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An Iranian Kerry: For many Mousavi supporters, a vote for him is mainly a vote against Ahmadinejad.
Americans can be forgiven for being a bit confused about the upcoming
Iranian elections. While four years ago Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice called Iran a totalitarian state, today some media outlets are
touting Mir Hossein Mousavi -- incumbent President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad's strongest challenger -- as Iran's Barack Obama. Though
Iranian politics are wholly unique, analyzing these elections in an
American political context -- however incongruous the comparison -- may
offer some clarity.
Despite the Iranian president's high profile
both domestically and internationally, his power is more akin to an
influential U.S. vice president (a recent one comes to mind) who
chooses important cabinet positions and helps sets the tone on economic
and foreign policy. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei -- unelected by
the people -- has constitutional authority over the main levers of
state (including the military, judiciary, and media) and will continue
to have the last word on major issues such as the nuclear portfolio and
policy toward the United States.
elections have taken on a carnival-like atmosphere in Iran. Thousands
pour into the streets, and the regime eases political and social
restrictions in order to project a democratic face to the world. And
while the competition between contenders is real, Iranian elections
have the unique combination of being unfree, unfair, and unpredictable.
Only candidates deemed sufficiently loyal to revolutionary
ideals are permitted to run by the Guardian Council, Iran's 12 super
delegates who are all either directly or indirectly appointed by the supreme leader. After this pre-rigging takes place, regime higher ups
often employ age-old tactics -- such as media manipulation, ballot
stuffing, and vote cancellation -- to attempt to alter the outcome.
Some prominent reformists believe it will take an additional 5 million
votes to compensate for improprieties.
This year Iranians were
offered four candidates to choose from: current President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, former Speaker
of the Parliament Mehdi Karroubi, and former Revolutionary Guard
commander Mohsen Rezaee.
An architect by training, the
67-year-old Mousavi appears to be Ahmadinejad's strongest challenger. Despite
his lack of charisma and unenthusiastic demeanor, his campaign has
built tremendous momentum in the last days. Comparisons to Barack Obama
in 2008 notwithstanding, Mousavi's candidacy appears more akin to John
Kerry in 2004, in that his supporters are driven primarily by fear of
the incumbent's re-election rather than enthusiasm about their own man.
One of his most important assets has been his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a
prominent former university chancellor who has helped to energize
female voters. Aesthetically the Mousavi's two for one package
resembles less Barack and Michelle and more Bob and Elizabeth Dole.
about Mousavi has led some reformists to support Karroubi, the only
cleric in the race. A maverick and faux populist, the 72-year-old
Karroubi is considered one of the few Iranian politicians willing to
voice his disagreements with the Supreme Leader. His advanced age,
volatile temperament, and unpredictable tactics call to mind an Iranian
The least likely contender is 55-year-old Mohsen
Rezaee. A highly ambitious former Revolutionary Guard Commander who has
long thought of himself as presidential material, Rezaee resembles an
Iranian Alexander Haig, the former Army general cum Reagan-era
Secretary of State who famously declared himself in charge after
Reagan was shot in 1981. Despite his hardline views, Iranian reformists
are happy that Rezaee is running, hoping he can be Ralph Nader to
Ahmadinejad's Al Gore.
Lastly there is 52-year-old
Ahmadinejad himself, who despite his profound mismanagement of the
economy and foreign policy adventurism seemingly retains the support of
the Supreme Leader. An Iranian Joe Six-pack who intertwines religion
and populism and infuriates urban elites -- think Ayatollah Khomeini
meets Sarah Palin -- Ahmadinejad's supporters are the Iranian equivalent
of American evangelicals: a small percentage of the population with
outsize political influence given their high voter turnout.
his divine inspirations, lack of introspection, and polarizing rhetoric
have frequently earned comparisons to George W. Bush, what's unclear is
whether Ahmadinejad is the Bush of 2004 (who got the benefit of the
doubt) or the Bush of 2008, whose legacy was shunned even by his own
party. There are increasing signs of the latter.
credible polling, however, Iran's political landscape is difficult to
decipher. In elections past, much has been made of the gap between
affluent-middle class North Tehran, and working class South Tehran. The
real disparity, however, is between Tehran and a few other urban
centers (Iran's blue states) and the rest of the country (Iran's red
states). Just as Staten Island residents probably have more in common
with Manhattanites than Alabamans, South Tehran residents tend to have
more in common with north Tehranis than with their rural compatriots
who don't have access to the Internet and satellite TV and rely on
state television as their primary source of information.
Because the last two presidents in Iran -- Mohammed Khatami and
Ahmadinejad -- were both surprises, seasoned observers are loath to
make predictions this time around. Based on media coverage coming
mostly out of the capital, Ahmadinejad is looking like Jimmy Carter in
1980. But the vote of the provinces, and the potential for fraud, are
impossible to foresee.
Given the depth of polarization in
Iran, the final results will likely be hotly contested by the losing
side. Florida in 2000 could be most instructive. But while in America
the memory of unelected elders in robes deciding the country's outlook
was an historical anomaly, for Iranians it has been, and will likely continue
to be, a way of life.