n Enduring America on 12 February, Chris Emery evaluated the announcement of former President Mohammad Khatami that he would stand in June’s election. He wrote, “[It is] an error…to link Khatami’s entry to the tentative prospect of normalised relations between Iran and the US,” and focused on internal dynamics of Iranian politics: “It had been widely reported that Khatami would not run if former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi chose to….So all Iranian eyes will now watch if Mousavi, another popular reformist, is now the one to withdraw.”
Three months later, and 24 hours before Iranians cast their votes in the first round of the Presidential election, I read Chris’ piece with pride. He was half-right on the issue of the potential challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — it was Khatami who withdrew, leaving Mousavi in the race — but months before many “Western” journalists and analysts noticed the campaign or dismissed it out-of-hand (only yesterday Thomas Friedman cast it aside as a “pretend election”), Chris saw its significance. This would not be a procession for the re-election of Ahmadinejad or a charade for Supreme Leader Khamenei to hand-pick a winner but a political space for Iranians to consider their political and economic present and future. Equally important, he got to the core of the issues that would shape the outcome: “It will be over presidential legacies and broken promises.”
Yet, with respect, not even Chris could forecast how dynamic — and potentially important — this campaign has become.
From the moment that the field of major candidates was settled in March — Ahmadinejad, Mousavi, former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei, and former Speaker of the Parliament Mehdi Karroubi — it was clear that the President faced a very real challenge. Two words should have made this clear: The Economy.
When he took office in 2005, Ahmadinejad promised an uplift of Iran’s people, especially its poorer people, through distribution of state revenues and advances in technology, investment, and production. Generally speaking, that has not happened. There have been repeated conflicts between the President and his leading economic ministers and advisors, investment in key sectors has not progressed, and the over-reliance on oil income has tied re-distribution in part to the vagaries of the international market. (Of course, US-led sanctions have continued to constrict Iranian development, but these alone cannot account for Ahmadinejad’s handling of the economy.)
Continuing difficulties do not doom the President. He still appears to retain a solid base of support amongst many voters who still the prospect of an improvement in their economic status, and Ahmadinejad — normally a shrewd speaker and campaigner — could overlay the power of his office with the appeal of nationalism. That in part explains why, far from US-Iranian relations and President Obama’s “engagement”, Ahmadinejad has ensured the appearance of Tehran as a front-line actor on the world stage, with setpieces such as his speech to the World Conference Against Racism and his recent summit with Afghan and Pakistani leaders. (It also probably explains in part why there have been high-profile test-firings of new Iranian missiles.)
However, as Ahmadinejad broadened the campaign beyond the economy, so did his opponents. Rezaei called for more accountability, Karroubi appealed for wider social rights, and Mousavi argued for meaningful change to ensure representation of and response to the populace’s concerns. And, doing so, they (perhaps unexpectedly) opened the gates for an extraordinary escalation in the political process.
“Reform” has always accompanied the Islamic Revolution in its political discourse. President Khatami promised changes in his 1997 victory (and, arguably, was undone because he failed to deliver in his eight years in office). Ahmadinejad promoted reform in his surprise rise to the top in 2005. Lest it be forgotten, he ran as the outsider against the “establishment”, defeating former President Hashemi Rafsanjani in the second round.
The convergence of economic concerns and repeated disappointment with the lack of political and social reform can lead to resignation that there will never be improvement. However, that convergence also carries the potential for moments of great change. (Forgive my one moment of a superficial jump from Iran to a “Western” analogy, but think USA 2008.) And, from my outsider’s perspective, that moment may have occurred this year in Iran.
Symbolically, the catalyst appears to have been the Presidential Debates. The mere announcement that there would be, for the first time in Iran, head-to-head discussions between the four major candidates raised public interest. However, it was the second of the debates, between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, that lit the touchpaper. Thousands of people came onto the streets to watch the big-screen broadcasts. Politics turned into political theatre as Ahmadinejad — again trying to stay off the ground of the economic situation — levelled charges of corruption against not only Mousavi but also former Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani but impropriety against Mousavi’s wife and, equally importantly, as Mousavi overcame initial nervousness to put an effective case against the President’s four years in office.
What does it means tomorrow? Any prediction of a victor would be not only fool-hardy but premature. After all, this is only the first round of the election when, unless anyone captures an unlikely majority of the vote, four candidates are narrowed to the top two. (I really do not believe many Western journalists, in their simplified renditions of the campaign, have noticed this.)
Those top two — although this should not diminish the efforts of Rezaei and Karroubi — will probably be Ahmadinejad and Karroubi. So, once more on the narrow but important ground of the pragmatic, there will be assessments of whether Karroubi will endorse Mousavi and his voters will follow (probable) and whether Rezaei will express any second-round preference, publicly or privately (uncertain). Ahmadinejad will likely re-double his paradoxical effort to portray himself as the “outsider” running, after four years in office, against the corrupt establishment of political figures such as Rafsanjani, although this may be curbed by the increasing disquiet not only of many voters but also of politicians and clerics over the tactic. Mousavi will turn the President’s tactic around, portraying Ahmadinejad as not only the insider but the leader who has frittered away his mandate, and the good of the Iranian people, since 2005.
But what will happen tomorrow and even in the second round does not capture the ongoing importance of these recent months.
On my visits to Iran, and afterwards in correspondence with friends and colleagues, I have learned about and been reminded often of the “third generation”, those Iranians who came of age after the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Quite often, the third generation was characterised as detached from the Revolution, disillusioned, dissatisfied. In recent weeks, however, the third generation — and more than a few other Iranians — have been in rallies, on the streets (on Monday, there was the largest outside gathering in more than a decade), and, yes, even on Facebook with excitement and some expectation.
I don’t know if this constitutes a “Gradual Revolution”, another phrase that I have frequently heard. I certainly would not twist and misrepresent it with the politically-loaded “Velvet Revolution”. But, again as an outsider, there has been an opening of debate and thus of political space which could be significant not just for this election but for years to come.
Put simply — and anticipating Western headlines after Friday about “The Obama Effect” in Iran, about “moderates” v. “hard-liners”, about reinforcement or downfall of an Axis running from Iran to Syria to Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Palestine’s hamas — these events first and foremost are not about the US. They are not about a clash in the Middle East, in nuclear arsenals, between civilisations.
These events are about Iranians: their concerns, their hopes, their ideals. And, whatever the outcome tomorrow and in the second round, they should be respected as such.