In Iran, is indigo the other green?

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 “Mousavi, where are you? We qualified for the world cup!”—Crowds celebrating the Iranian football team’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup on 18 June 2013

Hope, it appears, is once more hoisting its sails in Iran.

What else could the endless scenes of jubilation in the streets of Iran in June have signified?

“You’d think the Shah just left,” said one person who was in utter awe after witnessing the joyous crowds in the north-western city of Tabriz noted.

“It was more imposed on us than the eight-year war with Iraq,” argued my cousin. “I congratulate you for the end of this eight-year long holy defence.”

Rouhani supporters waving balloons during the 2013 Presidential Election rallies [Image via ISNA]
Rouhani supporters waving balloons during the 2013 Presidential Election rallies [Image via ISNA]

Of course, Iran had not just experienced a revolution similar to that of 1979, during which the Shah (King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) was forced into exile. Nor had it just emerged victorious after a bloody war with an invading army supported by all the major powers.

But for the many who had flocked the streets on 15 June 2013, the results of Iran’s 11th presidential election was no less significant. After eight years, Iran had a new President: a “moderate” cleric by the name of Hassan Rouhani.

One cannot fully appreciate the significance of his election without looking back at the eight years that preceded him.

On 4 August, the Ahmadinejad presidency—a bitter rollercoaster ride with an exquisite appetite for deception, scandals, populism, tokenism, corruption, unparalleled yet overt cronyism, mismanagement, etc.—finally came to an end as the new president was sworn in.

If tears are shed at the prospect of his departure, they are surely not the tears of the masses in Tehran. They are more likely being shed in Tel-Aviv and the war hawks in Washington.

“Today Israel bids a sad farewell to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that unexpected asset to Israeli public diplomacy, who served it so well during his eight years as president of Iran” rightfully noted Amos Harel, writing for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.[1]

“Ahmadinejad is our greatest gift,” former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy had once declared.[2]

As Israeli author and activist Uri Avnery put it, “were he [Ahmadinejad] an agent of the Mossad, he would not behave any differently. And also: If he did not exist, the Mossad would have had to invent him.”

Although Israel comes to term with it the irrelevance of its favourite scarecrow for the past eight years, in Iran, unsurprisingly, the mood is far less sombre.

On the foreign policy front, it appeared that at times, Ahmadinejad’s only goal—if there even was a goal—was to isolate Iran on the international stage, either through his administration’s poor handling of the nuclear negotiations or the president’s bellicose rhetoric on Israel and the holocaust. Neither of these two “strategies” did anything to alleviate the pain and suffering faced by Iranians or Palestinians. While attempting to project the image of a powerful statesmen at an anti-racism meeting in Geneva, he managed to single-handedly divert the world’s attention away from Israel’s bloodbath—or “Operation Cast Lead”—in Gaza and instead gave European delegates an excuse to walk out during his speech.

One of the sad ironies of the past eight years, perhaps, was just how close Ahmadinejad, a cartoonish embodiment of opportunism, succeeded in setting Iran on a collision course with the West, especially over its nuclear programme. I shudder to think what would have happened had the Bush and Ahmadinejad mandates overlapped a little longer.

At times, he would be best likened to a curious stripling experimenting with the buttons of the sophisticated machinery of the state, while he pertinaciously defended the outcome of his uncalculated actions.

Iranians citizens glared as the value of their country’s passport plunged lower and lower every year.

When he wasn’t busy making incendiary remarks that generously fuelled the propaganda machine of Iran’s warmongering foes, Ahmadinejad would be boasting before cameras about a Spanish-speaking toddler he had come across in New York who had nothing but absolute respect for “uncle Mahmoud” and his government’s foreign policy, which had limited Iran’s friends to a few countries such as Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Syria and Lebanon and had alienated almost every neighbouring country. Even Cuban president Fidel Castro, seen as a friend of Iran, grew tired of Ahmadinejad’s tirades, the point of which was lost on everyone but Ahmadinejad, or so it seemed.[3]

In the early years of his presidency, some—particularly many foreign observers hoping to make sense of the complexities of Iranian politics—struggled to comprehend whether his actions amounted to ironic comedy or just an earnest exercise of misinformation gone hand in hand with genuine religious zeal.

Churchill once famously said that “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, had very little concern for trivialities such as the truth, even long after it had managed to get its pants on.

As he turned Iran into the laughing stock of the world, he would somehow manage to muster up the audacity to describe how former president Mohammad Khatami had brought shame to the nation during his 1999 encounter with Jacque Chirac because the French president had purposefully refused to descend the steps of the Élysée Palace. (It didn’t seem to matter much that readily available video footage of the said meeting proved he had flat-out lied.)

That’s not to say that Ahmadinejad always lied about everything. He was, on rare occasions, kind of frank with the Iranian people. While under fire, during his battle for re-election in 2009, for his government’s failure to create jobs, he claimed he had reduced unemployment by ten percent. And he had. “How?” you may ask. By simply changing the definition of an “employed” person, so that anyone who worked one hour per week would be also considered as “employed”!

Deeply disheartening was that his quackery went largely unnoticed in many Muslim-majority and Latin American countries, as well as amongst numerous Western leftists, where he was seen as a true champion of the anti-imperialist cause, a true leader standing up for the world’s downtrodden in the face of all odds.

Ahmadinejad’s reaction to round after round of United Nations sanctions against Iran? “They’re nothing but pieces of scrap paper,” he said smirkingly.

Those “pieces of scrap paper,” which later caused a sharp decrease in the value of the national currency Rial, together with disastrous financial decisions, which fell to the right of the IMF, have now brought the Iranian economy to its knees: Radical subsidy cuts, the militarisation of the economy by selling a great portion of the public sector to the Revolutionary Guards, rampant unemployment and skyrocketing inflation have all pushed Iran’s weakest to the edge.

As Iranians sunk deeper and deeper into destitution, they witnessed how the president that once vowed he would bring Iran’s oil revenues to their homes made pledges to use the country’s colossal oil wealth to build public housing, factories and plants in Bolivia and Venezuela. They saw Ahmadinejad’s closest aides embroiled in various embezzlement scandals in embezzlement scandals worth billions of dollars.

Under the guise of loyalty to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad showed utter disregard for the rule of law, meritocracy, civil liberties and freedom of speech.

Yet with the June 2009 elections looming, none of these transgressions were enough to deter the hardline governing elite, including the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard, from showing their unwavering support for Khamenei’s enfant terrible. In fact, the very prospect of a reformist victory, especially one led by Khamenei’s old friend and rival Mir Hossein Mousavi, was enough to unify the conservatives behind Ahmadinejad.

And unify they did.

When Ahmadinejad’s Interior Ministry hastily—and rather clumsily—announced him as the victor of the 2009 race, massive protests broke out across the country against alleged voter fraud. Millions rallied around the slogan “Where is my vote?” The colour green, which until had been the colour of the Mousavi campaign, quickly turned into a symbol for the well-disciplined demonstrations, which became known as the Green Movement.

The protests, which were largely spontaneous and peaceful, reached their crescendo on 15 June 2009, when at least three million converged at Tehran’s Azadi Square in silence.

On 19 June, during Friday prayers a week after the Election Day, Khamenei told the protesters in no unclear terms that not only the allegations fraud baseless, but that his views were actually closer to those of Ahmadinejad than former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who, during the heated televised presidential debates, had been scandalously accused by Ahmadinejad of corruption as well as alliance with the reformist candidate Mousavi.

Khamenei’s love affair would soon prove costly.

Crisis of legitimacy

The birth of the Green Movement in June 2009 and its violent suppression by the authorities would plunge the Islamic Republic deep into an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy, as a significant segment of the population felt betrayed and shamelessly excluded from their country’s political process.

During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Iran turned into the world’s worst jailer of journalists. It was regularly listed as one of the world’s enemies of the Internet. Security forces rounded up scores of reformists activists and figures, who later received lengthy jail terms. The human rights situation worsened to the extent that the UN human rights council had to appoint a special rapporteur to monitor conditions there. (Of course, none of this is to suggest that that executive branch was single-handedly responsible for all of the crackdowns on dissent during these years. The backing of the leader, who has the military and intelligence apparatus under his command, was essential in stifling the “seditionist” greens and their democratic aspirations.

The house arrest of Green movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi in February 2011—which was ordered by Khamenei himself—was seen by the hardliners as the last nail in the coffin of a movement whose death they continued to declare repeatedly, even long after its “death.” [4]

But this would have little more than an analgesic effect. The very low turnout in the March 2012 parliamentary elections once more demonstrated the severity of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy deficit. Yet the reformist boycott of the ballets did little to provide a way out of the political stalemate.

In a long and winding process that began to a great extent with the large-scale disqualification of 2,500 reformists from the 2004 legislative elections, and reached its climax in the 2009 presidential election, the squeezing out of the reformist factions out of the power structure seemed to have entered an irreversible phase. There was little or no sign that the ruling establishment was willing to unclench its fist in any way. The lines of division between the state and the reformist opposition had become clearer than ever before. Even when cracks began to appear in what had appeared to be an impenetrable relation between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, the fear of a reformist comeback (or the “green sedition”) was never to be taken lightly.

With the June 2013 presidential elections looming, a debate began to simmer within the opposition movement on the most realistic and least costly strategy to escape the political deadlock. Some saw a reformist takeover of the executive branch through participation in the electoral race as a last ditch attempt at changing the status quo and reviving the more republican interpretations of the constitution.

Yet for some sceptics, the mere thought of taking part in elections provoked nothing short of revulsion. They saw any participation in the electoral process as bestowing legitimacy on the ruling elite. They cynically reminded everyone of what had happened the last they went to polling stations to vote. For them, voting was tantamount to a betrayal of the plight of the many political prisoners, and above all, the protesters slain in the post-election clampdowns of 2009. “How can we vote when Mousavi and Karroubi are under house arrest?” they asked.

Others were more pragmatic and were instead primarily concerned about an “engineering” of votes similar to 2009. And then, there was the towering wall of the Guardian Council, Iran’s hard-line electoral watchdog, which could at will bar candidates from running in the elections.

In order to have a shot at the presidency, popular wisdom suggested that the reformists would have to turn to a candidate that would a) succeed in bypassing the Guardian Council, b) win by a large margin in order to reduce the likelihood of fraud.

And thus, the reformists initially turned to former president Mohammad Khatami. His superstar-like popularity made him the best available option for winning the race in June. In addition, Khatami was a former president and, as many believed, the Guardian Council would find it extremely difficult to disqualify him from the elections!

But when it became clear that Khatami was determined not to run, another former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, officially registered as a candidate. News of Rafsanjani’s registration had been enough to rekindle a burst of hope for many ordinary citizens. But this was short lived. The prevalent mood quickly turned into one of despair when the Guardian Council dropped its bombshell on the nation: The name of Hashemi Rafsanjani—former president, parliament speaker and a close confident of the revolution’s leader Imam Khomeini—was not on the list of eight approved candidates seen fit to run for the presidential elections.

The list included five conservatives, one independent and two “quasi-reformists” (Mohammad Reza Aref, first vice-president during Khatami’s presidency, and Hassan Rouhani, a centrist and Iran’s former Supreme National Security Council Chief), who did not appear to pose a serious threat to yet another conservative victory.

As the presidential race got underway in May, there was very little to suggest a competitive and exuberant campaign similar to that of 2009. With the events of four years ago fresh in their minds, many of the disgruntled voters of 2009 viewed Aref and Rouhani with great suspicion, mainly for their seemingly shaky commitment to the reform movement, in particular their failure to come out in full support of the Green Movement. They were seen as part of another ploy to make a rubber stamp election process appear more legitimate.

For the less cynical voters, it wasn’t entirely clear if Aref and Rouhani stood any chance of garnering enough votes. Even if either men could deliver an upset, which didn’t really seem like a plausible scenario, who could guarantee that they could bring meaningful change to the country. And then, there was that unsettling and recurring question that arose from the moment Rouhani and Aref announced their candidacy: what was Khatami ever able to achieve during his eight years in office? He had, after all, won the 1997 election by a landslide and still could not fully his campaign promises of political liberalisation, despite undeniable strides made during his tenure.

But criticism of Rouhani’s conduct during the 2009 unrest did not come exclusively from the opposition. In early May, a site affiliated with the hardliners discussed whether Rouhani had “passed” the “test of sedition”. It complained that Rouhani had remained largely “silent” on the events of 2009 and maintained a very “ambiguous” stance on towards the turmoil. “Some of his conduct points to his implicit support for the sedition,” the article added, while criticising Rouhani for making remarks such as “the people’s criticisms must be addressed” and “some [within the ruling elite] have adopted a radical approach”. However, the piece does see a bright spot in Rouhani’s track record: in February 2011 he called the opposition protests in support of the Arab Spring “un-Islamic” and “anti-national”!

A turning point

Within the reformist camp, the prevalent atmosphere in the early days of the election race was that of doom and gloom. Fully aware of this, Aref and Rouhani set out to convince the general public that not only was there vote would make a difference, but also that they were the only genuine antitheses to the status quo.

When asked how his presidency would impact foreign policy in a country where the leader has the final say in foreign policy, Rouhani underlined the stark differences in the handling of Iran’s nuclear negotiations before and during Ahmadinejad’s reign.

During televised debates, both men launched relentless attacks against the Ahmadinejad administration’s economic policies.

Rouhani’s campaign made extensive use of imagery and testimonies by Khatami and Rafsanjani to highlight his reformist leanings. The words “moderation” figured centrally in his speeches, wherever he went. He promised that his government would be the “government of hope and prudence” and stressed his foreign policy credentials, in particular his role in the nuclear talks during his tenure as chief negotiator. In doing so, he turned the presidential debates into a very blunt debate on Iran’s nuclear programme and the international sanctions that had crippled the country’s economy.

During a fiery television debate, after being accused by conservative Tehran Mayor Mohammad and former military man Bagher Ghalibaf of favouring a heavy-handed approach towards the 1999 student protests, an outraged Rouhani fought back by saying that he was a lawyer, and unlike Ghalibaf, “I am not a colonel!” This memorable quote would later become the title of his campaign video, perhaps as part of a strategy to highlight his commitment to the rule of law and civil liberties, as opposed to his hard-line rivals who were bound to be an extension of the lawlessness of the military-security establishment, which had maintained a stranglehold on the country under Ahmadinejad. Rouhani even forced Ghalibaf on the defensive by accusing him of supporting the use of brute force in cracking down on the student protests.

Nevertheless, despite the positive momentum that Aref and Rouhani had generated amongst their support base, they did not have the numbers on their side. One of the most accurate polls, carried out as late as 10 June by a private research company called Information and Public Opinion Solutions, showed that neither Aref nor Rouhani stood much chance of reaching to the runoff stage, let alone winning the election in the first round.

Having said that, Rouhani seemed to come across as a politician with charisma, straightforward, confident, and perhaps more importantly, capable of turning the situation around. As former British Foreign Secretary recounted from his meetings with Rouhani, he possesses “impressive flexibility”.[5] Rouhani continuously reminded voters that there was a key for addressing their woes.

In fact, the symbol of the Rouhani campaign, which was the source of some ridicule early on in the race,  was a key he brandished before the camera during a televised interview, a key that symbolised his vision to unlock the country’s problems and deliver Iran from the cold after eight years of Ahmadinejad.

Like Mousavi’s campaign, which chose green as its colour in 2009, Rouhani would also adopt a colour for his campaign: he went for indigo!

This was by no means the only uncanny resemblance to the green wave that swept the country in 2009. In fact, as election day neared, the similarities became even more striking. Only this time, the wave was indigo. Thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic voters were drawn to rallies and events organised by the Aref and Rouhani campaign rallies, which were increasingly awash with images of Mousavi and Karroubi, as well as placards calling for the release of all of Iran’s political prisoners. At times, Rouhani’s speech would be drowned in thunderous chants in support of Mousavi, which in the aftermath of the 2009 crackdowns was seen by authorities as nothing short of sacrilege.

The campaign participants consciously overlooked the pseudo-reformist positions of Aref and Rouhani and instead worked with what they had. They even aligned the candidates with the opposition leaders Mousavi and Karroubi.[6]

It was hard to tell whether it was Rouhani who had become emboldened by the voters or vice versa. Yet what’s clear is that the fear, relative passivity and despair induced by the repressive measures in the aftermath of the 2009 unrest had given way to the familiar space of popular politics.

The green movement, which had gone into a state of hibernation following their last major show of force in February 2012, perceptively turned the elections into a platform for making their mark on the political landscape of Iran, albeit in a highly regulated environment.

The relative laxities and freedoms that are characteristic of Iranian election seasons were also crucial in facilitating political mobilisation. As images of Rouhani’s rallies found their way onto Iran’s news agencies, the sea of green and indigo bandannas and ribbons left little room as to who Rouhani’s main support were.

This must have placed Rouhani in an awkwardly powerful and yet at the same time uncomfortable position. Fully mindful of the newfound hope amongst the disenchanted voters of 2009, who were now touting him as the flag bearer of political change, Rouhani was entirely conscious of the perils associated with being affiliated with the so-called “sedition.” And as Election Day approached, the slogans chanted became more radical.[7] Indeed, just days ahead of 14 June, a report by the IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency, which was later retracted, suggested that the Guardian Council was reconsidering whether or not to disqualify Rouhani from running in the race.

Yet, as mentioned before, despite the promising signs, even the most sanguine Rouhani supporter would find it difficult to predict a Rouhani victory. This helps explain a chant repeatedly heard at the rallies of Rouhani and Aref:  “Rouhani! Aref! Coalition! Coalition!”

If there’s anything predictable about Iranian politics, it is its unpredictability.

On the afternoon of Monday 10 June, Rouhani’s fortunes would take a favourable turn as Khatami, who had reached a consensus with a number of key pro-reform figures, would call on Aref to withdraw from the race in favour of unifying the reformist vote behind Rouhani. A day later, Rouhani would be leading the polls for the first time since the start of the race. Based on the IPOS poll, he now had around 26.6 percentage points with Ghalibaf trailing behind at 24.8 percent.

What happened later that week is now a told tale.

Soon after Hassan Rouhani was declared the victor of the elections, streets burst into joyous celebration.

Iran is the country of paradoxes, we often here. The paradox here was that the least doctrinally unyielding candidate amongst the six candidates was also the only clergyman in the race.

While for the reform movement, the new task at hand would be to press Rouhani on his election promises—improving the economy, resolving the nuclear issue, facilitating the release of political prisoners and greater freedom—the election results prompted serious questions for the hardliners, who had dominated the major centres of power in the country for the past eight years.[8]

Two of these concerns are addressed here:

An ‘election’ that haunts, still

The countless scenes of jubilant crowds marking the election of Rouhani as president often gave the impression that a long overdue atmosphere of national reconciliation had finally arrived, coincidentally, exactly four years after the turmoil that followed Iran’s 2009 presidential election. After all, Rouhani had successfully gained the trust of many centrists and moderate conservatives who saw no benefit in four (or eight) more years of a similar approach to governance under the presidency of someone like Jalili, seen by many as the Supreme Leader’s favourite. And unlike four years earlier, this time around the process seemed to run smoothly and without any objection from any of the candidates.

However, from the get-go it was clear that both the reformists and the hardliners were fully aware that this honeymoon would be short-lived, as the haunting memory of the 2009 elections and the allegations of massive fraud still loomed large in both camps.

The principlists have tried to present the 2013 election as yet another “proof” that claims of “engineering” the 2009 election were baseless, a desperate attempt by the reformists, who, owing to their sheer hypocrisy, proved incapable of conceding defeat. The same bad losers who wasted no time in embracing the 2013 election results, which also happened to be to their liking.

“Why have they not apologised?” the Supreme Leader asked a month and a half after the election.[9]

Habibollah Asghaoladi, a senior conservative figure, echoed Khamenei’s position and declared the 2009 election saga as a closed case. “There is no doubt that those who accused the establishment of fraud in 2009 … must today apologise to the people and God.”

He said those who rejected the soundness of the 2009 election results harboured a unique political culture. “[A culture] that mistrusts the people’s vote when it can’t get their votes, but calls it the most democratic of all elections when it can win their votes.”

However, such views barely withstand the sketchiest inspection. If anything, the 2013 elections and the manner in which they were held has only led to fiercer debates about the validity of the 2009 elections.

The case for fraud is wide open.

When polls across Iran came to a close at 11pm on 14 June, the country was brought to a standstill as Iranians restlessly awaited the election outcome that would seal their fate, as well as the fate of the wider region.[10]

Yet as the hours and minutes ticked away, a number of jokes began to spring up in social networking sites and amongst mobile phone users. One joke that was circulating quite wildly was that it was taking longer than expected to announce the results, because this time around, they were actually counting all the votes!

It was of course a reference to the remarkable difference in the sheer speed at which the results of the 2009 and 2013 elections were announced. Unlike in 2009, when the results were announced with abnormal speed, this time the vote tally trickled in slowly.[11]

In 2013, the Interior Ministry would not release the first tallies until around 6am on 15 June, when less than 862,000 votes had been counted. Yet few could forget that in the widely disputed 2009 election, 28 million votes had been counted by around the same time (6:10am). Bear in mind that very shortly after the polls closed in the 2009 election, Iran’s official news agency had already announced Ahmadinejad’s re-election as president! And it wouldn’t be until around 8:20pm on Saturday 15 June that the Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar would announce the final results and Rouhani as the victor of the race.

Or take for instance the bizarre phenomenon of higher than 100 percent turnout in the provinces of Yazd and Kerman in 2009! However, in 2013, the recorded turnout was 86 percent and 77 percent respectively.

From what we know so far about Iran’s 2013 presidential election, there’s little evidence to suggest that the process was not fraud-free. But in no way does this resolve the serious irregularities, anomalies[12] and questionable practices that gave rise to the allegation of wide-spread rigging in 2009. (Of course one could criticise the undemocratic nature of the Guardian Council’s vetting of the candidates, but our prime concern here is the soundness and validity of the announced results.)

Another insightful aspect of the 2013 results is the extremely narrow margin of Rouhani’s victory. Rouhani won 50.70 percent of the ballots, that is 18,613,329 votes out of a total of 36,704,156 valid ballots counted.[13] This means that had Rouhani lost 257,000 of his total votes to any of the other candidates, the race would have entered a runoff stage pitting Rouhani against Ghalibaf.

If we are to concede that the authorities were in fact capable of carrying out a monumental fraud (millions of votes) in 2009, we are then faced with an important question: what stopped the Iranian establishment from doing so again in 2013, when a far less noticeable manipulation of the votes (less than 257,000) would have substantially dented the prospects of a moderate, one with indisputable ties to the pro-reform movement, taking control of the executive branch. Rouhani had not made his sympathies for figures such as Rafsanjani and Khatami a secret. Moreover, both former presidents had failed to gain Khamenei’s vote of confidence for taking part in the elections.

The absence of a genuine will to systematically fabricate the votes on a broad scale can be attributed to a number of explanations, each of which bears its own weight. Some had suggested that the conflicting interest of war between the holders (Interior Ministry) and the supervisors (Guardian Council) of the election would lower the chances of rigging[14]. This might have been an important deterring factor, but it fails why this conflict of interest did not prevent the tempering of votes in the March 2012 parliamentary elections, which were boycotted by most opposition forces, especially the Green Movement.[15] Which brings us to the next point.

A more plausible explanation for the uncontested nature of the election process lies in the Green Movement and the shadow it has cast over Iran’s political scene. While the country’s leadership neither trusted nor had any love lost for reformism,[16] the vivid fear of a reformist resurgence in the form of the massive 2009 protests was enough to convince the leadership of the absolute necessity of at least appearing as neutral and worthy of the public’s trust. Not having anyone remotely pro-reform in the presidential office would be an ideal for the Supreme Leader, but not at the cost of being seen as a tyrant willing to appropriate the people’s votes when he sees fit.

As such, in the months leading up to 2013 elections, the Supreme Leader made it clear on five occasions[17] that he was not taking anyone’s side in the race. In a rare remark, he even called on those opposing the establishment to participate for the sake of the country’s interests. As he was casting his vote, he made it clear that even members of his family were unaware who he was voting for.[18]

For the Supreme Leader, coming to terms with a Rouhani presidency might have been a bitter pill to swallow, even if it entailed going sulkily down the path of national reconciliation at some later stage.

Despite the myth so naively and comfortably, perpetuated[19] by proponents of hawkish policies against Iran, it was neither sanctions nor the threat of military action that brought about the current change,[20] as small as it may appear, in Iran. What did in fact deter the authorities from going down the path of an electoral coup similar to 2009 was the largely peaceful opposition movement that once more made its mark in the political arena.

Not a ‘reformist’, but indebted to reform

Secondly, the election results left many hardliners, in particular those with an existential need to stymie reform, in disarray.

Although factional cohesion had already manifested itself in the growing rift between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad—the latter marginalised for his ties to the “deviant current”—the 2013 elections brought these rifts back into focus.

Also, until the very end of the election campaign the conservatives proved incapable of producing a serious coalition to counter the surge in Rouhani (and Aref’s) popularity. The failure to reach a consensus cost the principlists (conservatives) a crushing defeat at the hands of Rouhani, who was the reformists’ third,[21] or even fourth, most desirable (and pragmatic) choice to run for president.

For Iran’s hardliners, the picture does indeed appear to be quite grim. They lost to a candidate endorsed partially[22] by the reformist factions whose capacity to fully mobilise politically had been severely constrained by four years of suppression, and yet was able, albeit hesitantly, to make the most out of the ballots.

Little wonder that a day after the elections results were announced, Kayhan, a newspaper who hardline editor Hossein Shariatmadari is chosen by Ayatollah Khamenei himself, published a piece on its front page titled, “Rouhani is not a reformist. The reformist candidate had less than ten percent of the votes.”[23]

Kayhan seemed to have forgotten that just days earlier, it was rumoured Rouhani’s very candidacy was hanging in the balance, or that his victory was contingent upon a Khatami-led consensus urging Aref to step aside. But.

None of this seemed to matter for the principlists who were preoccupied with proving Rouhani’s complete detachment from the reformists, in particular the “seditionist” Green Movement.

Yet when the parliament met in August to debate Rouhani’s cabinet nominations, talk of “sedition” seemed to dominate the discussions. The lawmakers seemed to be concerned less with the nominees’ aptitude in the proposed ministerial roles and more with their alleged sympathies with the “dead” Green Movement.

The MPs had good reason to suspect Rouhani’s tied to the “sedition”. Some of his cabinet nominees also served under the reformist presidency of Khatami and others had expressed solidarity with the Green Movement. Rouhani had, after all, never rushed to distance themselves from the opposition chants at his rallies, or from Hashemi and Khatami,

I set foot on this path along with the country’s elders, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and … Mohammad Khatami. But my hope lies in you, the youth. Let us bring an end to radicalism … I would like to say a phrase on your behalf … To the men who have driven the country to this state: The people no longer want you—Rouhani, at a campaign speech in Tehran on 8 June 2013.[24]

Nevertheless, none of what’s been said about Rouhani’s reformist affiliations is to suggest he is fully committed to the very reforms sought after by Khatami and the reformist factions that backed him between 1997 and 2005.

Just a day before the 2013 presidential election, Emad Bahavar, a young political activist imprisoned since June 2009, shared his thoughts on why he was supporting Rouhani’s presidential bid. In a piece titled “Movementalising elections”, Bahavar differentiates between a “democrat” and what he calls a “carrier of democracy,” someone whose role, either in society or power, has potential to foster democratisation in the country.[25]

A “carrier of democracy”, that convenient overlapping of pragmatism, experience, realism, and of course optimism.

Rouhani might not be a true democrat, but in four or eight years’ time, we might very well look upon his presidency and conclude that he did more to advance democracy in Iran than he’d ever care to take credit for.

In June 2013, a new phenomenon emerged in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The combination[26] of conventional models of political mobilisation coupled with movement-like street demonstrations manufactured a figurehead for the pro-democracy movement.

Rouhani is not a “seditionist”, he is indebted to the “sedition”.

A millennia old myth?

Reflecting on the political upheavals of contemporary Iran, Ali Mazroeei, a former reformist MP and top economic advisor to Khatami, observes that few Iranian political figures have ever actually died in dignity.[27] From the time of the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, political figures, both rulers and opponents, were either executed or died while in exile, prison, or under torture.

As it happens, Mazrooei himself was also forced into exile after the Iranian government launched a wave of arrests against reformist figures following the disputed 2009 elections. The crackdowns resulted in an exodus of Iranian dissidents and activists fleeing the country.

Mazrooei recounts the “futile cycle” that is so characteristic of modern Iranian history: Revolution, crackdown, coup, revolution, revolt, etc.

Homa Katouzian claims that the issue of succession “almost invariably presented a problem” in Iran and it was never really clear who would succeed to the throne after the ruler’s death. He asserts that unlike Europe, where society has always been founded upon a form of law or custom between the state and society,[28] Iranian succession and legitimacy was never really bound by any written or unwritten legal framework or contract.[29] In attempting to examine legitimacy and succession in Iran, Katouzian resorts to the principle of Farrah-ye Izadi, meaning God’s Grace: the theory that justified arbitrary rule as a gift from God. The only practical test of possessing grace in the real world was the ruler’s ability to gain and maintain power. Therefore rebellion was “legitimate” once it succeeded in ousting the ruler![30]

And thus the fall of one arbitrary rule would come to an end with rebellion and be replaced by chaos until a new state restores arbitrary rule,[31] normally by utilising its total wrath. As Katouzian explains, up to the turn of the century the word siyasat had two meanings: firstly, the art of successful governance; secondly, punishment and execution of fallen notables and state officials.

This meaning of siyasat is captured in an old Iranian proverb: “politics has no father or mother.”

Starting with the 1906 Iranian Constitutional Revolution,[32] all the other major political movements in twentieth century Iran—the democratic movement constituted around the nationalisation of oil (1951-1953); the 1979 Islamic Revolution; the Reform Movement triggered by the 1997 Reform Movement; and the Green Movement of 2009[33]—were centred around subordinating power.

A number of promising signs in the weeks and months following Rouhani’s election as president have given rise to a sense of cautious optimism for genuine change and reform in Iran. Some have warily suggested that we might be witnessing an unfolding of an Iranian Glasnost. This caution is rooted principally in a nostalgic desire to avoid a repeat of the setbacks suffered by Khatami after he swept into office in 1997.

While Rouhani is likely to face many of the obstacles faced by Khatami in carrying out reform, he enjoys a much closer relationship with Khamenei and is seen as less of a direct threat to those that champion an undemocratic reading of the constitution. In addition, the devastating sanctions, as well as the weakening of one of its closest allies in the region, Syria, has helped to create a space for a more pragmatic approach, both in dealing with foreign policy issues and domestic affairs.

All of these can prove indispensable for Rouhani as he navigates the political minefield that Khatami was confronted with.

The Supreme Leader’s recent call for “heroic flexibility” in conducting diplomacy is in line with this more pragmatic outlook, which has resulted in a genuine hope for resolving Iran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear programme and perhaps even breakthroughs in its relations with the United States.

A number of prominent political prisoners and activists have been released and some reports suggests that tens of convicted political prisoners are to receive a pardon from Ayatollah Khamenei. And in a further sign of ending (or at least minimising) the military forces’ involvement in civilian society, the country’s armed forces joint chief of staff, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi has signalled the readiness of Iran’s armed forces to relinquish its role in the economy.

As mentioned before, political openings have occurred in Iran before, only to be followed by greater stumbling blocks on the path to reform.

The Shah did indeed free political prisoners and allow greater political freedoms in the late 1970s, however, as history would soon reveal, this was seen as too little, too late, and the fate of 2,500 years of monarchy would succumb to the millennia-old doctrine of “God’s Grace”!

35 years later, another Iranian state has once again arrived at a crossroads in its history.

On 15 June 2009, as millions of angry voters marched onto the streets and chanted “Mousavi! Mousavi! Get my vote back,” few could predict that exactly four years later, they would be chanting joyfully, “Mousavi! Mousavi! We got your vote back!” It is a telling tale of the centrality of the Iran’s 2009 presidential election in achieving national reconciliation and undoing, at least to some degree, the crisis of legitimacy that it triggered. The on-going extrajudicial[34] and arbitrary house arrest of Mousavi, Karroubi, and Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard, which has gone on for nearly one thousand days, is but one of the symbols of the arbitrary exercise of power by Iran’s Supreme Leader. Therefore it would appear unlikely that any reconciliation will be complete before the opposition leaders are released from house arrest. Until then, the deep wounds of the 2009 unrest shall remain raw.

The events leading up to Rouhani’s election win demonstrated how a politician seen by many as a centrist can emerge as a forebear of reform. To what extent Rouhani will resist this role remains to be seen. If he succeeds, then maybe indigo really is just another shade of green.


[1] “With a Moderate as Iran’s New Face, Netanyahu Will Struggle to Draw up Support for an Attack – Diplomacy & Defense,” Haaretz.com, accessed October 22, 2013, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.529981.

[2] “Ahmadinejad: Israel Is a Germ of Corruption That Will Be Removed,” Haaretz.com, accessed October 22, 2013, http://www.haaretz.com/news/ahmadinejad-israel-is-a-germ-of-corruption-that-will-be-removed-1.252296.

[3] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Castro: ‘No One Has Been Slandered More Than the Jews’,” The Atlantic, September 7, 2010, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/castro-no-one-has-been-slandered-more-than-the-jews/62566/.

[5] Jack Straw, “Iran’s New Leader Offers Hope for the Region,” Telegraph.co.uk, June 16, 2013, sec. worldnews, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/10123984/Irans-new-leader-offers-hope-for-the-region.html.

[6] Kadivar Mohammad Ali, “A New Oppositional Politics: The Campaign Participants in Iran’s 2013 Presidential Election,” Jadaliyya, June 22, 2013, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/12383/a-new-oppositional-politics_the-campaign-participa.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Khabar Online, accessed October 22, 2013, http://khabaronline.ir/detail/297373/Politics/election.

[11] Mohammad Ali, “A New Oppositional Politics.”

[12] Ali Ansari, Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election (Chatham House, June 21, 2009), http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/Middle%20East/iranelection0609.pdf.

[13] “Rohani Becomes Iran’s New President,” PressTV, June 15, 2013, http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/06/15/309169/rohani-becomes-irans-new-president/.

[14] Seyedamir Hossein Mahdavi, “Can Iran Surprise by Holding a ‘Healthy’ Election in June?” (May 2013), http://www.brandeis.com/crown/publications/meb/MEB73.pdf.

[15] Sajjad Savage, “Epic or Farce: Preliminary Assessment of Iran’s Parliamentary Elections (Part One),” Jadaliyya, April 9, 2012, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/4964/epic-or-farce_preliminary-assessment-of-irans-parl.

[16] Mahdavi, “Can Iran Surprise by Holding a ‘Healthy’ Election in June?”.

[17] Hossein Bastani, “Why was there no ‘fraud’ in the 1392 elections? [Chera dar entekhabate 1392 ‘taghalob’ nashod?],” BBC Persian, June 17, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/06/130616_l39_analysis_presidential_rigging_ir92.shtml.

[18] Ibid.

[19] David Rothkopf, “What’s New Is Nuance,” Foreign Policy, September 25, 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/09/25/global_warming.

[20] Writing for Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf makes the claim that “the fact that it was Obama’s tough sanctions that helped create the conditions for Rouhani’s election”

[21] Bastani, “Why was there no ‘fraud’ in the 1392 elections? [Chera dar entekhabate 1392 ‘taghalob’ nashod?].”

[22] For instance, the Freedom Movement of Iran and the Participation Front (Mosharekat) chose to endorse Rouhani’s candidacy just days before the election, and yet the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organisation refused to legitimise what they saw as a rubber-stamp election. Indeed, despite the role of reformist figures such as Khatami in building a consensus around Rouhani, the major opposition factions were far from unanimous on whether to even endorse any of the candidates, let alone endorse a centrist such as Rouhani with ties to the security establishment and a good relationship with the Supreme Leader. This state of uncertainty persisted even until the very day of voting.

[23] “Rouhani is not a reformist. The reformist candidate had less than ten percent of the votes [Rouhani eslah-talab nist. Namzade eslah-talaban dah darsad ham rai nadasht],” Kayhan, June 16, 2013.

[24] “Rouhani: Some Consider Domestic Poverty and Foreign Humiliation as Pride [Rouhani: Ede-i Faghre Dakheli Va Tahghire Khareji Ra Eftekhar Mipendarand],” Meher News Agency, June 8, 2013, http://www.mehrnews.com/TextVersionDetail/2071653.

[25] Bahavar Emad, “Movementalising elections [Jonbeshi kardane entekhabat],” Rooz Online, June 13, 2013, http://www.roozonline.com/persian/news/newsitem/archive/2013/june/13/article/-fbc84a28f3.html.

[26] Mohammad Ali, “A New Oppositional Politics.”

[27] Mazrooei Ali, “Half a century of memories and experience [nim gharn khatere va tajrobeh],” Kaleme, May 31, 2013, http://www.kaleme.com/1392/03/10/klm-145748/?theme=fast.

[28] Homa Katouzian, “Arbitrary Rule: a Comparative Theory of State, Politics and Society in Iran,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 24, no. 1 (1997): 49–73, doi:10.1080/13530199708705638.

[29] H. Katouzian, “Legitimacy and Succession in Iranian History,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 23, no. 1–2 (January 1, 2003): 234–245, doi:10.1215/1089201X-23-1-2-234.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Katouzian, “Arbitrary Rule.”

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ali Alizadeh, “COMMENTARY-Neither Theocracy nor Secularism? Politics in Iran,” Radical Philosophy 2, no. 158 (December 2009): 2–9.

[34] To date, no court has tried Mousavi, Karroubi or Rahnavard.

Diagrams of deception: Ahmadinejad and Bibi, not so strange bed fellows

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“They distort the diagrams in order to deceive you and to lead you to a path to nowhere.”

The words belong to Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leader of Iran’s pro-democracy movement and a candidate in Iran’s stolen 2009 presidential election. During one of the televised debates, Mousavi, the most serious rival to the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was interrupted by the host. This untimely intervention was enough to provoke Mousavi, who had until then remained reserved, into launching a furious barrage against Ahmadinejad, who, along with his supporters, had run a relentless smear campaign against Mousavi and the reformists.

In the days and weeks leading up to Election Day, the Ahmadinejad camp had resorted to every dirty trick in the book to present Mousavi and the reformists as corrupt pawns of Israel and the United States.[1]

In doing so, Ahmadinejad also accused the reformists (and by extension the Mousavi campaign) of having caved into Western pressure on the nuclear issue during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami.

Yet attacking the revolutionary credentials of Mousavi, whose successful premiership coincided with Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq, would bring little election gains for Ahmadinejad. After all, Mousavi was known as Nokhost vazire emam or “Imam [Khomeini’s] prime minister.” The character assassinations soon reached Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard. Ahmadinejad questioned Rahnavard’s academic credentials before millions of Iranians suggesting that she was unquailed to be a university professor. This form of character assassination backfired and resulted in greater support for Mousavi and the reformists.

But perhaps the real Achille’s heel of the Ahmadinejad administration was its near calamitous mismanagement of the economy. Iran had made a staggering $300 billion oil revenue during Ahmadinejad’s first term in office, yet the cost of living has skyrocketed, prices have experiences a steep hike, inflation had gone through the roof and unemployment has reached new heights. The economy dominates political debate in Iran today.

There was a dire need for graphs and numbers and help was on the way. During the 2009 election debates, Ahmadinejad told Iranians that his government had actually reduced unemployment. And it was true, it had, but by simply changing the definition of an “employed” and “unemployed” person. It did not matter that figures from his own central bank were enough to discredit his claims of economic progress. No sir! Before the eyes of millions, Ahmadinejad held up chart after chart, arguing that the country’s economy was in fact in a splendid shape, this at a time when a global recession had brought the West to its knees.

For many Iranians, Ahmadinejad’s debates have been—and will be—remembered not for his words, but more for his crude use of charts and diagrams accompanied with an irksome tone of self-righteousness.

In late September, the United Nations General Assembly listened to the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But much like Ahmadinejad’s election posturing, the prime minister’s words at the UN will be remembered by the cartoon-like drawing of a bomb and a fuse to convince the world about the threat of an Iranian nuke.

Filled with historical inaccuracies, the speech not only made no mention of a future Palestinian state, which is at the core of the international consensus on how to solve the conflict, but rather every effort was made to divert attention away from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

In the half hour talk, Netanyahu managed to mention the word “bomb” no fewer than twenty times. So determined to rally support against Iran, he actually manages to unintentionally whitewash Nazism by suggesting that the Nazis, responsible for the massacre of 6 million Jews, were far more compassionate, humane and reasonable adversaries who cherished life.

“Nazis and communists liked life. Islamists [in Iran] revel in death. An enormous difference,” he said, much to the glee of neo-Nazis and anti-Semites.

“So, how much enriched uranium do you need for a bomb? And how close is Iran to getting it? Let me show you. I brought a diagram for you. Here’s the diagram.”

And so the diagram was out.

“This is a bomb,” said the prime minister in a tone of revelation, “this is a fuse.”

To illustrate the “apocalyptic” consequences of an Iranian nuke, Netanyahu brandished a fanciful cartoon that was meant to depict Iran’s progress in building a warhead. He then quite literally drew a thick red line just under the point of detonation to denote the threshold Iran would have to surpass before manufacturing the bomb.

“Just imagine a nuclear armed Al-Qaeda,” Netanyahu warned.

But this fear mongering is not new. As early as 1992, when Netanyahu was still only a parliamentarian, he had told his colleagues that Iran was three to five years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon and that the threat had to be “uprooted by an international front headed by the US.”

This obsession with bombs and enrichment should not come as a surprise. In a country that prohibits the entry of pasta into the Gaza Strip for security reasons, surely nuclear enrichment, even if it is within the limits set by the International Atomic Energy Agency, is to be perceived as an existential threat and part of a “clash between modernism and medievalism.”[2]

But Bibi need not worry. As it happens, Iran, the military “power” inches away from annihilating Israel—a country with over two hundred nuclear warheads—is “so inadequate” in communication and “its training deficiencies so significant,” that it is incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military aircraft. A heavily classified Pentagon intelligence report recently published by The New York Times predicts that “misidentification of aircraft will continue.”

The “ridiculous-looking, over-simplified bomb cartoon,” as The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri referred to it, was as serious as Bibi’s so-called “clash between modernity and medievalism” or his citing of the infamous Orientalist Bernard Lewis to argue that due to the very nature of Iran’s leaders, the principle of mutually assured destruction did not apply to the Iranians in case they ever acquired the bomb, for in their mind, this total annihilation was an “inducement, and not a deterrent.”

As expected, the “bomb cartoon” instantly became the subject of much satire and ridicule for many media outlets both in Israel and abroad.

But in Iran, Netanyahu’s speech aroused a different sentiment. For them, the tragic farce was not the long-winded and exceptionally silly speech. The image of Bibi cleverly showing his audience the cartoon he had prepared could remind Iranians of only one thing. They had seen that clever smirk, that primitive diagram, that self-righteous tone as it yelped, “trust me, I know!”

What made the similarity even more bizarre was the inane use of diagrams by cunning politicians who would stop at nothing in order to deceive the masses for a “greater good.”

Just hours after Netanyahu had finished exhibiting his drawings, one image was circulated extensively amongst Iranians active on social media sites.

The picture showed Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu, busy displaying their diagrams. Above the two men, was an image of Mir Hossein Mousavi and next to him this quote: “They distort the diagrams in order to deceive you and to lead you to a path to nowhere.”

A recent cartoon by Iranian artist Mana Neyestani captures the overall mood prevalent in Iran.

When Mousavi uttered those words in June 2009, he was merely referring to Ahmadinejad’s campaign of falsifications. The monumental fraud that later triggered the massive Green Movement had not yet occurred, Netanyahu had just assumed office and Iran had not become so internationally isolated.

But the “path to nowhere” is favoured by opportunists from both countries: one claims to lead the anti-imperialist cause and uses religion or nationalism as a rallying cry depending on the occasion; the other, better looking with a fluent speaker of American English, pretends to be passionate about the Jewish nation as he carelessly whitewashes a murderous ideology that resulted in the deaths of millions of people during World War II, including Jews.

It should come as little surprise, then, that during the 2009 uprising in Iran, The Christian Science Monitor’s Joshua Mitnick explained, “Why Iran’s Ahmadinejad is preferred in Israel.”

“[M]any officials and analysts here actually prefer the incumbent president because … he’ll be easier to isolate … Mousavi, by contrast, isn’t expected to alter Iran’s drive for nuclear power, but he would win international sympathy,” he wrote.

According to Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin Sadat Centre at Bar Ilan University, “If we have Ahmadinejad, we know where we stand. If we have Mousavi we have a serpent with a nice image.”

Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, Israel’s top spy cautioned that “If … Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem, because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat.”

Dagan’s predecessor Ephraim Halevy had also voiced similar views, referring to Ahmadinejad as the “greatest gift” Israel could hope for as he galvanised world opinion against Iran. “He only serves us. We couldn’t carry out a better operation at the Mossad than to put a guy like Ahmadinejad in power in Iran,” he boasted.

“He unites the entire world against Iran.”

Referring to Ahmadinejad’s repeated predictions of Israel’s demise and questioning of the Nazi Holocaust, Halevy said the Iranian leader “proved to everyone that the Iran of today is an Iran that is impossible to live with.”

Daniel Pipes, a protégé of Bernard Lewis, tells us how “my head tells me it’s best that he remain in office,” because it is “better to have a bellicose, apocalyptic, in-your-face Ahmadinejad who scares the world than a sweet-talking Mousavi who again lulls it to sleep, even as thousands of centrifuges whir away.”

“I am rooting for Ahmadinejad,” he reassured his readers before the 2009 elections in Iran.

“[B]ellicose, apocalyptic” and “in-your-face” are also apt descriptions of Bibi.

In his journal of life in the West Bank, Palestinian human rights lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh, distinguishes three ways of responding to Israeli injustice in the occupied territories: The first is that of “blind hate,” the second, “mute submission.” But there is also a third way, the way of the Samid, “the steadfast one,” who watches his home as it turns into a prison.[3]

The Samid to undertake the first way, as the conqueror would no doubt prefer, so as to rid himself of the troublesome intruder in the Land of Israel.

“Between mute submission and blind hate I choose the third way. I am Samid.”

Although Shehadah’s West Bank journal predates Iran’s Green Movement by decades, it could very well have been describing the current status of its leaders, who have been under house arrest since February 2011 after calling for rallies in solidarity with the Arab Spring.

“You, Samid, choose to stay in that prison, because it is your home, and because you fear that if you leave, your jailer will not allow you to return. Living like this, you must constantly resist the twin temptations of either acquiescing in the jailer’s plan in numb despair, or becoming crazed by consuming hatred for your jailer and yourself, the prisoner.”

For more than six hundred days now, Mousavi’s house has been his jail.

Over the years, the reform movement has rarely, if ever, been in a comfortable relationship with country’s complex power structure in Iran, especially the hardline governing elite that now dominate all branches of the state and military.

They challenge the despotic enemy within, as the pharaoh brands them as traitors and agents of the West who seek the downfall of the Islamic Republic. “Seditionists” (fetneh gar), “topplers” (barandaz), “counterrevolutionaries” (zed-e enghelab), etc., the tyrants brand them as they wish.

They are paraded in show trials run by a state they helped build. They are flogged and beaten by prison guards who were at best toddlers when they toppled the last dictator in 1979.

The Greens, the Samidin from Iran, are accused of having received one billion dollars from Saudi Arabia, and of having ties with the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a terrorist group with a murderous past.

Lengthy jail terms, solitary confinement, house arrest, physical and psychological torture, exile, travel ban, work ban, the kiss of the whip; all meant to humiliate the Samid, designed to break his will. A year after the 2009 unrest, Mousavi said that “we stand tall with dignity, yet whipped, beaten and imprisoned; we stand … we are most certain about our victory … for we have not demanded anything but the nation’s rights.”

In their quest to subordinate the oppressors in Tehran to the will of the people, the Samidin from Iran—or the Green Movement as they are commonly referred to—also face the strenuous task of not being used as pawns for the powers that have cast their predatory gaze on the motherland.

As they attempt to thwart a military strike and sanctions against their homeland, they must listen to the “Iranian Chalabis,”[4] Iranian expats who ardently support hawkish policies towards their country and accuse the greens of secretly working for the “mullahs” in Tehran.

The Samid is an easy target, for everyone.

They say that while in prison, Mousavi, the “serpent with a nice image” in the words of Daniel Pipes, has developed heart complications. Exactly what caused the decline in the well-being of a previously healthy Mousavi is, at this stage, up for speculation.

Much like their Palestinian counterparts, the green Samidin have no illusions, for all of this is part of life. But make no mistake, the Samid does cherish life. Indeed, at the height of the 2009 uprising, it was Mousavi who anticipated the long path before the movement he was leading:

“In the past century our people have seen quite a few … triumphs. However, their triumphs were the outcome of [direct] struggle. As long as the environment of struggle and endeavor lasted, these strides were also preservable. But as soon as people were exhausted or thought they had to return to their homes, the fruits of their struggle were also lost. To fight [for a cause] is holy, but it is not long-lasting. What does last is life.”

For the time being, it seems, the people have returned to their homes.

The Samidin, Shehadah writes in The Third Way, “must keep the anger burning,” for it is up to them “to remember and record.”

As Tehran’s conservative leader of Friday prayers Ahmad Jannati fittingly warned, they are simply “fire under the ashes,” burning until the time is ripe.

Notes

[1] A tasteless joke seeing as Mousavi’s close ally Ali Akbar Mohtashami had been instrumental in founding the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

[2] Indeed, in February 2009, when United States Senator John Kerry visited the Gaza Strip, he learned that one of the items the Israelis had banned from entering the strip included pasta.

[3] See Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians. Cambridge, MA: South End, 1999.

[4] Ahmad Chalabi, the Bush administration’s favourite Iraqi exile, was a staunch supporter of a strike in order to remove Saddam from power.

Love Bomb: How Deep Is Israel’s Love for Iran?

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[Image by “Israel-Loves Iran” Facebook group.]

* This piece also appeared on the Jadaliyya online magazine.

If you follow the news in the Middle East, you have probably come across the online sensation known as the “Israel-Loves-Iran” campaign.

The campaign, launched by Israeli graphic designer Ronny Edry and his wife Michal Tamir, emerges amidst rising tensions between Iran and the West over the country’s nuclear program, as well as months of sabre-rattling between the leaders of Israel, the United States, and Iran.

What started out as a campaign to upload colourful posters with the slogan “Iranians, we will never bomb your country. We [heart] you” quickly turned into the second most-viewed video on YouTube in Israel, with around 740,000 views thus far. The irresistible video is a joy to watch. It is as though we are relieved of any and all responsibility by merely sharing and liking it.

And sure enough, Edry says that within forty-eight hours of posting the first picture, he received a response from the “the other side.”

The online declarations of love would soon catch public interest in Iran and outside the Middle East. Its anti-war message was picked up by Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani. His recent work depicts the leaders of Iran and Israel making threatening hand gestures to each other from their respective podiums, while the people they claim to represent struggle to reach out to one another with flowers.

Edry’s initiative is commendable, especially in a country where expressing outrage at war is rare. On one of the few recent occasions when anti-war sentiment was expressed, it was because the prospect of a military showdown with Iran threatened to cancel a Madonna concert. This was enough to prompt Israeli fans to launch a Facebook page that pleaded with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold off on plans to strike Iran until the Queen of Pop had performed for them. “Bibi don’t start a war with Iran until after Madonna’s show on May 29,” the group was called.

In the “Israel-Loves-Iran” campaign, by contrast, standing up to war, personalizing the idea of war, and expressing love are well-intentioned and moving. Indeed, it is hard not to feel touched when you stumble across Ronny’s own poster for the campaign: It depicts him and the Edrys’ young daughter, who is holding an Israeli flag in her left hand, looking into the camera. You would have to be quite cynical and guarded to disapprove of the whole affair. What could possibly be wrong with love and peace, you might ask.

In her piece in the New Yorker, Israeli writer Ruth Margalit writes that she was “surprised” by her compatriots’ campaign of love. “I was as moved as I was surprised: one would be hard pressed to find a more sarcastic bunch than my fellow Israelis.” “[C]all it naïve, but it felt pretty great,” she added.

Yet as you tilt your eyes down to the bottom of the poster, you might notice a somewhat disturbing detail: The heart symbol in “We [heart] you” is right above the word “bomb,” in “We will never bomb you.”

There is something deeply disturbing about a message of “love” that includes the word “bomb” in it. One cannot help but recall the nauseating images of little Israeli girls, under parental supervision, writing messages of “love” on artillery shells destined for the villages of southern Lebanon in July 2006. Days later, similar images showed adult ultra-orthodox men doing the same, and also dancing with IDF soldiers before they volleyed more shells of love into Lebanon.

But perhaps this form of articulation is to be expected of a society as militarized as Israel’s.[1] At the height of Israel’s onslaught in the Gaza strip more than three years ago, Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy wrote that Operation Cast Lead exposed “the true deep veins of Israeli society” as its “impulse for revenge and the thirst for blood.” Polls during the operation showed that ninety percent of Israeli Jews supported it. Indeed, a recent poll conducted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs shows that sixty-five percent of Israeli Jews believe that attacking Iran to stop its nuclear program would be less harmful to Israel than living under the shadow of a nuclear Iran. Sixty percent agree that only military action can stop Iran’s nuclear program.

So Iranians on the receiving end of this barrage of “love” cannot be blamed if they are less than comfortable: We love you Iranians, but we also believe it is necessary to remind you that we have the capacity to annihilate you if we ever decide to do so. The Jerusalem Post seems to have realized the sickening irony in the poster: they have now replaced “We will never bomb you” with “NO TO WAR”!

Edry has spoken of his time in the Israeli military: “I was a soldier in a combat unit, I saw things, I know how it looks. Israelis are born ready. We are living in a state that is ready all the time.”

He understands “how lucky we are to also have bombs and how lucky we are that we’ll clean them out first.” “It’s not that we are not ready. Ahmadinejad, he knows that we have bombs,” he admits.

And these bombs come in different shapes and sizes. Some are white phosphorous, others nuclear.

Israelis are very conscious of their country’s military might. Iranians, not surprisingly, are conscious of their ancient heritage. “Iran is one of the most venerable civilisations on earth: it makes China look like an adolescent, and America look like a stripling,” Martin Amis once wrote for the Guardian.

Iranians take great pride in their heritage. One need only look at the country’s nuclear program to catch a glimpse of this pride: despite a broad spectrum of political views, there has been a consensus amongst the political elite about Iran’s inalienable right to acquire nuclear technology, even if there are differing views on how to manage nuclear talks.

Prior to the 2009 presidential elections, when reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was asked whether he would agree to a suspension of uranium enrichment if he won the race, he responded with a firm “No.” “No one in Iran would accept suspension,” he added. Few could predict that just a few weeks later, Mousavi would be spearheading the opposition Green Movement.

Seven months before his arrest in February 2011, Mousavi poured scorn on the crippling sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, maintaining that they would sooner or later make life difficult for Iranians. “The sanctions aren’t merely aimed at bringing the government to its knees,” he said. “The Green Movement must make use of its international capacity to show foreign powers that it will not permit them to take advantage of the current government’s lack of legitimacy and to undermine the country’s independence, territorial integrity, and prime interests.”

It should come as little surprise, then, that despite Iran’s inferior military prowess when compared with Israel, one Iranian user chose the following words to describe how she felt about the whole affair: “Israelis, we [heart] you, too. And we will never bomb you either.”

The “Israel-Loves-Iran” Facebook group has attracted around 64,000 members thus far, and already, it has a Swedish spin-off too. But there have been differing Iranian reactions to the Facebook phenomenon.

One of the posts shared by the Facebook group’s administrator is a link to Ali Samadi Ahadi’s documentary The Green Wave, which provides a narrative of the post-election protests in 2009 and the Green Movement. This would suggest that the campaign sees itself as being sympathetic towards the Green Movement’s aspiration: a free, just, and democratic Iran.

But the notion that a democratic Iran could have a normal relationship with Israel while the latter deprives the Palestinians of their rights is absurd. “We have a regime,” Gideon Levy maintains, “that is no less tyrannical” than what Iranians have to put up with in their country.

Yet despite these principles, the pro-Israel lobby and the neo-cons’ favorite Iranian hawks propagate the view that Israel will not find anything but a staunch ally in a free and democratic Iran. If a tyrannical Iran aids the Palestinians against Israel, then a democratic Iran must surely stand with Israeli apartheid. In contrast to the Green Movement’s leaders, these individuals support sanctions on Iran, which ultimately devastate the livelihoods of ordinary Iranians. They even enjoy flirting with the idea of a strike on their homeland.

One such example is Amir Abbas Fakhravar, Secretary General of the Confederation of Iranian Students—an organization that boasts of being a “pro-Western” but at the same time “independent” organization. An “opportunist” and “reputed jailhouse snitch who was locked up for non-political offenses but reinvented himself as a student activist and political prisoner,” according to an article in Mother Jones, Farkhravar recently appeared on Israeli television to announce to Israelis: “We love Israel, we love the Israelis and to be honest, our nation, the Iranians, we miss [being] friends with Israel. I hope it will happen [again] soon.” For anyone who might still have doubted the depth of Fakhravar’s affection for Israel, he added: “We love Israel, we love [the] United States…and honestly Israel can be the only friend and ally [for us] in the entire Middle East.” As his closing statement, our Love Guru tells his Israeli audience, “Honestly, we love you.” “I’m a Zionist too,” Fakhravar declares on his blog. He adds that he is also “a big fan” of the newly imposed sanctions.

The Green Movement was born out of a nation’s desire for peace, justice, democracy, and rule of law; it cannot preach humanity and justice but also turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Israel. If Iranians shouted “No Gaza, no Lebanon, my life is for Iran” in 2009, it was not a declaration of love for Israel. It was rather an assault on an ideological pillar of a political system that claims to champion the Palestinian cause while oppressing its own population. It was not, as some so barefacedly claim, a show of “respect for Israel.”

The new generation of “Iranian Chalabis” opportunely forget to mention that another popular slogan chanted at the early stages of those demonstrations was “Madrom chera neshastin, Iran shode Felestin.” “People, why are you sitting idly by, Iran has become Palestine,” they chanted, attempting to draw parallels between the heavy-handed approach of the Iranian authorities in cracking down on protesters and Israel’s inhumane treatment of the Palestinians.

A democratic Iran cannot go hand in hand with supporting Israeli apartheid. Owing to its very nature, a government that adheres to universal principles of human rights is far more threatening to Israel than the current government in Tehran. Such a government will not be able to cherry pick countries to criticize for human rights violations in order to fit its political agenda.

Ronny Edry, the man behind the seductive “Israel-loves-Iran” campaign, says he was intending to “try something else as people and say to the other side, guys, we don’t want war with you.”

It is difficult to estimate just how widespread the love salvo has been in the two countries. The Israelis who joined the campaign, as the Jerusalem Post observes, mostly “appear to be secular, good-looking, and healthy.” Meanwhile, “Most of the Iranians posting appear to be expatriates living abroad, mostly young English speakers,” thousands of miles away from home.

Ronny Edry has said: “I want to travel to Tehran and to have a coffee. I don’t want to travel to Tehran in a tank or in a plane. I mean, you know, an air strike plane.” I am convinced he will also be able to find people interested in “having coffee” and talking “about sports” in the small Palestinian village of Bil’in, around half an hour away from him and just a few minutes from the illegal settlement of Modi’in. And then, if the 470 miles of towering walls and the Jewish-only roads permit, Ronny and his newly found Palestinian friend could travel to Jerusalem, together. I am certain that a realization will dawn on him: that he loves his neighbors just as much as he loves Iranians.

“Iran is so, so far away,” Edry observes.

“If the lantern is needed at home, donating it to the mosque is haram [forbidden],” an old and much-quoted Iranian proverb goes. Luckily for Israelis like Ronny Edry, their lantern of love is required, but in places much closer to home.

Notes

[1] See Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. London: Verso, 2003.

Epic or Farce: Preliminary Assessment of Iran’s Parliamentary Elections (Part II)

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* This piece also appeared on the Jadaliyya online magazine.

[Read Part One here.]

“Epic” Turnout

After the 2 March polls closed, Khamenei said that the turnout had been “one of the highest” throughout the history of the Islamic Revolution. “These elections were a firm and clear answer” to the naysayers, he argued.

Yet even without a thorough inspection of the results, it is quite difficult not to question claims about “one of the highest” turnouts in the past thirty-three years. Official figures suggested a sixty-four percent turnout, higher than the fifty-one percent in the 2008 parliamentary elections. This means that despite the unparalleled damage to the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy following the unrest of 2009 and the ongoing crisis of mismanagement, the public’s trust in the political system has not suffered any decline. Quite the contrary, it has actually been able to shore up its legitimacy.

The staggering inflation, high prices, a surge in unemployment, the poor state of the national currency, regular reports of monumental embezzlement scandals and the authorities’ inability to prosecute the culprits, the growing constraints on political activity, the widespread crackdown on any form of dissent, and the continued stifling of civil liberties seem to have had little negative impact on the ordinary Iranian’s view of the political establishment. It’s worth mentioning that the deteriorating state of the economy coincides with a seven-year period during which the country’s oil revenues were equal to half of its total oil income since the initial discovery of oil 103 years ago. Iran is now officially the “world’s worst jailer” of journalists, ahead of China. It is a recognized “enemy of the Internet.” None of this appears to have deterred Iranians from casting ballots and thus “voting for the Islamic Republic” and showing their “trust” in the system.

Eyewitness accounts, as well as video footage from major cities, suggest that streets as well as polling booths were unusually silent, empty, and at times even deserted. This does not contradict reports about higher levels of participation in some of the more rural areas, where local issues tend to be the population’s main concern.

In the weeks and days ahead of elections, the Islamic Republic tends to open up to the world. In June 2009, the authorities were eager to show off its “democratic” spectacle and allowed many foreign journalists to travel to various parts of the country to cover the event and demonstrate to the world how free a country Iran is. The Daily Show’s Jason Jones even made a satirical report on the elections, interviewing leaders of the opposition. This would soon change, after the outbreak of protests, and the Culture Ministry would demand all foreign media and anyone affiliated with them to leave the country.

In March 2012, however, this is far from the case. This time around, far fewer journalists were granted visas. While Tehran governor Mohsen Nayebi spoke of three hundred and fifty foreign reporters covering the polls, an official at the Ministry of Culture admitted that no more than eighty visas had been granted to foreign-based journalists.

CNN’s Ivan Watson, one of the few foreign journalists allowed in Tehran to cover the elections, tweeted his telling description: “This is the 1st election I’ve covered anywhere in the world where authorities ordered reporters on buses to cover vote.” “All foreign journalists being BUSSED by authorities to polling stations. No alternative,” Watson added in another tweet.

If the authorities truly expected an “epic” turnout, they were intent on concealing it.

On his blog, Farhad Jafari, an Iranian author who endorsed Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential elections, recounted what he saw on 2 March in Mashhad, the holiest Iranian city in Shiite Islam. He noted that the number of polling stations had suffered a noticeable drop in comparison to previous elections. “I think this stemmed from a policy of reducing the number of polling stations in order to both increase the people’s movement in the streets and to make the remaining polling stations appear more crowded.”

Jafari’s description concurs with official figures. According to the Interior Ministry, around 48,000 polling stations were used during the 2009 election. In the 2012 elections, this number would drop to 46,924.

Jafari writes that he saw a “very noticeable fall” in the number of people present at the polling station (a mosque) near his home. “That year [2009], every time you went to the station, you would see long queues until outside the mosque. You would have to wait twenty to thirty minutes before casting your vote. [On 2 March] there was none of that.” Jafari describes another station where between ten to fifteen people were waiting to vote. Based on what he saw, he deduces, “the critics of the status quo are the majority.”

Judging by their absence at the ballots on Election Day, it would appear that eight of the country’s most prominent religious figures also see themselves as being part of the discontented “majority.”

As if the relationship between Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pillar of the revolution, and Khamenei wasn’t rocky enough, the head of the Expediency Council had this to say as he cast his vote: “If the [announced] results are the same as what the people have voted for, we will, God willing, have a good parliament.”

Yet questioning the authenticity of the election results would not end with these scathing remarks. Three years after the widely disputed 2009 elections, one is baffled by how gross statistical anomalies are still a regular feature of Iranian elections, including the last one.

A day after Election Day (3 March), Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar announced that 64.4 percent of eligible voters had turned out to vote for their representatives in parliament. According to Najjar, the total number of voters tallied at around 26.4 million.

Yet prior to the vote, Najjar had said that around forty-eight million Iranians were eligible to vote. By simply dividing Minister’s own figures, it is revealed that the turnout was no more than 54.8 percent, ten percentage points less than the 64.4 percent he had been so keen to announce. Former reformist parliamentarian Ali Mazrooei was quick to point this out.

The Ministry of Intelligence (MOI) would soon take notice of the mathematical blunder and made changes after the fact to Najjar’s announcement of the final results that had appeared on its official website. The MOI website now quoted Najjar as saying that 26.4 million was in fact not the final turnout figure, and that the Ministry would post the final tallies soon!

Another problem was Najjar’s insistence that turnout had increased by “eleven percent” compared to the last parliamentary elections in 2008. This was problematic, because the turnout in 2008 was fifty-one percent, and an “eleven percent” increase could only have been achieved if the 2012 turnout had been sixty-two percent, not the sixty-seven percent announced by the Minister.

In fact, Najjar needn’t have made any announcements. Forty-eight hours before the polls opened, the IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency claimed that its own nationwide survey, carried out between 23 and 25 February, predicted a turnout of around 65.5 percent. The agency provided no information about its methodology or the size of its survey. In a country like Iran, where independent and accurate surveys are nearly impossible, the Fars figures seem too good to be true.

The Fars news forecast seems even more impeccable when one considers the fact that weeks after Election Day, the MOI has yet to release the details of the tallies, giving rise to speculation that election officials are still preoccupied with the daunting task of applying the finishing touches (or “adjustments”) to the final excel sheet. It is noteworthy that even after the widely contested 2009 elections, the MOI did in the end release the complete detailed results, which, ultimately, had the unintended effect of strengthening the case for fraud.

Najjar later added that participation had reached twenty-nine million. But not even this number yields a turnout of more than sixty per cent, that is, four percentage points less the Najjar’s announcement!

Another inconsistency is Najjar’s claim regarding the number of eligible voters: forty-eight million. Again, Mazrooei points out that based on Iran’s 2006 census, the number of eligible voters in the country should have been closer to fifty-one million and not forty-eight as announced by the MOI. (He extrapolates a birth rate of 1.3 percent based on the decreasing birth rates obtained by the census.) Furthermore, a report by the newspaper Etemade Melli on 21 April 2009 argued that during that period, the number of voting-age Iranians was as high as 51.3 million people, five million more than what the MOI announced for the June elections.

A brief look at the announced results for Tehran Province, Iran’s most populous province, sheds further light on the authenticity of the recent parliamentary elections. According to MOI figures, fifty-two percent of the population in the province went to the polls on Election Day (forty-eight percent in Tehran city). This is problematic for two main reasons: In the last parliamentary elections in 2008, turnout was 30.32 percent. It strains credulity that the citizens of Tehran, who formed a significant core of the anti-government protests in 2009, would be so willing to go to the polls less than three years after the unrest.

Even former American national security officials Hilary Mann Leverett and Flynt Leverett, who have wasted no opportunity to ardently oppose the idea of fraud in the 2009 elections and to dismiss the Green Movement as an formidable force in Iranian political, ought to admit that in big population centers, in particular the capital Tehran, turnout could not possibly have been as high as official figures suggest.

Like the 2009 elections, another source of incongruity was the issue of provinces where turnouts of more than one hundred percent were recorded. For instance, two days before Election Day, the semi-official Mehr news agency ran a short story in which it claimed that Ilam Province had 373,000 eligible voters. To the amazement of its readers, the agency released another story after Election Day, in which it reported that 380,000 ballots had been cast in the province. Based on that number, Mehr also concluded that the turnout in the province had been seventy-six percent! Again, the election organizers seem to have failed at basic math. This unmistakable discrepancy means that at least one of these three numbers is problematic, to say the least. Having taken notice of the blunder, Mehr soon modified the 380,000 figure down to 280,000, explaining that “380,000” was a typo. This left only one problem: now the turnout was 75.067 percent, still one percent less than the previously announced seventy-six per cent!

Adjusting the numbers was proving to be a messy affair indeed.

According to provincial officials in the lead-up to Election Day, the number of eligible voters in Tehran and the newly formed Alborz Provinces was around 6.3 million. Yet based on the MOI’s own figures in 2009, the combined number of eligible voters in the two Provinces was around 8.8 milion. Astonishingly, not only has the number of voters old enough to vote not increase, but it has declined by 2.5 million voters.

If the election authorities did indeed deflate the number of eligible voters, it could only have served the purpose of inflating the overall turnout, and thereby delivering yet another “slap” in the face of the Islamic Republic’s adversaries.

Yet this meddlesome tactic was by no means a novelty. It was the case during both the 2008 and 2009 elections. For example, in 2008, less than two years after the Statistical Centre of Iran put the number of over-eighteen voters at around forty-eight million, the number of potential voters was announced by the authorities to be forty-three million!

Khamenei had promised an “epic” participation rate, and this had to be materialized. “Just as the Supreme Leader had predicted, the people’s participation in the elections was very high and better than previous elections,” said Ahmad Jannati, Chairman of the Guardian Council, after Election Day. As early as January, Khamenei’s representative in the IRGC predicted a turnout of between sixty to sixty-five percent. “People will partake in these elections and will not listen to those who bring up the issue of boycott,” Ali Saeidi told the official news agency Irna.

In a way, the elections really did represent an “epic” event—but “epic” in how problematic the announced results were. Allegations of voter fraud sparked limited protests in small cities such as Khorramabad and Amol, where the rivals were almost all exclusively from the Principlist camp and had been screened by the Guardian Council.

The election results prompted Khabaronline, a news site associated with current parliament speaker Ali Larijani, to state that poll results showed a “sudden change in voter behavior in the last two to three days” before Election Day. Even Ahmadinejad’s sister Parvin Ahmadinejad, who was defeated by a conservative rival in their hometown of Garmsar, accused the authorities of election rigging. Her defeat was emblematic of how an epoch of Iranian politics dominated by the Ahmadinejad clan was coming to an end.

Beginning of the End

If the authorities were confident about an “epic” turnout, this was not reflected in the state media’s extensive (and at times obsessive) coverage of former President Mohammad Khatami’s unexpected ballot on Election Day. Since the birth of the Green Movement, Khatami has often come under regular attack from the hardliners for his views (albeit these views have been quite moderate). He had been referred to as one of the leaders of the green “sedition” due to his close relationship with the opposition movement’s leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi.

But in the rush to show the political establishment’s legitimacy, none of this seemed to matter anymore. It did not matter that he had cast his vote at a primary school in the village of Vadan, near the resort town of Damavand, even though it is custom for former and current officials to vote in the capital on Election Day and before journalists. It did not matter that Khatami published a note on his site explaining to Iranians why he had voted, even though he had hinted earlier that he would boycott. It is still unclear whether he had even planned to vote or whether this was a last-minute decision. An activist close to Khatami said that the former president was not concerned that the vote might “put his reputation on the line” in the eyes of Iranians, and he had “made this very hard decision” to prevent the hardliners from placing further pressure on the reformists. Even the governor of Damavand had to come out and prove that Khatami had indeed participated in the elections.

We may never know whether the results corresponded to the content in the ballot boxes. The Guardian Council’s vetting of candidates means that Khamenei effectively controlled who would be permitted to run. Out of 3,400 candidates, 1,200 were disqualified, half of them Ahmadinejad loyalists and some even MPs who had entered the Majlis following the 2008 elections.

The unusually clumsy manipulation of vote figures means that the only “epic” aspect of the vote was the scale of irregularities. However, authentic or not, the unsurprising result (a crushing defeat for the “Deviant Current”) implies that Khamenei acolytes have swept up an overwhelming majority of seats in the Majlis, which means that the Supreme Leader has succeeded in bolstering his position. In the event that Iran does away with the presidential system, Khamenei will be able to exercise full control over the appointment of his head of state.

Before the new (and far less pro-Ahmadinejad) parliament’s first session is held, the president has been questioned by MPs over his mismanagement of the economy and lack of obedience to the Supreme Leader (though Ahmadinejad made a complete mockery of the questioning, infuriating the MPs.)

This, and the judiciary’s recent action over the largest embezzlement scandal in Iran’s history—in which Ahmadinejad aides are also implicated—serve as a reminder of what might become of Ahmadinejad if he is to persist in his protest against the Guardian Council’s vetting process. Surely the political life of a once thundering Ahmadinejad now seems to be drawing to an end. Ahmadinejad’s close aides and media outlets affiliated with him have thus far shown no willingness to challenge the Guardian Council over its disqualification of around six hundred pro-Ahmadinejad candidates.

This is not to say that it is likely that Ahmadinejad will be impeached. After all, Khamenei tied his destiny to that of Ahmadinejad when he showed his unstinting support for his favorite president on 19 June 2009. Fully aware of this, staunch Ahmadinejad rivals, such as conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakkoli, have hinted that Ahmadinejad will have to be tolerated for the next fifteen months. Tavakkoli adds, however, that should Ahmadinejad continue to rebel, his “displacement” will be the only option.

Almost exactly two years ago, Karroubi described the direction in which the Islamic Republic was moving: “The ship of state is today no more than a boat.” The events of 2 March demonstrated how this boat had become just a bit more unstable without actually capsizing.

The election results imply that Gholam Ali Haddad Adel finished first in Tehran district, the most important district of all. Haddad Adel has proven time after time his loyalty to the Leader. His supposedly high vote total and his family ties with Khamenei make him an appropriate candidate for speaker of the parliament. Also, his daughter is married to the leader’s son Mojtaba.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the grace of the Revolutionary Guards, who immediately distanced themselves from Ahmadinejad when he dared defy the Supreme Leader.

The irregularities in the 2012 Majlis elections have also reopened the case of electoral fraud the June 2009 election. The sheer scale of the anomalies has further reinforced the hand of those who argued the 2009 race had been “engineered.”

In 2009, when Ahmadinejad won re-election, he enjoyed the firm backing of most conservatives as well as the IRGC, which were determined to prevent the rise of the reformists. Things were quite different on 2 March, when the same election process marked the end of an era referred to by some as “Ahmadinejadism.” His own sister accused the electoral authorities of having carried out fraud. Yet less than three years ago, her brother was seen by most as one of the main culprits behind the “election coup,” as his Ministry of Interior was the body in charge of holding elections.

It is difficult to predict how the relationship between Khamenei and the IRGC will evolve in the more than one year we have until the next presidential elections. The elite fighting force now owns a huge chunk of the Iranian economy, and thus far, its ambitions have not clashed with the Leader’s worldview. It remains to be seen whether this will continue.

Just days after the elections, an article titled “For Whom Are the Bells Tolling?” appeared in the conservative newspaper Resalat. It asserted that the election results were the “last nail in the coffin” of the faction absent from the whole election process: the reformists. Many reformists, however, see the elections as the last nail in the coffin of the “Republic” in “The Islamic Republic.” While the 2009 presidential election was far from fair or free, for a sizeable portion of the Iranian population it provided a rare opportunity for political expression. “[Today] we saw people at the polling stations who had never voted,” Mousavi said on the polling day in 2009.

The 2009 elections highlighted a major crack within Iran’s political elite. The 2 March elections only deepened those divisions. Less than three years later, the Islamic Republic’s overall march towards a form of military government has gained further pace and its leader has shown little sign of relenting in the face of dissent. At this pace, Khamenei will be seen as the person responsible for every state action and its consequences.

In an article published before the elections, Ali Reza Eshraghi and Yasaman Baji pointed out that a real yardstick for Khamenei’s self-confidence would be whether or not he decides to keep Hashemi Rafsanjani as the head of the Expediency Council. “If he does not approve Rafsanjani’s presidency…it will mean he feels powerful enough not to keep Rafsanjani as a scarecrow, or that he has realized this scarecrow does not scare anyone anymore.”

But in the end, Khamenei decided not to eliminate his old friend and reappointed him as the head of the Council. Whether or not the past three years have taught him anything remains to be seen.

[Read Part One here.]

Epic or Farce: Preliminary Assessment of Iran’s Parliamentary Elections (Part I)

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* This piece also appeared on the Jadaliyya online magazine.

The 2nd of March marked Iran’s first nationwide elections since the widely disputed presidential race in June 2009 and its turbulent aftermath. They also hastened the decline of a “president” who owed his second term in office to a “miraculous hand,” a “hand” that, on 2 March, sought to curb Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s influence over the country’s affairs.

The embattled head of the executive of branch, whose protégés have dominated Iranian politics for the past seven years, is slowly but surely coming to terms with the realities of Iran’s power structure, namely the will of the Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards.

Prior to the election, and for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a near unanimous consensus had been reached within the opposition forces in the country to boycott the vote. The Coordination Council of the Green Path of Hope, an important decision-making body within the opposition Green Movement, had explicitly called on Iranians to “stay in their homes.” The boycott was intended to protest the illegitimacy of the election process as well as the ongoing house arrest of the movement’s leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, who were opposition candidates in the 2009 elections. The country’s major reformist parties, such as the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organisation (MIRO), the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), and the Freedom Movement of Iran (FMI), also refused to take part in the elections. (For two practical reasons, most reformist candidates would not have been able to participate even if they had decided to do so: first, most would have been disqualified from the race owing to the twelve-member Guardian Council’s vetting process; second, the main figures in the reformist camp are either in prison or awaiting jail.) This stance of refusal was also the position of foreign-based opposition groups, which had traditionally sided with the boycott strategy since the very early days of the Revolution.

In the months leading up to Election Day, it became reasonably evident that the parliamentary elections would merely pit one group of conservatives (or “Principlists”) against another. No independent observers would be allowed to monitor the soundness of the vote, and, as is the case with all Iranian elections, all candidates had to be screened by the Guardian Council.

While there was widespread belief that the elections would be nothing short of a sham, the vote was far from inconsequential: an electoral “farce, but an important one.”

The Stakes

Muhammad Sahimi’s description of the electoral “farce” is quite fitting:

These elections [are] a sort of team wrestling match held in an enormous stadium. Two groups grapple fiercely with each other, cheered on by a small number of supporters at ringside, while the vast majority of the people in the packed stadium are silent and uninterested, because they regard the match as an exercise in futility…the silent mass represents the large majority of the Iranian people who will, in all likelihood, sit out the elections, even if…the government announces that…Khamenei’s “prophetic” prediction has been fulfilled.

Iran’s hardliners had been unified in the purpose of crushing the reformist threat personified in Mousavi and Karroubi during the presidential elections. In June 2009, the hardliners saw their man “re-elected” for a second term in office, yet few could predict that just months later, deep divisions would surface amongst the victors. A week after the Election Day, Khamenei himself threw his firm backing behind Ahmadinejad during Friday prayers by declaring that “the views of [P]resident [Ahmadinejad] are closer to mine.” In doing so, Khamenei jeopardized his life-long friendship and comradeship with former president and parliament speaker ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who currently heads the Expediency Discernment Council. The country’s leadership, the armed forces, the Principlist-dominated Majlis (parliament), the judiciary, and, above all, the Supreme Leader, were all united. An unprecedented and impenetrable harmony existed amongst all of the branches of state and the military in the quest to quell the “seditionists” (the Green Movement). The conservatives were untouchable. Or so it seemed.

As soon as the seven-month-old well-disciplined mass street protests were suppressed—at least temporarily—by an equally well organized and highly efficient security apparatus, this honeymoon would come to a gradual halt. As the tides receded, the deeper divisions within Iran’s complex power structure became increasingly apparent.

At no point in the past three years was this rift more evident than in the spring of 2011, when Ahmadinejad refused to appear in public or to attend cabinet meetings for two weeks as a sign of protest against Khamenei’s decision to reinstate Heidar Moslehi as Intelligence Minister, just days after he had been asked to resign by Ahmadinejad. This was seen as an unparalleled act of defiance in the eyes of the leader and his followers, a “deviation” from the path of the Valiye Faqih, the “Guardian Jurist.”

The fragmentation of the Principlists required a new nomenclature for the increasingly limited array of political ideologies acceptable to the Islamic Republic. There were the “true” Principlists—those who had shown obedience to the Leader and were also represented in the parliamentary elections, albeit under different names—and then there was the “Deviant Current,” believed to be headed by none other than Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s chief-of-staff, who is said to have a great deal of influence over him. The understanding was that if Ahmadinejad and his supporters were to consolidate their grip on power, they would first have to seize control of the parliament.

In the weeks and months before Election Day, the “Deviant Current” was even accused by the “true” Principlists, who had grown weary of “Ahmadinejadism,” of plotting to meddle in the election in order to ensure that pro-Ahmadinejad lawmakers won the majority of seats in the Majlis.

A commonly held belief amongst Khamenei supporters was that Ahmadinejad had been grooming the fifty-one-year-old Mashaei to succeed him as president in 2013, and in doing so, was attempting to dominate the upcoming Majlis with his list of allies. To an objective observer, regardless of how fair, free, or sound the electoral process would turn out to be, victory could be a symbolic prize in anticipation of the 2013 race.

Despite the utter ineptitude of most Majlis members in taking the president to task over misconduct and a whole host of colossal corruption scandals engulfing his administration, Ahmadinejad made no secret of his discontent over what he saw as acts of pestering by MPs (such as Ali Motahhari), who would occasionally question cabinet members and threaten them (and him) with impeachment.

On one such occasion in February 2011, Ahmadinejad refused to even attend the impeachment hearing of his Transport Minister, Hamid Behbahani, calling the act “illegal.” “If the issues underlying the impeachment should apply to the minister, they would apply to the impeachers by more than a hundredfold,” he doggedly responded, referring to Behbahani as “the best minister of the government.” Behbahani, a former university professor who is said to have been Ahmadinejad’s PhD supervisor, was ultimately ousted from his position and lambasted for his failure to improve Iran’s poor air, rail, and road safety record, as well as for general mismanagement. The move had come just weeks after the crash of an Iranian passenger plane with at least 105 people on board near the city of Urmia, but not even that could persuade a stubborn Ahmadinejad or his minister to attend the hearing. Parliament speaker Ali Larijani called his absence at the impeachment a “violation of the law.” Ahmadinejad was required by law to name a new candidate for the post in less than three months. Nevertheless, a caretaker managed the ministry for the next four months.

If the Ahmadinejad presidency had taught Khamenei anything, it was the extent to which a president, even one as “Principlist” and “close” to the leader as Ahmadinejad himself, could prove to be an inconvenience. The seventy-two-year-old had come to learn the hard way about the nuisance posed by the office of president, one that required a final solution. This might help us understand why he hinted, in October 2011, that he might favour a revision of the constitution in order to allow for the parliament to choose the country’s head of government without the need for the population to vote him into office. With the parliament on his side, Khamenei would finally be able to appoint or dismiss a head of state of his choosing at will.

When it was time for the Guardian Council to screen candidates for the parliamentary elections, around six hundred supporters of the “Deviant Current” were barred from taking part in the race. This meant that in effect, the two main groups of Principlists allowed to participate were: a) those who opposed Ahmadinejad; and b) those who were more sympathetic towards Ahmadinejad himself, but were displeased with the “Deviant Current” spearheaded by Mashaei. This ensured an Ahmadinejad defeat, weeks before the 2 March vote.

These schisms within the Iranian leadership were viewed with much satisfaction within the Green Movement.

Come election season, it was clear that the battlefield would not be limited to the confines of the “ringside.” Winning the parliamentary elections and subsequently moving to put the Ahmadinejad gang in their place was undoubtedly a priority for Khamenei (and the Revolutionary Guards), yet he was well aware that the stakes were much higher than the two hundred seats in parliament. For him, the real headache was caused by the thought of the “silent and uninterested” majority of Iranians whose silence and apathy could morph into a form of activism and disobedience.

Since the 2009 presidential race, the ruling elite has been grappling with a crisis of legitimacy never before seen in the Islamic Republic. The overwhelming evidence presented until now suggests widespread fraud in the election process. However, even if we do, for the sake of argument, accept the government’s claims about the soundness of the vote, a substantial segment of the country’s population—according to the government’s own admission more than thirty-five percent of the population did not vote for Ahmadinejad—questioned the legitimacy of the election and the authorities’ brutal reaction to its aftermath. For them, the establishment made no attempt at addressing their grievances, but rather launched an all-out assault on their civil liberties. Who could forget Khamenei’s comparing the “seditionists” to “social and political germs” that needed to be eliminated by means of “vaccination”?

In the last days of 2010, Mohammad Khatami, former reformist president and arguably a formidable figure in the Green Movement, announced that three conditions would have to be met before the reformist factions could consider taking part in the 2012 elections: first, the release of political prisoners and allowing for “all” political parties to participate; second, the full implementation of the constitution; and third, moving towards “sound and free” elections.

We can only speculate whether Khatami himself really believed the authorities would ever give heed to his pre-conditions. His comments were greeted with great cynicism by a number of dissidents who regarded any form of participation in the regime’s elections as a betrayal of the opposition’s most sacrosanct red lines, as it would grant legitimacy to the establishment. Ultimately, the overwhelming consensus within the opposition was that a boycott was the only way forward.

Yet what is certain is that for the hardliners, submitting to any one of these three demands would represent a significant retreat from their heavy-handed approach towards the “sedition” that had erupted in June 2009. Fully aware of this, Tehran prosecutor Jafari Dolatabadi responded to Khatami’s remarks days later: “They mustn’t think they can set conditions for us.…It is the Islamic State which will set conditions for them.”

Just weeks later, Mousavi and Karroubi were placed under house arrest after calling for a fresh wave of opposition protests in solidarity with the Arab Spring in early 2011.

But two hundred days into his house arrest, Mousavi infuriated the establishment by voicing scepticism about the 2012 elections, “Given the current climate in our country, one cannot be hopeful regarding participation in the upcoming elections.” Similar comments made by Karroubi also found their way onto the media.

Hashemi Rafsanjani echoed Khatami’s pleas and called for “laying the groundwork” for a “good election.” Those calls fell on deaf ears.

If there was ever a glimmer of hope that the authorities would actually hold free and fair elections, it became clear by mid-December 2011 that none of the major reformist players, not even a firm believer in the Islamic Republic like Khatami, had any illusions in the hard-line ruling elite’s intentions. A boycott now seemed less like a solution and more like the solution.

At first, the president of the Coordination Council of the Reformist Front announced that the country’s pro-reform factions would not be participating in the elections. Khatami expressed his support for the remarks a week later, adding that “the reformists cannot and must not have candidates and a unified list in the elections….I think that all indicators suggest that we must not take part in the elections.”

The “Green Seditionists”—which included the reformists—would soon put its full force behind the boycott campaign. It would be watching the 2 March spectacle, but scornfully.

Even Khamenei, who typically does not miss an opportunity to underscore the people’s widespread support for the regime, had to explicitly acknowledge not only the great blow delivered to the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy after the events of 2009, but also the opposition’s boycott campaign: “Elections are a sign of the people’s trust in the [political] system. After the much-debated and eventful [presidential] elections of 2009, some estimated that the people’s trust in the establishment had been shattered, that people would not be coming to the polls [any more].”

“They’ve set up millions of media [outlets] so as to discourage the people,” Khamenei continued. “At times they claimed the people wouldn’t partake. At times they said the people would boycott, other times they said they [authorities] would rig [the elections]…[all of this] so that people don’t come to the polls.”

“The Supreme Leader has warned of the possibility of the elections being faced with a security challenge,” Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guards admitted.

“I do not recall the Supreme Leader ever warning about [elections] becoming a security concern, but he has done so with regards to the upcoming elections.…Remnants of the sedition might want to stir up trouble. It’s also possible that foreign [powers] will take advantage of the opportunity, as well as weaknesses in the executive and supervisory branches, in order to prepare the groundwork for [security challenges],” the IRGC official continued.

Last year, IRGC spokesmen, Brigadier General Salar Abnoush, warned of bloodshed if the result of the Majles elections turned out to be incompatible “with our values.” The reason, he said, was that “there will be infighting [amongst Principlists] in the Majles that will allow the sedition [Green Movement] to rise up again.”

A “Slap” in the Face of “The Enemy”

“The Enemy” is a perhaps one of the most frequently appearing terms in Khamenei’s limited choice of revolutionary vocabulary. This is more the case when the Islamic Republic gears up for election season and “The Enemy” becomes the dichotomy of high voter turnout, or what is referred to as hozoor (the people’s “presence” in long queues at polling booths).

While “The Enemy” is generally believed to consist of the United States, its allies in the West, and opposition groups who seek the Islamic Republic’s overthrow, this time around, its scope had been expanded to include the Green Movement, which was now endorsing the boycott. This was despite the fact that its core was made up of reformists who had, in previous years, been key players in forming Iran’s factional politics.

Khamenei had made it clear on numerous occasions what this “Enemy” would encompass. Just two days before Election Day, he warned, “For more than six months now, they’ve been propagating against Friday’s vote. All forms and types of propaganda [have been utilized] in order to discourage the people, so that the polling stations will be empty.”

In an interview with reporters from state TV just seconds after he had cast his vote on 2 March, Khamenei compared participating in the vote to the Muslim act of prayer. Once again, he did not forget to call for greater participation—as the country’s “prestige” was at stake—and to warn about the “enemy.”

“Voting for any candidate, coming to the polling stations, is a vote for the Islamic Republic,” he declared.

The “presence” or “participation” of the masses in elections has always been considered an important indicator of the ruling class’s legitimacy. The commonly held belief, not without reason, is that nothing can get the Islamic Republic’s main base of support to polling stations like the threat of “The Enemy.” This “presence” is even more important than the actual election outcome, as Khamenei himself has said.

The tightening international pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme in the months leading up to parliamentary elections also proved convenient. With talk of a military strike and crippling sanctions in the air, the authorities sought to capitalize on the foreign threat and to highlight, for those strata of the population who would be persuaded, the need to counter the danger by means of mass participation in elections.

And so the Supreme Leader is to parrot the importance of “participation,” for it injects “fresh blood into the body of the Revolution, country, and the Islamic Republic. The higher the turnout,” he maintained, “the more the country will benefit. More fervor, enthusiasm, and motivation [in the elections] will be beneficial for the country’s future. It is better for the country’s prestige. It is better for maintaining the country’s security and keeping it safe.”

This “fervor,” he claimed, less than a week after the polls, was what had taught “The Enemy” a good lesson. “Two days ago, we heard that the President of the United States has said that ‘we are not thinking about a war with Iran.’”

“Very well; this is good. These are wise words. This is an exit from illusion.”

As was the case in June 2009, Khamenei was again quick to praise the elections as yet another “victory” for the Islamic Republic, one that had delivered a “slap” in the face of the regime’s opponents, including the Green Movement.

[Read part two here]