Reformists struggle against hardliners

Iran’s defeated reform candidates and their backers are warning of “fascist footsteps approaching” after a hard-line choice beat them out for a place in this week’s run-off presidential election. The 4.7 million votes received by Tehran Mayor Dr Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad, about 20 percent of around 29 million votes cast Friday, has shocked many middle-class Iranians. He finished second only to former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, known as a supporter of the status quo. The two will face off in a second vote on Friday. The defeat of Mostafa Moa’n, the leading reform candidate, was an unexpected blow to his backers, who saw him running close behind Rafsanjani before the polls.

Esa Sahr Khiz, the reformist journalist who headed the Moa’n campaign, released a statement attributing the defeat to the “conspiracy of militia and vigilante groups”. Moa’n and a second reform candidate, Mahdi Karrubi, issued separate statements to warn Iranians “fascism’s footsteps can be heard”. The reformist camp is now desperately trying to bring at least 12 million votes to Rafsanjani, as the supporters of two other defeated hard-line candidates are urging their sympathisers to vote for Ahmadinedjad, whose base is a nationwide network of mosques, vigilante groups and Basij (volunteer forces) militia. Many supporters of Karrubi, the former speaker who finished third with less than four million votes, took to downtown streets near the former US embassy Saturday night to protest what they called “Basij militia and vigilantes’ direct involvement in polling, (vote) rigging or vote manipulation”.

Interestingly, Rafsanjani endorsed Karrubi’s protest and warned, “an extremist reading of Islam is emerging in Iranian politics”. But one frustrated analyst and backer of current President Mohamad Khatami told (Persian news service) that while “Khatami received 42 million votes in two four-year terms due to his integrity, honesty and merits, the two claimants of reformism, Moa’n and Karrubi, together could not receive more than four million votes, therefore the new claimants of reform did not deserve the votes of the people.” The Rafsanjani camp is predicting a gloomy future in the event that Ahmadinedjad becomes president, for example spreading the rumour that he will segregate public parks (for men and women) and bury the remains of the soldiers killed in the eight-year war against Iraq in public places. Some analysts believe such a strategy will succeed and will spur a vote shift toward Rafsanjani among the middle class.

Friday’s result was a blow to activists who urged Iranians not to vote, in hopes that such an act would accelerate the collapse of the system created after the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution. According to the interior ministry, about 63 percent of eligible voters above 15 years of age took part in the election. Some analysts believe that Karrubi’s supporters may again take to the streets.

Some reformists believe Ahmadinedjad is the man to put Iran on a collision course with the administration of U.S. President George W Bush. “If he becomes president, he will not only not negotiate with America but also speed up the uranium enrichment process,” said political activist Ehsan K, 26. Gholam eza Agazadeh, the president of the Iranian Nuclear Agency, openly expressed his opinion that “only Mr Rafsanjani is capable of settling the dispute over the nuclear issue”. —IPS