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Opinion: Fantasy and reality clash in Iran’s elections | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An Iranian woman walks past election posters of Iranian presidential candidate Ali-Akbar Velayati in a street of Tehran, , Iran, 13 June 2013. (EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh)

Almost a month ago, Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei described today’s presidential election as “a celebration.” Although not a candidate, Khamenei has remained firmly in the limelight thanks to a series of speeches hammering home that theme.

However, a study of the speeches and televised debates of the eight approved candidates reveals anything but a celebratory mood.

Despite real or affected differences, the eight reflected Iran’s sombre mood.

Let us start with the lexicon used by the eight candidates. A number of the words and phrases reflected the state of Iran’s economy, which the candidates saw as “catastrophic.” These phrases included: “inflation,” “fall in purchasing power,” “mass unemployment,” “currency collapse” and “economic decline.” The eight agreed that, after three years of “negative growth,” Iran was poorer than four years ago.

In the debates, the word “inflation” was used 26 times.

Other words and phrases described the causes of the “catastrophe.” The words “mismanagement” and “wrong directions” were most frequently cited. Other words and phrases, such as “corruption,” “misuse of public funds,” “social injustice” and “wasting resources” were also bandied around.

Another word most frequently used was “crisis,” refuting Khamenei’s claim that Iran is prospering in peace and harmony.

The candidate who most used this term was Mohammad-Reza Aref. He said: “The first task of the next president is to save the nation from crisis.”

All candidates—except Saeed Jalili—placed the blame for the “crisis” on sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union over the nuclear issue.

Of the candidates, only one—again Jalili—clung to the belief spread by Khamenei that sanctions have either had no effect or even been beneficial. The other seven admitted that sanctions have been effective in hurting the people, though, perhaps, not in changing Khamenei’s mind.

Jalili echoed Khamenei’s claim that Iran could beat sanctions through “economic resistance.”

However, others poured scorn on that claim.

“How long should we resist?” demanded Mohsen Rezaei Mirgha’ed. “Should we resist until our people die of hunger?”

Mohammad Qarazi insisted that economic problems could not be solved by “empty slogans.”

The exchanges on the nuclear issue revealed an interesting fact. Apart from Jalili, none of the candidates share Khamenei’s position. Even Ali-Akbar Velayati, who has been Khamenei’s foreign policy advisor for 16 years, implicitly accused Jalili of failure.

Velayati also revealed part of the chaos that policy-making suffers under Khamenei. He recalled secret negotiations he held with French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 which he had hoped would lead to an accord under which the international community would recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium. According to Velayati, the accord collapsed when “a prominent figure” in Tehran announced during a Friday sermon that Iran rejects negotiations.

Velayati made another important charge. He claimed that in the recent talks in Almaty, the P5+1 group comprised of the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany had offered “proposals on which we could have progressed.” However, Velayati claimed that Jalili had rejected the proposals.

In one way or another, the candidates admitted the failure of Iran’s foreign policy.

The next most frequently used word was “America.” Jalili echoed Khamenei’s belief that the United States is in terminal decline and that we will soon witness “the end of America.”

The other candidates, however, urged a revision of foreign policy in order to “reduce the cost we have to pay,” as Velayati put it.

Hassan Rouhani, the only mullah among the candidates, acknowledged the United States’ global leadership position by describing it as the “village headman” that could not be ignored.

With the exception of Velayati, who served as foreign minister for 16 years, all candidates demonstrated a surprising lack of knowledge regarding international affairs. Some even made mistakes on issues concerning Iran itself.

For example, Jalili seemed to believe that the UN had passed the famous Resolution 598, which ended the Iran–Iraq War, after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Another candidate, Mohammea-Baqer Qalibaf, did not know that then president Khatami had visited France during Jacques Chirac’s presidency, not that of François Mitterrand who had died three years earlier.

All candidates, except Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Rezai and Aref, tried to blackmail others by claiming they possessed “secrets” and “documents” against their rivals.

Qalibaf, a former police chief, had a heated exchange with Rouhani, a former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, about their joint responsibility in crushing the student revolt under Khatami.

Jalili accused Velayati of falsifying history and threatened to publish unspecified documents, including audiotapes.

Other frequently used words were “insecurity,” “freedom” and “individual liberties.” Aref and Rezai insisted that Iran is suffering from a shortage of liberties. Haddad-Adel, a philosopher by trade, tried to explain that freedom and liberty do not have the same meaning in Islam as in secular society.

Some words stood out for their absence. “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” was hardly mentioned, although all claimed the country is now in a terrible mess. That implies only one thing: the blame for the mess rests with the supreme guide, not the president. “Israel” was not mentioned either, because the candidates knew that the slogan about “wiping Israel off the map” has become a sour joke.

The debates and speeches reveal another remarkable fact. The candidates know that, as president, they would have to deal with reality, while the supreme guide is a prisoner of his fantasy world.

Whoever is made president—even the servile Jalili—is sure to run into trouble with the supreme guide, continuing the pattern set from the start when president Banisadr and Supreme Guide Khomeini clashed just one year after the revolution.

Iran’s problems are not solely due to the quality of its political personnel: they are mainly caused by the nature of the irrational system concocted by a few politically illiterate mullahs almost four decades ago.

A bad man in a good system cannot do his worst. A good man in a bad system cannot do his best.