Between reformist rhetoric and reality

The choice presented by Iran’s presidential election has polarised the country, but has also highlighted, once again, the usual split that the outside world sees in the Islamic republic.

The presidential vote was cast as a conservative vs moderate play
The presidential vote was cast as a conservative vs moderate play

Top officials, ministers and even the current president strongly lined up to lend support to former president and moderate candidate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

But the high-level conservative support garnered by his rival, Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been more discreet and arguably even more powerful.

Ahmadinejad won the backing of the un-elected Guardians Council – which has the ultimate power to declare elections invalid – the government’s ideological army, the Revolutionary Guards, and the powerful Muslim militia, the Basij.

Prominent positions

Above this strife sits the supreme leader, Ayat Allah Ali Khamenei, whose preference remains ambiguous.

Outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, however, dropped a none-too-subtle hint over who he wanted to succeed him, urging a vote for “moderation” against the forces of “reaction”. 

“Rightly or wrongly Mr Ahmadinejad was identified as a symbol of extremism, Hashemi as that of moderation”

Amir Mohebian,

Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh made it no secret that he wanted Rafsanjani to head the key Opec producer and even appeared at a campaign rally in his support.

Hassan Rowhani, the official leading talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, expressed fears of an Ahmadinejad victory – something that could see a repeat of the conservative stranglehold seen in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Establishment backing?

For his opponents, Ahmadinejad’s shock qualification for the second round was a sign that he was being aided by some even more powerful friends.

Rafsanjani and two beaten candidates, alleged that the Guardians Council, Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia conspired to mobilise a massive vote for Ahmadinejad in the first round.

This trio of conservative institutions have acted as the keystones of the government, defending it against enemies at home and abroad as well as ensuring adherence to the 1979 revolutionary values.

But, after more than 30 years of the Islamic republic, and with much of the steam of revolution having dissipated, strains and divisions over the country’s character grew ever more apparent.

Classic split

According to Amir Mohebian, an analyst at the daily Ressalat, this election kicked off again with the interpretation of the  the conservative versus the moderate, in spite of the fact that the runoff candidates actually included no politician from the reformist school.

“Rightly or wrongly, Mr Ahmadinejad was identified as a symbol of extremism, Hashemi as that of moderation. Two unofficial parties then emerged – an anti-Hashemi party and an anti-Ahmadinejad party.

It seems we understood that the election was not a vote for somebody, but a vote [to make] out of the fear of somebody,” Mohebian said. 

Muhammad Ghoochani, a young reformist who edits Shargh, an Iranian daily, said, in reality, it was more complex than that.

In a recent editorial, he pointed out several significant differences between the current campaign and previous ones.

Style or substance?

Outgoing President Khatami was seen as a moderate who failed

Outgoing President Khatami was
seen as a moderate who failed

The hardline judiciary was being nicer to dissident journalists, satellite dishes that pick up anti-government broadcasts were not confiscated, and coverage by the conservative-run broadcasting monopoly had been fairly even-handed.

Most important of all, Ghoochani said, all the major candidates, conservatives and moderates (even, so to say, the “moderate-conservatives”) knew that in today’s Iran, candidates stood a chance, only if they spoke the language of reform

“Democracy, a free economy [and] the participation of women and young people”, he wrote, was the language being spoken.

The test, Ghoochani said, was whoever won the election – “would they, could they, really revitalise, inject genuine reform into the blood of this young Islamic nation”.

The answer to that question, it seems, only time will tell.

Source : Al Jazeera

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