June 19, 2013


Inside Iran's Election Surprise (Muhammad Sahimi, June 19, 2013, National Interest)

There is little doubt, if any, that former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi is the most popular politician in Iran. But together with his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, a professor of arts, and former speaker of parliament Mehdi Karroubi, he and these leaders of the democratic Green Movement have been under house arrest since February 2011. In their absence, Mohammad Khatami, a true reformist and a highly popular former president, was most people's best hope for the presidency. But Khatami is despised by Iran's fundamentalists and the security and intelligence forces, and was threatened repeatedly over his possible run for the office; thus, he never entered the race.

Next in line was another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a centrist and a shrewd politician. But after he entered the race with Khatami's backing, the Guardian Council, a constitutional body that vets candidates, disqualified him from running on the excuse that he was too old. A state of despair took over among the reformists, Green Movement supporters and moderate conservatives. Many, particularly among exiled Iranians, called for a boycott of the elections.

But Rafsanjani's failed candidacy also created a huge national wave of support for him that he, Khatami and their aides were determined to exploit. There were still two candidates in the race for whom the wave could be used, Mohammad Reza Aref, 62, the Stanford-educated first vice president (Iran has eight) in the second Khatami administration (2001-2005), and Rowhani. Aref, a university professor and a truly good man, is a mild-mannered reformist.

Khatami and Rafsanjani, together with the two candidates, agreed that, based on their assessment of the race, one should withdraw from the race in favor of the other. Then, three nationally-televised presidential debates took place, and although the first two did not amount to anything, the third one was transformed into a serious confrontation between Aref and Rowhani, on one hand, and Jalili and Ghalibaf, on the other. Aref and Rowhani strongly criticized Jalili and Ahmadinejad, and even implicitly supported the trio of Green Movement leaders (something of a taboo these days in Iran). That turned the tide. Aref withdrew from the race on Khatami's request, and the two former presidents threw their support behind Rowhani, which excited the nation. Many who had decided to sit the elections out instead voted. The rest, as they say, is history.

Posted by at June 19, 2013 8:00 PM

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