed, the elections are now often described as a showdown between Khamenei/Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani/Musavi.

No matter what, there will be massive security measures for tomorrow’s elections. The security head of the elections has announced there will be 20,000 security force members in Tehran alone, and Shahâb News has reported that 22 army helicopters will assist across the country.

Update 11: Thur, June 11

Abbas Palizdar apologizes to Rafsanjani

Palizdar – who became known last year when he spoke at an Iranian university as a representative of Ahmadinejad’s government and accused a wide range of high-ranking clerics for mafia-like corruption, and who was then imprisoned and sentenced – has allegedly written an apology to Rafsanjani.

This is of course hard to verify, but several websites have reported on the letter. Apparently, the letter was first published on the website of Mehdi Khaz‘ali, allegedly Palizdar’s close friend. In the letter, Palizdar takes back his accusations against Rafsanjani, claiming that Rafsanjani’s family was not even in the files he was investigating for fraud and corruption. ‘I mentioned [Rafsanjani's corruption] without any documentation, based on unconfirmed hearsay from those close to Ahmadinejad’, Palizdar writes. ‘Therefore, I apologize to His Highness with this letter’.

Update 10: Wed, June 10

Ahmadinejad defends himself on TV, claims opponents rely on ‘Zionist’ statistics

Iranian state-run media gave Ahmadinejad 20 minutes of live TV to ‘defend himself against accusations’ tonight. He stated that not only himself, but all of Iran has been insulted by his opponents. Ahmadinejad defended himself against his opponents’ main slogan: that Ahmadinejad is a liar. He stated that he is courageous and never afraid. He repeated all his main statistic ‘evidence’, showing colorful charts, rhetorically asking ‘is this a lie, is that a lie?’, finally concluding that ‘no, they are not lies’.

He argued that, just like Imam Ali, it is his duty to expose anyone who has taken from the public treasury (read: Rafsanjani). Ahmadinejad also defended himself against his critics’ outrage with his attempt to question Musavi’s wife’s academic credentials by saying that this is not a personal matter of the Musavi family.

Instead, Ahmadinejad stated that his opponents had manipulated his words in videos circulating in Iran. He stated that his opponents had used statistics from Transparency International to prove that corruption has gone up in Iran; but that Transparency International bases its surveys on ‘Zionist’ companies. He blasted his opponents for ‘hitting the nation in the head’ with information obtained from ‘four Zionist companies’. Indeed, Ahmadinejad declared himself the ‘flag-bearer of the fight against corruption’.

Ahmadinejad said that his opponents knew they had already lost the elections, and he called on people to maintain their calm. He apologized that he didn’t have time to visit all provinces, and thanked everyone. He finished with a poem by medieval poet Hafez:

Gar bovad ‘omr be meykhâne resam bâr degar – bejoz az khedmate rendân nakonam kâre degar

(something along the lines of: ‘If my life permits me to return to that wine-house again / I will not do anything else but serve the astute’ [sorry for uninspiring translation!]). And then, Ahmadinejad finished with: ‘Be proud, my nation. Wa‘s-salâm w ‘aleykom wa rahmatollâh’.

Update 9: Wed, June 10

Violence in Shiraz

It is reported on Twitter and on reformist websites that ‘plain-clothed’ supporters of Ahmadinejad have violently attacked a pro-Musavi rally. The pro-reformist web site mowj.ir has reported that police does not try to prevent these attacks. Allegedly, around ten people have been wounded and the offices of the Campaign of Support for Khatami and Musavi have been raided. The web site claims that 3,000 Ahmadinejad supporters who waited for Ahmadinejad at a sports stadium tonight had gone into the streets to fight Musavi-supporters when they heard Ahmadinejad had cancelled his appearance at the stadium.

Some pictures of female pro-Musavi supporters in Shiraz can be seen here.

Update 8: Wed, June 10

Ahmadinejad ‘fleeing’ university

This video allegedly shows Ahmadinejad leaving Sharif Technological University’s mosque in great haste as pro-Musavi students shout ‘Liar! Liar’ and ‘Ahmadi, bye bye!’.

Update 7: Wed, June 10

Rafsanjani meets with Khamene‘i

The pro-Rafsanjani news website Âftâb claims that Rafsanjani had a meeting with Iran’s Leader last night after his historic letter against Ahmadinejad appeared. The website did not describe what happened but quoted an ‘informed source’ that Rafsanjani had expressed his ‘complete satisfaction’ with the meeting that had been ‘constructive’.

Update 6: Wed, June 10

Some interesting headlines from Iranian media this morning

Âftâb News (pro-Rafsanjani): ‘Musavi will win in first round’ (note: This news agency has announced that an ‘opinion poll’ by ‘a university group’ last week showed that Musavi will win with 54% of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections on Friday).

Irân (pro-Ahmadinejad daily): ‘The president, before a magnificent gathering of people in Mazandaran: The country is not in danger – the interests of those who speak the language of power is in danger’ (link). (Note: This is one of Ahmadinejad’s responses to Rafsanjani’s letter).

IRNA (state news agency): ‘Ahmadinejad: “The revolution is strengthened with the punishment of those who rob the public treasury”‘ (link). (Note: this is another response to the letter).

E‘temâd (pro-reformist daily): ‘A reformist tsunami in the streets of Tehran’ (link).

Jomhuri-ye Eslâmi (often pro-Rafsanjani daily): ‘Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi: “Candidates and their supporters should not make statements that can threaten the whole system [of the Islamic Republic] or Islam”‘ (link).

Kayhân (state-run daily, seen as Khamene‘i’s mouthpiece): ‘This warning is serious: The last scenario act of the extremists [i.e. Musavi and Karubi supporters]: Unrest after defeat’ (link). (Note: it is alleged that Musavi/Karubi-supporters have realized they will be defeated by Ahmadinejad, and are now planning widespread riots and unrest).

Raja News Agency (pro-Ahmadinejad): ‘Ayatollah [Mohammad] Yazdi in response to Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s letter: “By God’s grace, the country has a Leader [Khamene‘i] who is like the Imam [Khomeini]” – “Those who provoke unrest and riots are either traitors or ignorants”‘ (link). (Note: In short, this prominent cleric states that he does not see any of those great dangers Rafsanjani has alluded to in his letter).

Update 5: Wed, June 10

Pictures from Khatami’s pro-Musavi rally in Mashhad

More pictures here.

Update 4: Tue, June 9

Special air time for Ahmadinejad

Even though the debate series between the candidates is over, Sedâ-va-Simâ (the state-run TV & Radio) has decided to give the current president an additional 45 minutes of live air time tomorrow (Wednesday). Âyande News claims that Ahmadinejad actually stayed behind in the studio after his heated debate with Mohsen Reza‘i yesterday to record his own ‘one-man debate’.

Update 3: Tue, June 9

Yâs-e no daily once again suspended

This afternoon, the reformist daily Yâs-e no was suspended. The daily, which is allegedly privately funded, has been closed several times before. It has recently been supportive of Mir-Hosein Musavi, and its latest front page before it was closed today (less than 72 hours before the elections) carried a picture of Musavi with his arms in the air and a huge headline stating ‘We are winning’.

Update 2: Tue, June 9

Clear support for Ahmadinejad

State-owned and Leader-controlled daily Kayhân‘s front page today further testifies the support Ahmadinejad is receiving from high up. The headline speaks of ‘the nation’s unprecedented, million-man tsunami’ in support of the president.

Kayhan 'Tsunami'

Update 1: Tue, June 9

Historic letter from Rafsanjani to Khamene‘i

In a strong-worded letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i, former president and powerful cleric Ayatollah Hashemi-Rafsanjani has demanded an inquiry into ‘accusations’ and ‘insults’ against leading figures in the Islamic Republic.

Rafsanjani is referring to Ahmadinejad’s recent spate of allegations against Rafsanjani, Nateq Nuri and other prominent clerics. The current president has accused Rafsanjani and his family for acting like a mafia and for supporting Musavi in his attempt to remove Ahmadinejad from power. Rafsanjani has written that Ahmadinejad’s accusations are also aimed at the Leader himself and at Imam Khomeini. He has also written that Ahmadinejad’s statement are ‘full of wrong claims’ and ‘pure lies'; and that popular outrage with ‘existing conditions’ is now being displayed on the ‘squares, streets and universities’.

This is a very interesting development. It is normally assumed that the Leader indirectly supports Ahmadinejad and this seems like an attempt to ‘warn’ Khamene‘i of Ahmadinejad’s power that can even threaten such high-ranking figures as Rafsanjani – and therefore also, one day, the Leader. Furthermore, there can, with this letter, no longer be any doubt that Rafsanjani is throwing all his weight behind Musavi.

On the other hand, Ahmadinejad can use this letter to prove his ‘conspiracy theory’ that he is actually fighting against ‘three governments’ (that of Musavi, when he was prime minister; and those of Rafsanjani and Khatami, when they were presidents). It may thus also have a reverse effect.

You can read the full text [Persian] here. On the importance of the ‘Rafsanjani Mafia’-theme in Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, read this [English]. UPDATE: TehranBureau has another excellent piece, this time on Rafsanjani’s letter.

Election Frenzy in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

There have been so many interesting developments up to the Iranian presidential elections that I don’t know where to start. I guess the most important development is the fact that Iran is witnessing an election frenzy not seen in many years. From skeptical forecasts and early pessimistic judgments on the prospects of Ahmadinejad’s opponents, many people – most notably Tehran’s young – have moved to almost ecstatic joy and overly confident expressions of political activism. To Mir-Hosein Musavi’s supporters – and they are clearly growing exponentially in numbers – Ahmadinejad will face a crushing defeat on Friday.

Over the last week, Iranian state TV aired a series of live debates between the four candidates. It is of course disputed who won the debates. Ahmadinejad was, as always, a master speaker and extremely self-confident. Yet his attempts to vilify his opponents were very disgraceful. He even waved an intelligence file of Zahra Rahnavard, Musavi’s wife, in the face of his opponent, claiming she did not have the right credentials for filling her post as university chancellor. In each show, Ahmadineajd threatened to reveal ‘dirty secrets’ and he ridiculed his opponents’ track records. He also implied that Rafsanjani and his mafia-like family is behind Musavi.

Even though they lacked Ahmadinejad’s knack at rhetorical twists, his opponents were sometimes successful in portraying Ahmadinejad as an incompetent manager who manipulates statistics. Musavi even called Ahmadinejad a liar in front of the 40 million viewers.

No matter what, the TV debate series was historical in its own right. And they have helped to intensify the election fervor.

Yesterday, a massive rally allegedly stretched all the way from Meidun Rah-Ahan in southern Tehran to Meidun Tajrish in the north. A ‘Green Human Chain’ of Mir-Hosein Musavi’s supporters walked and drove the 20 km. distance, celebrating what they now see as the end of Ahmadinejad’s period as president.

Most were dressed in green T-shirts, shawls, improvised hats – green being the color of Musavi’s campaign. They were carrying placards, posters and banners clearly condemning Ahmadinejad and ridiculing his recent statements in the debates: ‘A Liar is God’s Enemy’ and ‘2 + 2 = 10’. They carried pictures of Musavi, and in particular, the now famous shot of Musavi holding his wife’s hands – a picture that seems to have had particular positive significance to female voters.

Most strikingly, perhaps, were the many placards that resembled newspaper front pages, reading ‘Ahmadi Raft’ (Ahmadi[nejad] has gone). This placard is made to resemble the historic headline that read ‘Shâh raft, Emâm umad’ (The Shah has gone, the Imam has come), printed during the Islamic Revolution. Another placard, in English, read ‘A New Greeting to the World’. I recommend the following picture series (123) and this video from yesterday’s rally.

At the same time, the rumor bazaar is – surprise, surprise – overloaded. One rumor alleges that Interior Ministry officials, in an open letter, have complained over a fatwa by Ahmadinejad’s mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, which legitimizes election fraud. Read more here.

Another theme is the Ahmadinejad election system’s alleged breakdown. There are rumors that the president’s election offices are closed and that his press secretaries are ‘unavailable’. Ahmadinejad didn’t show up for a major rally today. And his website has been hacked by Musavi supporters.

It is wise to keep in mind that Ahmadinejad is far from defeated. He still has a very strong base among the poor, the Basij and veteran families, in mosque networks and in several provinces. Yet, it is also impossible to rule out that Musavi can win. For the first time, Musavi appears a very serious contender for presidency. No matter the result, Friday will be a historic day for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Too late for a reformist momentum?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

After a turbulent start, the Iranian presidential election race has entered a new phase. Now, the presidential candidates are aiming their slogans and promises at Iran’s youth. But is it too little, too late to create a reformist momentum?

Over the last two weeks, Mir-Hossein Musavi – the candidate for which Khatami stepped down a month ago – has received support from major organizations on the ‘reformist wing’. The Combatant Clerics Coalition (the main ‘reformist’ clerical body), The Participation Front (the main ‘reformist party’), The Organization of the Islamic Revolution’s Mujahedin (a key political group) and the central committee of The Third Wave (a pro-Khatami movement) have all announced that they will back Musavi in his bid for the presidency (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4). Furthermore, the ‘centrist’ Executives of Reconstruction Party – which is aligned with the powerful Ayatollah Rafsanjani – has also declared its support for Musavi (even though Rafsanjani himself has not yet voiced support for any candidate).

What may be quite important in terms of factional battles is that Musavi apparently received the blessing of most marâje‘-e taqlid (Sources of Emulation: the highest ranking Shiite clerics) during a recent trip to Qom, Iran’s religious center. According to a pro-Musavi weblog, the state-media was ‘shocked’ by this show of support, and have tried to downplay its importance. It seems as if the marâje‘-e taqlid have refused to meet Ahmadinejad as a group. The fact that they met with Musavi can thus be seen to indicate their support for change in government.

Despite the recent string of statements, the support is not unanimous. A key member from the Combatant Clerics Coalition, Mohammad-‘Ali Abtahi, has joined Musavi’s competitor, Mehdi Karubi, as an advisor. Abtahi has stated that other members of the Coalition will vote for Karubi. The Executives of Construction Party may support Musavi, but its secretary-general, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, announced his support for Karubi several months ago. In some ‘reformist’ circles there have been talk of bringing in former interior minister Abollah Nuri as a ‘real reformist’ candidate instead of Musavi. Even in the main ‘reformist’ party, Moshârekat, key members – Khatami’s brother Mohammad-Reza and leading theoretician Sa‘id Hajjariyan – had called for a new candidate, but in the end, they accepted the party’s endorsement of Musavi. In other words, the many declarations of support are not indicative of a universal consensus on the ‘reformist wing’.

In any case, this show of support is far from enough to secure a ‘reformist’ victory. Apart from the fact that the ‘reformist’ vote is split between several candidates, the major obstacle is that the young segment and the politically active students remain hesitant and unconvinced of the ‘reformist’ nature of Musavi – and his ability to change anything. Consequently, Musavi has started currying favor with this segment. A couple of weeks ago, he announced that if he were to become president, he would dismantle the so-called Guidance Patrols (gasht-e ershâd), also called religious police in Western media. These patrols enforce Islamic moral values and dress codes among young Iranians and are hugely unpopular with the less conservative youth. Recent years have seen the implementation of the ‘Social Safety Program’ under which patrols periodically launch harsh campaigns against ‘morally deprived’ young Iranians. By announcing that he will stop these patrols, Musavi is trying to win young votes. Karubi – who has also promised cash handouts to all young Iranians if he is to win – has jumped on this wagon, and announced similar promises. He has threatened to go to Khamene‘i if the patrols continue their harassment of young Iranians.

However, such promises seem like nothing but hot air. Indeed, it is – as pointed out yesterday by Iranian judicial authorities – not up to the president to make such a decision. A judiciary spokesman stated that the patrols are ‘interminable’ and the Disciplinary Forces (niru-ye entezâmi) Commander Ahmadi-Moqaddam blasted Musavi and Karubi, warning that such statements are unacceptable. Nonetheless, Musavi continues his efforts to attract young voters. He has stated that he knows the young and their trends better than any other candidate; that ‘we should trust the youth’ just as in the early years of the revolution; that confronting the young only leads to ‘pessimism’; and that instead of ‘authoritarian methods’, the state must work with cultural means to reach out to the youth.

Musavi is also playing his ‘artist card’ now. An architect and painter (you can see some of his works here), he enjoys some support among Iran’s artists (such as the famous film-maker Dariush Mehrjui), who are hoping for a more tolerant government and less censorship in the future. In a meeting yesterday, reformist politicians praised Musavi as a liberal figure who had defended artistic freedoms even in the early days of revolutionary fervor and cultural revolution. Musavi is not a man who will put up ‘barbed wire to prevent a flood’, one speaker stated, referring to the wave of cultural products flooding the globalized world and, consequently, also Iran. Such statements come at a time when Internet is more widespread and popular in Iranian society than ever; and at a time when the Revolutionary Guards have announced a cyber war on illegal websites.

Thus, Musavi is trying to cash in on the more ‘liberal’ image as an intellectual and artist. Furthermore, we will undoubtedly see more of Musavi’s wife in the coming months. Zahra Rahnavard is a scholar, writer and artist in her own right, and has recently criticized the discrimination of women in Iran.

As I have elaborated on earlier, Musavi is presenting himself as a cross-factional candidate. Since my last post on the topic, this has become even more apparent. Alongside ‘reformist’ statements such as the above on the patrols, Musavi has also stated that he will not work with anyone who tries to ‘break the framework’ of the political system; he has repeatedly stated that Iran must return to the revolutionary path; and he has avoided oppositional figures, pro-democracy student gatherings and visits with the families of political prisoners. Nonetheless, the praise for Musavi, which we have heard from some moderate conservatives the last couple of months, has yet to translate into direct support. Even if conservatives who are fed up with Ahmadinejad should actually support Musavi in his bid for president (and they might do this secretly, a ‘reformist’ has stated), this flirt with conservative forces will probably alienate an important constituency: the politically aware students.

As an example, the pro-Musavi website Qalam recently featured an article with the headline ‘Universities must take steps towards reaching the goals of pure Islam’. The article carried statements by a person identified as head secretary of Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat (The Office for Consolidating Unity), which is the main pro-democracy student body. However, this was the secretary of a breakaway pro-conservative group known as the Shiraz Branch – and not the original group that helped Khatami to power in 1997. Pro-democracy students were infuriated that Qalam brought this article and on various student blogs and websites, the conclusion was drawn that there is no difference in Musavi and Ahmadinejad.

It is the apparent similarity with Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and ideological outlook that is Musavi’s Achilles Heel. Musavi will not be able to change his image without losing that same quality that makes him more acceptable to the ruling conservative elite than Khatami. Half-baked promises of removing the religious police from the streets will not satisfy the politically aware students and young Iranians. There seems to be a feeling that Musavi is either no better or different than Ahmadinejad, or maybe afraid to speak his mind. Furthermore, when it is rumored that even such central figures as Hajjariyan doubts Musavi’s ‘reformism’, it can come as no surprise that others can have a hard time imagining Musavi as a new Khatami.

‘Reformist’ blogger Bahman recently wrote:
“In my opinion, Musavi is not a reformist, just as Karubi isn’t either. Musavi is not representative of what we have fought for and talked about for the last twelve years [since Khatami’s presidential victory in 1997]. Musavi is one of the high-ranking executives of the political system who happens to believe more than most (maybe even most of all) in the political system, who wants to protect it and who wants to make it work efficiently. He sees the political system as a popular system: not in its modern sense but rather in the sense of the Ummah, or Muslim community. That is, to him, ‘the people’ are those he imagines as the real owners of the revolution and the political system.”

Indeed, if Musavi (or Karubi) were to win – would they be able to change anything? This ubiquitous question was formulated in an interesting way recently. Akbar A‘lami – former MP for Tabriz and an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad’s government – has questioned the ‘reformist’ label for Musavi and Karubi. A‘lami himself has announced he will run for president, but it is doubted whether the unelected vetting body, Guardian Council, will admit him into the race. During his recent campaigning, which has received little if any attention from state-run media, A‘lami has invited Musavi and Karubi to an open public debate. In this invitation, A‘lami asked each candidate what he would do if he was to become president and was faced with a ‘state decree’ from The Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i?

This question is crucial as it reveals the impotence of any president in opposing these decrees issued every now and then by the Leader. The opaque yet overshadowing and unhindered power of the Leader is indeed a core problem of the Iranian political system. It is also yet another reason why some find the outfall of the presidential elections unimportant – and thus, participation in the election process pointless.

This is not to say that the presidency is a post completely devoid of significance. The Iranian votes have proved time and again to reflect important shifts in public opinion. Constrained as he might be, the president is nonetheless Iran’s face abroad and a representative of a significant segment and interest in society. Yet it becomes increasingly difficult for voters to discern the differences between candidates’ political outlook – and correspondingly harder for Iranian politicians to persuade the population to believe in the system and the power of their votes in bringing about change.

With less than two months left before the presidential elections, something close to a miracle – or at least, a fundamental change of strategy – is needed. If not, Ahmadinejad will most probably win with a slight majority and continue into his second round as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

[more to follow ...]

UPDATE

Just to prove my point that the reformists are desperately addressing the Iranian youth these days:

Mehdi Karubi is reported to have visited a group of pop musicians, including the rapper Sâsi Mânkan (!). This unprecedented move is shocking since the hugely popular underground music, and in particular Persian Hip Hop, is effectively outlawed. As I have commented earlier, the political system sees Hip Hop as a threat to society. It will be interesting to see if state-run media will pick up on this story!

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’.