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Iran’s Presidential Elections: The Live Embers of a Democratic Opposition Glow

[Demonstration in support of Rouhani on the eve of the election.] [Demonstration in support of Rouhani on the eve of the election.]

Something significant and electric is taking place in Iran, and consuming many Iranians around the world in advance of the presidential elections that are set to take place on Friday, 14 June 2013. Over the last few days, segments of a broad Iranian democratic opposition have increasingly taken to the streets in multiple cities across the country. They have claimed public space in a way that has been inconceivable since the brutal repression of the large and broad-based popular civil rights movement that followed the last (2009) presidential election.

The Green Movement of 2009 demanded free and fair elections, accountability for government repression (including systematic torture, beatings, rapes, and killings) during the 2009 election and its aftermath, the release of all political prisoners, and full rights to freedom of speech, press, and assembly. It articulated a vision for a more equitable and democratic future, and prominent figures in the movement also advocated against foreign intervention and US hegemony in the region. The brutality unleashed on the movement drove it away from the streets since its last significant public manifestation on 14 February 2011. On that day, Iranians responded to calls—by Green Movement figures Mir Houssein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi—to hold peaceful rallies in solidarity with the spreading mass movements in Tunisia and Egypt, and, implicitly, to revitalize their own suppressed movement in Iran. These rallies were met with force, and Mir Houssein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi have been under house arrest ever since.

[Iconic photo of Green Movement supporters in Tehran’s Meydan-e Azadi (Freedom Square) in 2009.]

Until very recently, it was almost impossible to imagine this current moment, or more accurately, to predict the shape that it would take. But growing segments of a democratic opposition have artfully used the space opened up by the elections, and stretched it, finally coalescing in growing numbers around the candidacy of Hassan Rouhani. It is clear that Rouhani, a moderate cleric and former nuclear negotiator under the popular reformist President Mohammad Khatami, does not represent the fullness of this movement’s aspirations. However, what has become increasingly clear is that Rouhani’s candidacy and this election have provided the opportunity for people to show and fan the live embers of both the Green Movement and a broader Iranian democratic opposition. What has also become clear is that the stakes of this election are real and high.

[People claim the streets and show support for Rouhani’s campaign in Tehran
on Wednesday 12 June 2013. Image from Tehran Bureau.]

Critical Developments from the Campaign Season

How did this happen? Why is it that growing numbers of people affiliated with a democratic opposition have been coming out into the street, and increasingly participating in pre-elections activities and mobilizing people to vote? Where does this reservoir of hope and determination come from? What follows are snapshots of critical developments from this campaign season, and an effort to highlight and document key moments of popular mobilization by a democratic opposition that has not been adequately covered by the press—owing in good part to both severe censorship in Iran, and the fact that the Iranian government has effectively kept the international media out of the country or on a tight leash. In addition, the US and foreign press have by and large been far more interested in what these elections mean for the interests of their own national elite, rather than in what they mean for the Iranian people. Most of the following videos and photographs that have emerged from rallies or demonstrations come from citizen journalists and opposition figures using social media and other means to deliver them to the world.

Prior to 11 May 2013, hardly anyone who identifies with the democratic opposition considered voting in this year’s presidential elections. A deep hopelessness had set in since the repression of 2009, along with a severe narrowing of political space. With former presidential candidates and Green Movement leaders Mousavi and Karroubi under house arrest, and many others imprisoned or otherwise silenced, participation was widely understood to be meaningless at best, and the election a charade in which the majority of the people did not have any meaningful stake.

The first possibility of reconsidering the value of participation emerged when former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani announced his candidacy on 11 May, and Iran’s largest reformist parties threw their weight behind him. Rafsanjani is a far more conservative figure than Mousavi, and nowhere near as popular among movement activists. However, many understood him to be the only powerful figure in the country who had expressed and maintained support for the movement, as well as publicly opposed the state’s violent efforts to suppress it. Iranians vividly remember the first Friday prayer in Tehran following the 2009 elections, in which Rafsanjani sided with demonstrators facing the unfolding violence supported by the Supreme Leader Khamenei and by President Ahmadinejad. It is well known that Rafsanjani was increasingly marginalized after this point, that he has since continued to express support for political prisoners, and that his own daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, has been imprisoned for her active support of the democratic opposition. Besides, as a founding figure of the Islamic Republic, many thought that Rafsanjani was too powerful to be disqualified from running in the 2013 elections, and was therefore their best chance of a candidate who could win and push back against the current state of affairs.

As for how progressives could reconcile themselves to the act of voting for someone like Rafsanjani, who is such a pillar of the Islamic Republic, one leftist Iranian friend told me:

Yes, my father was executed when Rafsanjani was president in the 1980s. But if a movement forms around Rafsanjani as his campaign advances, if the people gather around him, then I will vote for him. I will vote to support that movement and its efforts to re-open a political space that we so urgently need. 

This hesitant, slowly emerging hope was quickly dashed by 21 May. On that day, the Guardian Council disqualified Rafsanjani, in what some analysts have called an internal pre-election coup. The conservative camp refused to accept Rafsanjani’s challenge, slammed him for his “seditious” support of demonstrators in 2009, and excoriated him for his recent statements, such as when claimed that “If a government is forced upon the people, they will not cooperate in times of danger, and no dictatorial government can succeed in the world.”

With Rafsanjani eliminated, two of the eight remaining presidential candidates, self-described reformist Mohammad Reza Aref and Hassan Rouhani, were the more politically liberal candidates facing six very conservative “principlists,” including the particularly ominous and unapologetic pro-regime radical ideologue Saeed Jalili. However, with the blow to both Rafsanjani and the movement that was indeed beginning to build around him, as well as the sense that neither Aref nor Rouhani could become a significant force, it looked like the faint glimmer of a meaningful election had quickly faded. It was felt that the regime would block any real contender and movement from emerging. Once again, to many, participating in the elections did not seem worthwhile.

On 1 June, a video of Rouhani addressing supporters in Tehran’s Jamaran district did something to shake this prevailing perspective. Rouhani transfixed many viewers when he asked, “Why should there be a securitized state everywhere? In the streets, universities, schools, and organizations, we must put an end to this securitized environment!” Even more compelling was the boisterous cries that arose in his support, “Political prisoners must be freed!” followed by the new slogan, “Praise to Mousavi, Welcome to Rouhani!” It is both what Rouhani expressed and what the supporters that had gathered around him dared to articulate in their slogans, that mattered. For the first time in years, people were publicly and loudly raising their voices against state repression, and speaking the name of the Green Movement leader Mousavi—who has been silenced under house arrest and labeled as a traitor by the most powerful forces in government. Rouhani continued his speech by saying that the people deserve more freedom and prosperity, and that these would only be possible if people were not dissuaded from participating in the elections.

“Do not let them discourage you!” Rouhani said before escalating the stakes. “I am just going to mention this vaguely. This year, 2013, will not be the same as 2009!” Remarkably, a standing presidential candidate was accusing the government of electoral fraud in 2009, and vowing that he would not let it happen again, should citizens not despair and leave their destiny to their conservative opponents by boycotting the vote. At the event, Saeed Allah-Bedashti, the head of the youth division of Rouhani’s campaign, was arrested. As of writing, he was just released, but other campaigners arrested on Rouhani’s campaign trail remain detained.

[Rouhani speaks against the electoral fraud of 2009. His supporters demand, “Political prisoners must be freed!”]

Another critical moment was the 4 June funeral for the dissident cleric Ayatollah Jalal al-Din Taheri Esfehani, who famously spoke out against the government’s repression following the 2009 election, and labeled the regime-backed Ahmadinejad government as illegitimate. Rohani attended this funeral in Esfehan instead of joining other presidential candidates at the official state commemoration of the death of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. In an amazing display, thousands of participants at Ayatollah Taheri’s funeral turned this public mourning into a mass opposition demonstration, crossing an important regime red line by chanting "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein!" They also chanted "Political prisoners must be freed!" and "Down with the dictator!" in reference to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. At this demonstration, participants showed that the Green Movement is alive, and that a popular democratic opposition is still beating.

[Ayatollah Taheri’s funeral turns into an opposition demonstration. 4 June 2013.]

The third and final televised presidential debate on 2 June addressed Iran’s domestic and foreign policy. The debate illuminated for the public that the competition between the candidates, including that between the six conservatives running at the time (before one dropped out), was real. The candidates hit hard on one another’s policies and records, and both Aref and Rouhani spoke about domestic repression by conservative forces. Regarding foreign policy, one important moment was when Rouhani slammed the hardline regime ideologue Saeed Jalili—who has notoriously said that he wants to become a martyr for the Supreme Leader—by attacking his record as a member of the Supreme National Security Council responsible for international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Rouhani blamed Jalili’s hardline approach for impoverishing and isolating Iran, saying, “It is very good for centrifuges to turn, but the wheels of the factories should also turn.” The conservative former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati also attacked Jalili’s record on nuclear negotiations, blaming his incompetence as a negotiator for the economic sanctions now burdening the Iranian people. Also of note, Rohani resonated with much of the democratic opposition when he echoed his Jamaran talk by saying that the republican democratic features of the Islamic Republic were being destroyed, leaving only the Islamic features, and that this was an important crisis that needed to be reversed.

After this third presidential debate, larger segments of the democratic opposition began to articulate their support for Rouhani, and for popular participation in the elections. In addition, a bottom-up call grew louder, with pro-reform supporters urging a coalition between Aref and Rouhani that would result in a single pro-reform candidate and avoid splitting the vote. Watch, for example, this 9 June video of Rouhani entering a stadium in Tehran, where thousands of his supporters—young and old, men and women—had gathered and were singing “Yaar-e Dabestani-e Man,” a beautiful song popularized by the Iranian student movement and suppressed in the streets of Iran since the 2009 mass popular protests. At the end of the video, enthusiastic supporters can be seen calling for a coalition candidacy.

At this point, while the mobilization to encourage voting was growing, many in the democratic opposition were eagerly waiting for a pro-reform coalition to form, and for the popular former president Mohammad Khatami to place his support behind such a coalition. This is what many reform supporters said they needed before they could pour their support into an electoral process whose recent history had left them deeply alienated. On the one hand, expectations rose that the coalition would be announced at any moment. On the other hand, anxieties increased when, instead of announcing a coalition, various Iranian media sources reported that the Guardian Council would be reassessing Rouhani’s fitness to stay in the race after his campaign rally at the stadium.

Opposition sympathizers worried that Rouhani, like Rafsanjani before him, was growing too popular among the opposition to be allowed to continue running. But within the day, authorities denied that Rouhani’s candidacy was being reconsidered. Even so, that may very well have been the case, as it is hardly inconceivable that the popular movement growing around Rouhani’s campaign was making higher-ups nervous. But it is equally plausible that the forces pushing for his disqualification were ultimately outweighed by other forces who calculated that his disqualification would cause more disruption than would allowing him to stay in the race.

Finally, on Tuesday 11 June, Aref withdrew his candidacy in favor of Rouhani. The lead reformist figure Mohammad Khatami had heard the loud rank-and-file calls for a coalition to be formed, deliberated with a committee of his advisors, and subsequently convinced Aref to withdraw. Here, the process is important, as it reflects maturity in opposition strategizing and a relationship between reformist leaders and an opposition rank-and-file that could carry significance beyond this election. As Farideh Farhi explains, given the illegitimate disqualification of their original candidate Rafsanjani, the committee members did not think that they themselves would participate in the election in an organized fashion. But they changed their minds when news trickled-up that people expected them to participate, and to choose one candidate to increase their side’s chance of winning, barring any fraud.

Right after this coalition formed, Khatami released an important and mobilizing short video over the internet. (As a measure of the stakes involved, it is worth recalling that this popular former president was forced out of public life after 2009, and is barred from appearing in the official media.) In the video, Khatami announced his support for a coalition candidate led by Rouhani. He also stated that, while we know that this election is not healthy, it is clear that the people want change, and that all must participate to bring it about and to have a chance to “save the country.” Khatami also made reference to political prisoners, saying, “I who said that my minimum condition for participating in the elections is freedom for [political] prisoners, was sent letters by prisoners themselves, telling me to not have this hesitation, and to participate.” Perhaps Khatami’s most striking words were, “Let us come to the scene with all our beings. Hopefully a wave will be created that will make changing the results of the matter impossible.” In other words, Khatami was arguing that the regime might very well want to rig the election and not let the opposition win, even if this opposition drew the majority of the votes. Given these circumstances, Khatami was urging the opposition to come out in numbers so large that the political costs of rigging the election would become impossibly high for the establishment. Khatami effectively called for the opposition to make it as hard as possible for the regime to get away with blocking their hopes and aspirations.

After the Khatami video was released, and with only a few days before the vote, people took to the streets to show their support for Rouhani’s candidacy. On Wednesday, 12 June, photos like the one at the top of this article, and amateur videos and reports of demonstrations and boisterous pro-Rouhani rallies, came in from large and small cities alike, including Tehran, Shiraz, Orumiyeh, Mashad, and beyond. For example, see this breathtaking video from Mashad, where thousands of Rouhani supporters continuously chanted, “Political prisoners must be freed!”

[Thousands chanting “political prisoners must be freed!” at a Rouhani rally in Mashad.]

In another video from a campaign rally in Mashad, the people cried out, “If there is cheating, there will be an uprising in Iran!” And then there is this beautiful video from Sari, the provincial capital of Mazandaran in the north of the county. It was sent on Wednesday night to the Iranian activist Ali Abdi, who posted it on his Facebook page with the note from the original sender, which stated: “I recorded a video last night from this spontaneous demonstration of the youth supporting Rouhani.…Believe me that even the people in his campaign headquarters couldn’t predict that so many people would join!” The video shows pro-Rouhani chants, and at the fifty-two seconds mark and beyond, men and women singing in the streets together.

[Video from spontaneous demonstration and singing in Sari.]

These popular outpourings in the streets were accompanied by new expressions of support for Rouhani and for participation in the election. One hundred and forty Iranian writers and artists, prominent in the cinema, theater, and other fields wrote an open letter expressing their support “with a sense of historic responsibility.” Political prisoners like Emad Bahavar and Mostafa Tajzadeh, the latter of whom had previously called for a boycott of the elections, also found ways to deliver messages of support. The key reformist parties, including the Participation Front, also came out in support, as did the reformist Association of Combatant Clerics. Finally, while the disqualified Rafsanjani had already pledged that he would support the coalition, his daughter Faezeh Hashimi— a women’s rights and opposition activist who was recently released from jail and who had said she would not vote—came out in favor of voting, stating that she had been moved by the movement and will of the people.

Now, on the eve of the elections, the one trustworthy independent poll, IPOS, shows the number of people who say they will vote for Rouhani to have soared, and to hover more than thirteen percent over the next of the six candidates. This is significant, because random telephone surveys like the one IPOS conducted tend to under-report pro-reform votes, as people are less likely to report support for an opposition candidate around which a popular movement is forming. In addition, ultra-reactionary figures, which can be followed on Google +, have expressed worries that this election could turn out to be another “Second of Khordad,” referring to the first landslide pro-reform electoral victory of President Khatami in 1997.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

As I write these words at two in the morning in New York City on election day, the polls in Iran have already opened, and I myself plan to go vote when morning more properly arrives. Those who wager to make predictions are often quickly rendered obsolete, but sharp analysts calculate that if Rouhani makes it to a second round—and if none of the six candidates can claim over fifty percent of the vote, the top two candidates (barring fraud) will go to a second round on 21 June—there is likely to be mass participation in his favor in that second round. The catch-22 is that Rouhani has to at least qualify for a second round for more people to believe that their votes will be counted, but he is much more likely to get to that second round if large numbers vote for him today.

If Rouhani does get to a second round, the situation will become very unpredictable. It would be quite difficult for the authorities to rig the election in a second round to keep Rouhani from winning, without again risking mass protests. Even if Rouhani were to lose in a second round in which there is mass participation—which is unlikely given the serious crisis of legitimacy the regime is facing—people may take to the streets anyway if they perceive that the election was rigged. If, however, the authorities rig the election today, the effect is not likely to be dramatic. People’s expectations, while escalating, are still modest and tinged with doubt. The numbers who vote in the first round may be significant, but not as large as the numbers that a second round would mobilize.

I am finishing this article hoping for a large turn out today, for a wave that is large enough to still the hand of authorities who may well prefer to rig the results of the election against Rouhani. I am hoping that enough people who understandably feel disaffected join friends and neighbors, and participate at this critical juncture, when the moment is so bleak, and more air is so necessary. I am trying to qualify my own hope in these remaining hours, to practice optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect. But I admit that I am having a hard time disciplining that intellect with pessimism, right now, when so much is at stake.

Of course, if the will of a democratic movement is victorious at the polls today, and Rouhani does win, the work is far from over. Rouhani will at that point no longer be a candidate, but the president, and the work remains to push him towards meeting essential demands, including the one that reached a crescendo on his campaign trail: “Political prisoners must be freed.” What the Iranian people will have in his presidency is a lightened burden and renewed hope that they can indeed play a palpable part in creating a more free, just, and dignified future together. What they will have is a president that they can affect with their will and their demands. They will have a better chance of lightening their current double-burden of internal repression by their own state, and the emiseration they are facing as a result of US-backed economic sanctions, coupled with the ongoing threat of foreign military intervention.

Whatever happens, it of course remains true that a democratic opposition in Iran did not just emerge over these rollercoaster presidential elections, nor did it only begin in 2009. It has deep roots, preceding the Islamic Republic itself, and I have every faith that it will have a long future, well beyond and in between elections.

Whatever is pronounced when the results are in, and in the hours leading up to them, I will think of the words of an activist in Tehran, who joyfully exclaimed a couple of days ago:

“We found each other again in the streets, and we sang together, and we hugged each other. No matter what happens on Saturday, we are happy today."

This reclaiming of the commons cannot be erased, and yes, the embers of a democratic opposition in Iran have never stopped glowing.

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