As the 11th Presidential election of Iran draws closer, the atmosphere in Tehran has been abuzz with hope as well as deep cynicism. Why is Iran at a crossroads again? Why will the outcome of this election indicate the foundation of the next chapter in this civilization’s history?
By Somasekhar Sundaresan*
On the streets of Tehran, the imagery from Argo and journalistic coverage censored by western intelligence agencies is easily belied. Irani women smoke in public, drive cars, publicly display affection for male companions, and confidently make eye contact to acknowledge an alien’s presence and smile a welcome. Many head scarves just about cover the back of the head – a ritual of compliance.
Iran is neither male-domineered Saudi Arabia nor an Afghanistan under the Taliban. Social media websites are widely accessed although officially banned. Foreign exchange is transacted on the streets – the official exchange rate is just over one-third of the street value – and every minute, the liquid market throws up a vibrant new price for the U.S. dollar. Coke and Pepsi make brisk business – despite economic sanctions, they are permitted by the U.S. to be bottled in Iran on “humanitarian grounds” that are exceptions to the rule. DVDs of banned Hollywood films, including Argo, are easily available on the streets. Whispers of alcohol flowing freely in private parties abound as much as the prohibition on alcohol stands out nationwide.
However, scratch the surface, and you do hear voices of weary cynicism, particularly from the youth. Every other person has a story to tell about oneself or a sibling, cousin or friend being savagely attacked in the police clampdown on street demonstrations in 2009. “I was not sure if I was being considered a citizen of Tehran or soldier of an enemy state,” says a young professional. “The buzz of liberalism in the air is a pre-election phenomenon, when the authorities do not enforce anything rigidly,” she says.
“The hijab is inching backward and the trousers’ hemlines are inching upwards, but after elections all this could change,” says another young man.
For the record, the official communication I received along with confirmation of participation at a conference in Tehran had warned: “Traditionally and religiously, shaking hands between ladies and gentlemen is considered a rude behaviour and is not welcome. So, I kindly ask our dear lady guests not to attempt to shake hands with Iranian gentlemen (which will be refused), and vice versa.”
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As Iran heads closer to the elections in June, every new development throws up perspectives and underlines issues the nation has to grapple with. The latest is the disqualification of two potential Presidential candidates: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former President of Iran, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a protégé and the “right hand” of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by Iran’s Supreme Guardian Council, a council of 12 experts handpicked by the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The atmosphere in Tehran for the past few weeks has been abuzz with hope as well as deep cynicism. Discussions over cups of tea with friends and strangers alike, whether in enclosed spaces or public cafes, make one point about Iran and the forthcoming elections very clear: no story about Iran has just two sides to it. There are far too many angles and perspectives for the international media and its attitude towards Iran to present a complete appreciation of all the issues.
The western media has been quick to judge the disqualification of Rafsanjani as a sign that only conservative hardliners can run for the Presidential race; some have gone even so far as to suggest, that the President’s office might get abolished.
Iran’s elections are not a conventional bipolar clash between “liberals” and “conservatives.” They involve an interplay of varying degrees of the candidates’ sense of nationalism, their visions of the idea of Iran, the magnitude of their respective craving for power, and, of course, appetite for political intrigue, compromise and power-broking.
Each of the two recently-banned candidates can be considered antipodal to the other in political stance, and yet similar in some nuances. Rafsanjani had already served two terms as President – between 1989 and 1997. Whether Iran’s Constitution permits a past President who has held office for two terms to contest elections was itself up for debate. It was being argued that the constitutional ban on a third term would apply only to consecutive terms – an interpretation that Vladimir Putin cynically used to the hilt in Russia. The Supreme Guardian Council did not rule on the issue. They are said to have ruled that Rafsanjani is too old at age 78.
Rafsanjani projected himself as a “moderate”, as did many others – particularly for opposing the incumbent Ahmadinejad four years ago, when the people of Tehran took to the streets to protest against the election results. However, others are quick to caution against falling for faux liberal claims. Rafsanjani is one of the founders of the Islamic Revolution, when the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979. It was only after he demitted office that his successor Mohammad Khatami – now acknowledged as the President with the best track record with personal liberties – announced that official backing for the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for Satanic Verses was dead.
However, Khatami fell prey to the Obamaesque risk of leaving people dissatisfied due to the high expectations they had of him. Indeed, even on Rushdie’s fatwa, he had only been able to declare that Iran’s government would neither support nor hinder it. In 2009, after one term of Ahmadinejad in office, Khatami was said to be in the running again for President, but he withdrew in favour of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the candidate around whom people rallied on the streets of Tehran after Ahmadinejad was declared for a second term.
Mashaei, on the other hand, is as close as one could get to the core of the Ahmadinejad camp. As chief of staff of Ahmadinejad, he has the image of the alter-ego of the incumbent – a bit like Condoleezza Rice running for U.S. President right after George W. Bush. His nationalist vision is for the State of Iran to be more important than the religion of Islam – and it is such compromise that upsets the clerics, not that he is a neo-liberal on matters of personal liberty.
Therefore, the Supreme Guardian Council has rejected the philosophy of both the incumbent and the contender to the “liberal” tag. Personally, Mashaei has had a history of collision with the Council. Within days of Ahmadinejad appointing him the ‘First Vice-President’, the Council sacked him. Forced to relinquish office despite the best efforts of the President, he was made the chief of staff, underlining the initial signs of a conflict between the Supreme Leader and the President. The world media had hastily concluded that by not countermanding elections, the Supreme Leader had thrown his weight behind Ahmadinejad on grounds of theocracy – it now appears more a compromise of convenience.
Among other contenders, Mohammad Ghalibaf, is widely talked about as a front-runner. An also-ran in the 2005 elections, he has a background with the Revolutionary Guards and the police forces. His being Tehran’s mayor is said to be an important stepping stone to the President’s office – Ahmadinejad once held that position. The other prime contender is Hassan Rouhani who, like Rafsanjani, is among the founders of the Revolution. Rouhani, a cleric and also a nuclear diplomat, is believed to have an edge in the current state of the nation in the international order.
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With the forthcoming elections, Iran is at a crossroads again. The next President could well settle in for eight years – the last three Presidents have served two-term tenures each. This period can either be one of slow, uncomfortable but steady reconciliation, or of extreme conflict. Reconciliation or conflict–between nationalistic aspirations (Iran’s nuclear programme) with the expectations of a mature world citizen (peaceable use and no-first-use policies); fear of an Islamic State (overplayed thanks to prejudice and Islamophobia) with the ground reality of Iran’s civilization (this is no Wahhabi State); and national pride and the resilience of Iranians (they have bravely survived sanctions) with the aspirations and awareness of a young population (Iran’s youth with a median age of just 27 has widespread internet access).
The elections of June 2013 will indicate the foundation of the next chapter in this civilization’s history.
(Disclosure: The author recently visited Tehran as a guest attending an Islamic Capital Markets conference organised by Iran’s capital market regulator and the Islamic Development Bank)
Somasekhar Sundaresan is a securities lawyer and has an abiding interest in middle-eastern affairs.
This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.