Deeply Polarized Iran Heads to the Polls

By Thomas Erdbrink
The Washington Post

TEHRAN, Iran — A long column of provincial, working-class Iranians, clad in black and walking on flip-flops, streamed into a highway underpass, heading for a reelection rally for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Standing on a high ledge safely out of the way, a group of cosmopolitan youths looked down at the crowd of mostly out-of-towners. "Go back to the zoo!" shouted a teenager with gelled-up hair and a green T-shirt, a sign of support for Ahmadinejad's main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

"Sissies!" the marchers yelled back.

As Iranians go to the polls Friday to choose a president, the country is more deeply polarized than at any time since the Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah 30 years ago. After a bitter campaign that included personal attacks on some of Iran's leading families, both sides are preparing to contest the results, and many Iranians wonder whether the social and economic rifts exposed by the election will deepen.

"Some people think that only they are Iran," said Saeed Majidi, who had driven for hours on his 125cc motorcycle to hear Ahmadinejad speak at Tehran's Grand Mosque. "But those with jobs and money only represent 30 percent of the population."

"We are Iran," Majidi concluded, pointing at the crowd pouring into the tunnel, a sea of women with sunburned faces and bearded men with black horn-rimmed glasses. "Other presidents never cared for us. Ahmadinejad does."

Though he holds many of the levers of power, Ahmadinejad is proud of his status as an outsider. He says the country's political class has drifted away from its religious and revolutionary roots. Since his surprise election in 2005, he has constantly attacked Iran's post-revolutionary elites, contending that they long ago gave up fighting for the "barefooted" masses and began doing business deals from their villas on the slopes of affluent North Tehran.

Ahmadinejad has turned the Iranian economy upside down, making sure that advantages flow to the lower class. His government has increased state wages and pensions and has made health insurance free for 22 million people. He derides economists who blame him for high inflation and unemployment, saying that they are tied to the higher classes and that his goal is to "spread justice."

But his support does not come solely from the downtrodden. He is also backed by a small group of hard-line Islamic clerics and leaders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps who share his resentment toward the West, his calls for Iran to occupy its rightful place as a world power and his championing of Iran's nuclear program.

His leading challenger is Mousavi, an urbane, soft-spoken architect who was prime minister from 1981 to 1989. Though out of power for two decades, Mousavi is in many ways the Iranian establishment's candidate. He represents an older generation of Islamic clergy and politicians who fought side by side with the leader of the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but whose power and positions have gradually been stripped away by Ahmadinejad and his associates.

Mousavi's political foot soldiers, in turn, are disgruntled middle-class youths, intellectuals, artists and academics who have been alienated by the current government's radical rhetoric and pervasive restrictions on personal freedom, such as police controls on the way people dress, the banning of books and the disciplining of dissident students.

Yet Ahmadinejad's main foil in the campaign has not been Mousavi. Rather, he has tried to turn the election into a referendum on the man whom he defeated in 2005 and who is not, formally, in the race this time: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president and head of one of the country's most prominent families. In an apparently calculated move during a June 3 nationally televised debate with Mousavi, Ahmadinejad attacked Rafsanjani and his wealthy children, calling them "corrupt" and alleging that Mousavi was their puppet.

Rafsanjani responded with an open letter asking Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to intervene against Ahmadinejad's personal attacks. But Rafsanjani's son, Mehdi, seemed to confirm at least part of Ahmadinejad's claim, telling foreign reporters that the family had helped organize Mousavi's campaign and was planning to bring down Ahmadinejad.

The result is a confrontation not just between Iran's haves and have-nots, but between the old revolutionaries who seized power from the shah and a new cadre of radicals seeking to dislodge them.

"Our mistake has been that we have not dealt with the power seekers," said Mehdi Kalhor, Ahmadinejad's media adviser, using a label that Ahmadinejad's supporters often attach to those around Rafsanjani.

"They are like a bacteria in every empire. The Islamic revolution was a fight against these 1,000 ruling families," Kalhor added. "We now need to carry out the objectives of the revolution."

Each camp has warned that the other may be planning to seize power by nondemocratic means. Mousavi and another presidential challenger, Mehdi Karroubi, have jointly created a committee against vote-rigging and announced plans to post observers at all of Iran's approximately 45,000 polling places.

"We will have our results before the Ministry of Interior does," predicted Morteza Alviri, Karroubi's representative on the committee.

Aides to Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, say Mousavi's backers plan to claim victory before the votes are fully counted and to mount a "color revolution" like the Rose Revolution that swept away the post-Soviet government of Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

"According to their plan, these people will make a heavy media atmosphere, claiming premature victory with rallies to mobilize their supporters," Gen. Yadollah Javani, head of the political office of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, predicted in an interview with the guards' magazine, Sobh-e Sadegh.


Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie contributed to this report.

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