Political Lines Blurred for Iran Vote
Conservative Presidential Candidates Play to an Electorate Gone Liberal
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 16, 2005; A01
TEHRAN, June 15 -- In a profound departure from a quarter-century of politics grounded in appeals to religious duty, the presidential campaigns unfolding across Iran's capital betray not the slightest suggestion that this is a theocratic state.
Hard-line conservatives are running as reformers. Reformers, after years of being thwarted by hard-liners, are running scared. And most ordinary Iranians are holding themselves aloof -- unmoved, they say, by a political transformation that many dismiss as largely cosmetic.
"They are playing us for fools," said Aliakbar Afkari, 50, a civil servant who, like the vast majority of several dozen Tehran residents interviewed over the past two weeks, said he would not vote in Friday's election.
"By not voting," said Akbar Ehsani, 28, "I am voting against the system."
The campaign underscores how dramatically political life inside Iran has changed in recent years. While small cadres of loyalists still dutifully chant "Death to America" at state gatherings (and collect the free meals and transport that follow), the critical mass of Iran's 70 million people has grown steadily more alienated from the government and, recently, from stumbling efforts to change it.
The eight presidential hopefuls were selected by the self-appointed clerics who hold ultimate power in the country. Conservative candidates predominate in numbers and fervor, with four drawn from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which remains deeply committed to keeping power in the hands of unelected clerics.
But as presented on billboards, trinkets, Web sites and polished television specials copied to video CDs, the candidates' glossy campaigns reflect acute sensitivity to the needs of the people, especially the young who, in a country where the voting age is 15, dominate Iran's emerging politics.
Candidates are calling for respect for personal privacy, job creation and renewed relations with the United States -- all concerns long championed by Iran's reformers, who dominated national elections until the clerical establishment removed most of them from the ballot last month.
"New Thoughts, New Government," promise the posters for Mohsen Rezai, a longtime head of the Revolutionary Guard who withdrew from the election Wednesday to avoid splintering the hard-line vote.
"Fresh Air," the slogan adopted by Ali Larijani, head of state television and radio, is a phrase made famous by a poet known for opposing the dour orthodoxy that official media relentlessly promoted.
The soft-focus ads of Mohammad Qalibaf, a former national police chief and another Revolutionary Guard command veteran, feature smiling children, flamingos in flight and the unlikely label, "Fundamentalist Reformist."
But for reinvention, no candidate has outdone Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who polls show to be the favorite. A president twice over and the current head of the Expediency Council -- a body that intervenes in deadlocks between parliament and a top clerical panel -- Rafsanjani has been a pillar of the clerical establishment since the 1979 revolution that ousted the shah and installed religious rule.
Agents from his previous government murdered dissidents inside Iran and overseas. And as recently as 2002, Rafsanjani championed the strict dress codes that kept Iranian women draped in black cloaks and head scarves snug on the forehead.
"A strand of woman's hair emerging from under the hijab ," he had said, "is a dagger drawn towards the heart of Islam."
But in the current campaign, young women wearing no cloaks have cavorted in street rallies for Rafsanjani, 70, who now argues for the freedom to watch satellite television, drink in private and dress largely as one wishes in public.
"No nudity!" he joked recently with an audience of young people.
One of Rafsanjani's campaign handouts has blanks for a name, phone number and e-mail address. A campaign official explained it was a pick-up card, intended for a young man to give to a young woman who catches his eye.
"There is no use imposing tastes, being strict and going backward," Rafsanjani, a cleric widely described as the wealthiest person in the country, told Iranian reporters last week. "Whoever becomes the president cannot work without considering the demands and conditions of the society."
That sentiment was not always apparent to Iran's traditionalists. Eight years ago, they were stunned by the 70 percent landslide that swept Mohammad Khatami into the presidency on promises to provide "personal space" in private life and supply jobs to a huge wave of young people entering the work force.
Four years later, with key initiatives stifled by the clerics in the appointive posts that Iran's constitution installed above any elected government, Khatami won reelection on a vain promise to persevere.
Today, Iranians' attitudes toward another election are defined by continued economic hardship and Khatami's ineffectiveness against his appointed bosses.
"I'm not in favor of any of the candidates," said Morteza Akbari, 20, who said he felt betrayed by his vote for Khatami four years ago. "What we want is freedom. If someone gets it for us, okay. I'll vote for him next time, after he does it."
Yet the campaign to succeed Khatami is taking place on the terms that he defined. Despite all the battles lost, reformers can claim to have won the war.
"In comparison with eight years ago, everything has changed," said Javad Emam, a senior official in the campaign of Mostafa Moin, the leading reformist candidate who polls show as the second choice.
Besides being a moderate cleric who failed to win a seat in the last parliament, Moin was one of only two reformers finally allowed to run, and then only after the intercession of the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power.
His intercession may not have been entirely altruistic. A ballot featuring no credible reformers would have all but guaranteed a record-low voter turnout, which hard-line clerics have warned would be seen as undercutting government legitimacy.
But reformers are urging participation as well, banking that Iran's sullen, silent majority continues to favor their agenda -- if not even more fundamental change.
Pushed by student leaders and others, more and more activists are calling for overhauling the constitution to make more of Iran's leaders accountable to the people.
"Moin is a doctor," Mohsen Kadivar, a leading reformist cleric, told a rally of several thousand at Tehran University on Tuesday. "Khatami talked a lot and did what he could. But he didn't do any surgeries. He didn't remove any tumors from the state.
"We want to, after some time, change the constitution. That is the main demand of the reformist movement."
How that change would come about remains a mystery, given the intransigence of the ruling clerics. Some activists favor a deliberate election boycott and a new concentration on developing a united opposition outside the system. The aim is a mass movement that would eventually produce a "color revolution" modeled on those that toppled dictatorships in Georgia (Rose) and Ukraine (Orange).
"Our demand is fundamental and democratic change, and we actually want to form a new social and political movement that is very powerful," said Abdollah Momeni, a leader of a student group, the Office for Fostering Unity, the most prominent organization supporting a boycott.
By contrast, Rafsanjani built his campaign on the idea of working with what he has. Long described as a "pragmatic conservative," the tycoon has made management and business development cornerstones of his campaign.
Rafsanjani's aides acknowledge that with his long, checkered record and reputation for corruption, the front-runner carries considerable baggage. Support for him sometimes appears markedly thin, even among his campaign workers.
"Really, my ideals are elsewhere, but this is what's available," said Targol, a 16-year-old on Rafsanjani's staff who appears on a campaign photo card looking admiringly at him (and so asked that her last name not be published). "My parents don't like him very much."
She sat with a half-dozen other young women at one of Rafsanjani's youth headquarters, upscale complexes that stand out in Tehran as places where young people can just hang out. The young women sported the current look in Tehran: head scarves well back on the head and jean bottoms turned up six inches.
"Our country is actually falling apart, and we do not have time to try somebody else," Sammane Jahanbaksh said of her choice for president.
"We don't really need more than the freedom we have now," said Yassaman Yousefzadeh, 24. "We just need to make it stable."
Leila Ghadimi, 26, looked around the room and said: "I bet most of the people who are working here are not going to vote Friday. I don't know if that's right or wrong."
Moments later, when the group headed out to pass leaflets to motorists, a campaign organizer leaned toward a visiting reporter.
"Just wait," whispered Amir Hossein Shemshadi. "Four years. Everything will be cool. No more mullahs. Four years."
© 2005 The Washington Post Company