Ausgabe 24/2005

Future of the Middle East The Last Chance for Reformers in Iran


Part 2: Part Two: Campaigning against nuclear weapons.

Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has left little room for his president to operate.

Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has left little room for his president to operate.

Although calls to boycott the election in the wake of this "bloodless coup" brought voter turnout in Tehran down to 33 percent, this did nothing to prevent the conservatives from recapturing the Iranian parliament, the Majlis.

The reformers' current top candidate, Mostafa Moin, 50, will have a tough time overcoming such obstacles. Nevertheless, he continues to steadfastly insist that he is "confident of victory." Aware of what he calls the "disappointment and despondency among large segments of the population," Moin, a delicate man, has stylized himself into a sort of academic tribune of the people. And he could even win the election -- assuming he manages to capture the votes of everyone he believes ought to vote for him. As Moin theorizes, 16 million high-school students, 7 million academics, more than 2 million students and at least a million teachers and 50,000 professors are just waiting for an educated man -- and not a well-fed millionaire like Rafsanjani or a policeman like Ghalibaf -- to come to power.

For supporters of reform, their vote will be nothing if not an expression of despair. "I must vote for him if I intend to continue living and working in this country," says filmmaker Manijeh Hekmat. She sees her vote as a last chance for the reform movement.

Power to confront the Ayatollah

But it is Rafsanjani who is widely viewed as the leading candidate. His connections and his power have apparently even alarmed religious leader Khamenei, who is said to view Rafsanjani's attempt to stage a comeback with skepticism. The rivalry between two men stretches back to the Khomeini days.

Rafsanjani, the country's self-proclaimed saviour in its hour of need, has promised to put an end to skirmishes between reformers and conservatives. As a disciple of Khomeini, he claims to be "a pillar of the revolution." On the other hand, he also intends to "give no leeway to extremist elements" and to be a champion of freedom of expression.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is the front runner going into Friday's vote.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is the front runner going into Friday's vote.

Judging by such campaign promises, Rafsanjani could almost be seen as a reformer. When campaigning with high-school and university students, he says that young people should "not be prevented from expressing their views and opinions." Most importantly, however, the mullah and millionaire, whose family earned its wealth in the pistachio business, plans to turn his attention to the economy. By increasing privatization and liberalizing markets, he hopes to improve the prospects of Iran's youth. One out of three Iranians is currently unemployed and, to make matters worse, more than 100,000 university graduates enter the job market each year.

Although Rafsanjani has a reputation in Tehran for never entering any competition unless he is already assured of victory, his triumph is by no means certain. His popularity among the people has its limits, and many believe that this Iranian Machiavelli will never be able to shake off his opportunistic and self-serving reputation. The crafty political insider was forced to accept a humiliating defeat in parliamentary elections five years ago. If he hadn't dropped out of the race before all votes had been counted, he would likely have squeaked into the Majlis as an also-ran among the members of parliament representing Tehran.

Interestingly, however, Rafsanjani is also campaigning on a platform that is against the development of a nuclear bomb and is promising to end decades of Iranian hostility toward the United States. "I am going for a policy of relaxation of tension and detente, and this is a policy I will apply to the United States," Rafsanjani told CNN in an interview on Tuesday. "I think the time is right to open a new chapter with the United States."

Rafsanjani's rival, Ghalibaf, comes into the race unencumbered by such political defeats. His opponents in Tehran see him as the extended arm of religious leader Khamenei, who hopes to use Ghalibaf's candidacy to at least weaken his old enemy, Rafsanjani. Members of the opposition abroad are even claiming that the religious leadership has funnelled millions into Ghalibaf's election campaign.

Iran's first-ever run-off?

Polls -- which can be somewhat unreliable in Iran -- indicate that whiz kid Ghalibaf, who sees himself neither as a conservative nor as a member of the right wing, has moved up to second place, while Rafsanjani, with 28 percent support, has a two digit lead on the former police officer. Only one in ten voters plan to cast their ballots for liberal candidate Moin. Ali Larijani, a conservative hardliner and former director of the state television network, is running a distant fourth.

The Iranian Ayatollah is the true seat of power in Iran and functions as the country's commander in chief.

The Iranian Ayatollah is the true seat of power in Iran and functions as the country's commander in chief.

Many Iranians do not appear to be convinced that they should even vote. Despite his many disappointments, reformer Khatami garnered almost 22 million votes four years ago. Nowadays, the mullahs will be happy to see at least half of Iran's 46 million registered voters cast their ballots.

Fearing that low voter turnout will further discredit the theocracy on the international stage, the regime has launched an enormous propaganda campaign and urging Iranians to vote on state television, on radio and in mosques. But regime critics like Abdullah Momeni, spokesman of the largest reform-minded student organization, are calling for a boycott. Although university students believe that Moin is a man with good intentions, they view his prospects for prevailing against the conservative Guardian Council and the parliament after possibly winning the election as slim. But for Iran's rebellious academics, the choice between Rafsanjani and Ghalibaf is akin to choosing between two evils. "No matter who wins," say students in Tehran, "we will all lose."

Even Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, nicknamed "Akbar Shah" in a reference to his high-handedness, is unlikely to emerge from the race a clear winner.

Indeed, the vote could even head to a runoff, which would be a first in the history of the Islamic Republic.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


© DER SPIEGEL 24/2005
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