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A Martian”s Notebook on Iran”s Presidential Election | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Imagine a Martian arriving in Tehran these days to observe the presidential election. The first thing he would remark on is the low key in which the campaign is fought. With only a week to polling day, there is little sense of election fever. None of the candidates are holding mass rallies, ostensibly for security reasons, and few have bothered to visit the provinces to seek votes. The exercise looks more like a beauty parade with the candidates trying to catch the attention of the only person whose vote really counts: the &#34Supreme Guide&#34, Ayatollah Ali Khamenehi.

Our Martian might notice other facts.

There are eight candidates in the list approved by the &#34Supreme Guide&#34. Almost 1000 other wannabes, including several former dignitaries of the regime, were told they didn”t qualify. The candidates are all men, although women account for 52.1 per cent of the population, according to the latest census. The average age of the candidates is 62 while two-thirds of the 45 million electors are under 30.

All the eight candidates are government employees with civil service or military careers.

Two are mullahs who have branched into politics. Three others are sons of mullahs, although the Shiite clergy consists of around 300,000 men in a population of 70 million.

Five candidates have a military background as former or active members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, a parallel army created by the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini.

Our Martian may be forgiven for having the impression that the eight are siblings.

With the exception of the two mullahs, one of whom cannot grow a beard for genetic reasons while the other cultivates a van dyke, they all sport the same style of designer stubble, and wear the same kind of &#34khaksari&#34 style clothes, that is to say suits that, although of costly fabric, are made to look scruffy, almost proletarian.

The candidates also use a vocabulary of around 80 to 100 words and phrases that sounds more like group-speak than political lexicon.

The substance of what they say is also similar.

They keep repeating that the system established in Iran by Khomeini is the best that mankind could imagine.

&#34Our system is the envy {of peoples} all over the world,&#34 says Mahdi Karrubi one of the two mullahs in the race.

&#34Our Islamic Republic is a model for Islam, indeed for mankind,&#34 insists Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the other mullah standing for the presidency.

Other candidates express similar sentiments.

And, yet, they also say that the country has reached &#34an impasse&#34, and that the regime is heading for &#34systemic crisis.&#34

&#34We must put the revolution behind us,&#34 says Rafsanjani.

&#34We cannot build the future on old foundations,&#34 says Mostafa Moin, a former Education Minister and candidate of the remnants of the coalition that backed Muhammad Khatami eight years ago.

All the candidates pay tribute to Khomeini whom they describe as &#34the man who revived Islam&#34 or &#34the leader who saved humanity from darkness.&#34

They call on the voters to go to the polls to &#34give joy to the soul&#34 of the late ayatollah, not to back a political programme.

This is not surprising because none of the eight has presented a coherent platform. All that they offer is vague promises to curb corruption, to create jobs for the mass of unemployed youths, to house the homeless, and tame inflation.

It is not only the domestic policies of the candidates that remain a mystery. Although commentators are looking for &#34moderates&#34 and &#34hardliners&#34, statements made by the eight show that none has a clear vision of the kind of foreign policy that the nation needs.

This is not surprising if only because the president has little power to set the agenda. That power belongs to the &#34Supreme Guide&#34 who has the final word on all matters, with a small role allocated to the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Council of the Custodians of the Constitution.

Because none of the crucial issues could be openly debated in a system that does not tolerate serious debate, the candidates are forced to speak obliquely, dropping a hint here and a hint there, and depending on their persona rather than discourse to win support. A Persian proverb says : Look at what is said, not who is saying it! In this campaign, however, the advice is : Look at who is saying, not at what is said!

On that basis the candidates could be divided into three groups.

In the first we find Ali Larijani, the former head of the state-owned Radio and Television and Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nezhad, the current Mayor of Tehran. They believe that the source of the problems that the nation is facing is the weakening of the &#34revolutionary spirit.&#34 They wish to build cultural walls around Iran to save it from &#34invasion and ultimate conquest&#34 by the global culture which they see as a concoction of the American &#34Great Satan.&#34

In the second group we find Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a former Police Chief, Mohsen Rezai, a former Commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a former Revolutionary Guardsman, and Rafsanjani. These are ambitious politicians with business interests who wish to be under the limelight. If our Martian is kind he would call them pragmatics rather than opportunists. Don”t be surprised if one of them, Rezai, drops out in favour of another member of the quartet, after making a deal.

The third group consists of Karrubi and Moin.

Our Martian might label them &#34lost souls.&#34 These are disillusioned Khomeinists who have not mastered the courage to admit that they were wrong to worship the radical ayatollah. They dream of Khomeinism without its essential ingredients of tyranny and terror- something like chicken curry without chicken and curry. They know that the system cannot be reformed but still hope to reform it without undermining its foundations.

So, who is the best choice? our Martian might ask.

The answer is that, as far as the long-term interests of Iran are concerned, the best choice is not on the ballot. What is left is a pargamatic choice.

Karrubi and Moin are out because they represent pale copies of Khatami whose failure is now acknowledged even by his younger brother Muhammad-Reza.

Either Rafsanjani or Qalibaf could help the system weather its current crisis.

Rafsanjani could reassure the business community, mobilise the bureaucracy for cosmetic reforms, and avoid heightening tension in Iran”s foreign relations.

Qalibaf, who is 44, might energise the estimated 3.5 million men who have so far served in the Revolutionary Guard, and speak to younger generations who feel alienated. The election either of Qalibaf or Larijani” would be a signal that Khamenehi has decided to assume direct control. With the Majlis and other organs of the regime now controlled by Khamenehi the conquest of the presidency by his camp could end establishment”s internecine feuds. It would send a signal to the people of Iran, and the outside world, that they are dealing with a radical regime pursuing messianic dreams.

And that, paradoxically, may be the best of a bad choice. It is almost always better to deal with a regime that is true to itself than one practicing taqiyah (dissimulation).