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

Quarreling conservatives, frustrated reformers and an old political fox as self-appointed saviour: For the first time in the history of the Iranian theocracy, a clear winner may not emerge in this coming Friday's presidential election. The country is urgently in need of reform.

The red lettering on a dazzling white banner draped across the entire facade of a dirty yellow building on Seoul Street in northern Tehran boldly proclaims an agenda that seems illusory at best: "Dr. Mohammed-Bagher Ghalibaf -- Commissioner of the President for the Prosecution of the Smuggling of Goods and Foreign Currency."

But the man named on the banner, sitting in his spacious, heavily guarded office on the building's top floor, is only marginally interested in the government's campaign against rampant economic crime. Ghalibaf, 43, is currently waging a battle on an entirely different front. With a forcefulness that's shaking up the mullah establishment in the Islamic Republic, presidential advisor Ghalibaf is campaigning for the country's highest political office in Iran's upcoming election. Voting will start on Friday, June 17.

Despite his position as Iran's top law enforcement officer, Ghalibaf, an expert in world politics, was a relative unknown among Iranians until recently. But now, having announced his candidacy for presidency, Ghalibaf has become a serious contender to succeed the country's unsuccessful reformer and current president, Mohammed Khatami. And his unanticipated ascension -- that of a relative outsider who describes himself as a pragmatist -- is symptomatic in a political environment in which every other candidate, reformer and conservative alike, has offered only the vaguest solutions to the country's most pressing problems.

Theocracy in a region shaken by turmoil

The winner of this presidential election will face the task of guiding the theocracy through perilous times. Political turmoil is shaking the foundations of outdated power structures in Iran's neighboring countries, both in the Middle East and Central Asia. Iran's arch enemy, the United States, is threatening to impose sanctions that could lead to war if Tehran refuses to yield to demands that it abandon its nuclear weapons program. On the domestic front, a population forced to accept rigid religious beliefs as a panacea against an ever-worsening standard of living is becoming increasingly dissatisfied.

Indeed, the former police chief seems to be the man of the hour -- at least at first glance. Ghalibaf has shown himself to be adept at performing a political balancing act between the fundamentalist clerics and the country's youth, who are becoming increasingly vocal in their demands for change. He appeals to the conservatives as an advocate of law and order, and as a strict Muslim whose wife is not even permitted to shake hands with an unknown man. When he speaks with schoolchildren and students, looking fashionably scruffy and relaxed in a brown suede jacket, he comes across as the standard-bearer of modernity and as a man who can bring fresh blood into a stale mullah state. Even his campaign slogan is tempting on many fronts: "Iranians have a right to a good life."

The career officer rejects the idea that, as a veteran of Iran's security forces, he will use force to defend and uphold the theocracy. He claims that as a "good police officer," he has consistently improved tense relations between brutal security forces and rebellious students.

Charming as an Iranian Bill Clinton and as secure in his faith as a Muslim George W. Bush, Ghalibaf is using his flexibility to ride a wave of sympathy extending well beyond the capital. In fact, some Western diplomats in Tehran are even convinced that the surprise candidate could prevail over the actual front-runner, 70-year-old former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Just the fact that Ghalibaf's campaign could jeopardize the widely expected return to office of a politician who is probably the Islamic Republic's wealthiest man is seen as a minor sensation.

Whether Ghalibaf will actually find success in the upcoming elections is questionable. Rafsanjani's political experience will certainly help him and it is unclear that the reform candidate, former Minister of University Education and Technology Mostafa Moin, has run out of steam.

Real choices for voters

One thing, however, is certain: Never in the history of the Islamic Republic has the outcome of a presidential election been this unpredictable. And rarely has there been greater dissatisfaction among voters.

Members of the older generation are embittered over what they see as a betrayal of the ideals of the revolution. When they took to the streets to depose the Shah in 1979, they wanted freedom and justice -- and not a new tyranny in the name of Allah. And the current vast crop of young people (about half of Iran's population of 65 million-plus is younger than 20) has never been overly sympathetic to ideas like the "reprehensibility of the West" and the "superiority of Islam," nor have they been convinced by the concept of the United States as the "Great Satan" and the rightful "dominance of the religious scholars." They want to see a flourishing economy and an end to corruption.

Despite its enormous oil revenues, conditions in Iran are a long way from paradise. The guardians of the revolution -- the Iranian government is overseen by a spiritual leader (the Ayatollah) who also is the "defender of the revolution" and commander in chief of the Iranian armed forces -- have been clever and brutal in their defense of their power. The fallen president Khatami, a scholar once revered as "the face of kindness" and who defeated the radical religious candidate eight years ago in a landslide victory, was never able to push through reform despite being careful not to step on the mullahs' toes.

Like aging revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, his political heir, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has railed against any form of liberalization and opening to the West. With the help of the Guardian Council, a sort of Islamic constitutional court, the ultra-fundamentalists managed to suppress the reformers' legislative initiatives. They had critical newspapers shut down and rebellious intellectuals locked up.

The reform movement received its coup de grace early last year in Iran's parliamentary elections, when the Guardian Council disqualified almost every reform candidate as being "un-Islamic."

Part Two: Campaigning against nuclear weapons.

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.

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.

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

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