Iran: Ethnic Minorities’ Rage Undermines Legitimacy of May 19 Elections

Iranians shop in Tehran's ancient Grand Bazaar on January 16, 2016, Iran

London- With less than a day left for the Iranian presidential elections, anger bubbling up among Iran’s non-Persian minorities on deteriorating living conditions threatens to undermine the legitimacy of holding elections in the first place.

Small ethnic pockets in Iran present one of the most debated subjects on which electoral campaigns focused, alongside other national concerns such as the trembling economy, social strife, and overall security.

Presidential candidate President Rouhani who is seeking another mandate and Iranian Supreme Leader protégé Ebrahim Raisi have come head-to-head in fierce debates each riding the wave on freedoms, fighting corruption, resolving dilemmas faced by non-Persian nationalities and the rights of religious minorities.

Being a first in post-2009 election history, the escalating arguments prompted Khamenei to deliver a direct warning against the consequences of stirring “ideological, geographic, national,” sentiment.

A “Great earthquake” could collapse the Iranian fabric, he justified.

The withdrawal of other conservative candidates has turned Friday’s election into an unexpectedly tight two-horse race between moderate pragmatist cleric Rouhani and hardline conservative cleric Raisi.

Khamenei’s call for muffling election rhetoric was echoed in last Friday’s sermon across the nation. In Tehran, cleric Kazem Siddiqui called on campaigners and candidates to not involve national and sectarian challenges in their speeches.

“Regardless of officials who were appointed or relieved from duty, the Baloch people stood in solidarity with the regime,” he said.

He added that Baloch people in eastern Iran are struck with poverty and in order to solve their problems they have resorted to smuggling.

Had we been more determined on eradicating economic challenges they wouldn’t need to resort to paralegal means to survive, said Siddiqui in a thinly-veiled jab at Rouhani’s failed delivery on promises on bettering the economy.

Four years ago, Rouhani chose to appoint former security minister Ali Younesi as special delegate for non-Persian Iranians and religious minorities.

Rohani–after playing the chords of ‘liberties’ in a bet to soften criticism on his economic shortcoming– raised the roof of his promises to ethnic minorities in the election season.

Rouhani’s administration has tried to limit the demands of the Arabs, Kurds, Baloch and Turks to their right to hold cultural programs and organize festivals.

Lifting restrictions on minorities was attempted through collaboration between Younesi, Iranian intelligence, and in coordination with the Revolutionary Guard. It was an attempt to defuse tensions and bottle the genie that Former Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had released.

Despite the effort spent by Rouhani, improving the living conditions of non-Persian minorities in Iran is considered by far the biggest challenge facing decision-making circles in Tehran.

Iran’s Rouhani Defends Mousavi, Calls Conservative Rivals ‘Violent Extremists’

Campaigning for another term in office, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said Monday that his conservative election rivals’ era of “violence and extremism” was over.

“We’ve entered this election to tell those practicing violence and extremism that your era is over,” said Rouhani.

“Your logic is prohibition and nothing else. Our young people have chosen the path of freedom,” he told his opponents.

Rouhani also attacked the continued detention of reformist politicians such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011 for his part in protests two years earlier.

“Why have you confined to their houses our dear personalities who were of service to this nation… who showed Iran’s real image to the world? Under what law?” he asked.

“We will go to the ballot boxes on 19 May to bring back our noble men to society,” he said, although Rouhani made this promise in 2013 to no avail.

“The people of Iran shall once again announce that they don’t approve of those who only called for executions and jail throughout the last 38 years,” he told a packed stadium in the western city of Hamedan, referring to the revolution of 1979.

Rouhani faces a tough battle for re-election on May 19 as conservative opponents attack his failure to revive Iran’s stagnant economy.

Analysts say his surprise victory in 2013 was largely down to his promise of improved civil liberties, and he has again made this a dominant theme of his campaign this year.

Rouhani raised an old threat, often leveled at hardliners, that they want to segregate men and women on public footpaths.

“You don’t know them, I know them. They wanted to create segregated pavements the same way they issued a directive for sex segregation in their work place,” Rouhani said in a swipe against one of his main challengers, Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who reportedly tried to split the sexes in his city council offices.

The allegation was dismissed by one of his opponents.

“This ridiculous and repetitive accusation fools no one,” said leading conservative Alireza Zakani in a tweet.

“By contrast, the economic wall between this government of money-makers and people’s empty plates is perfectly understood,” wrote Zakani.

Rouhani’s government has tamed rampant inflation but failed to kick-start the wider economy despite a nuclear deal with world powers that ended many sanctions.

He has therefore pushed his liberal credentials, attacking the security services for interfering in people’s lives, and posing with women wearing loose and colorful headscarves that are still opposed by hardliners despite becoming commonplace in wealthier parts of Tehran.

He is due to address a women’s rally on Tuesday.