New Internationalist

Just don’t cheat…’

'I feel as if I'm sitting on a powder keg. We are all excited. The days carry on as normal. But after five and six we pour on the streets, especially after the debates...' writes z8un, one of Iran's oldest bloggers. In a recent article I wrote about Iran's blogosphere, I couldn't help but put that the 'prevailing political apathy' did not 'tally with the social makeup of Iran's educated youthful population'. Yet in the run-up to the presidential elections, the widespread political indifference has been firmly swept away with passionate discussions. 

Z8un adds: 'I’ve never seen people so happy, motivated and hopeful. If Mousavi [the leading opposition contender for the presidency] had been a candidate any other time in these 20 years he would never have been so popular. But he looks like a saviour coming, as he does, after Ahmadinejad.'  

This is the first year that televised election debates between the President and his challengers have been aired inside Iran. So the debates have seen Ahmadinejad in the unusual situation of having to face criticism from his opponents on air. In the calmest of the debates he was told by a fellow conservative challenger Mohsen Rezai, that an extension of his presidency will mean 'grave and irreversible danger' for Iran. Ahmadinejad has countered by accusing key establishment  figures such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri and accusing them of corruption. This may appear a totally reckless move by Ahmadinejad. But he has come to the race with support from another key conservative institution - the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The drawing up of clear battle lines by major factions in this campaign will undoubtedly bring about enduring changes to Iran's political landscape. 

In contrast to Western press descriptions of Mousavi as someone with a 'charisma gap', the most common adjectives that one comes across online and amongst the writings of  Iran-based reformist journalists are 'dignified', 'decent' and 'upright'. After all, he is the wartime Prime Minister who has even been called 'The Living Martyr' in a famous article written in summer of 2007 by Mohamed Ghochani,  Iran's enfant terrible of journalism. 

In his live presidential televised debate, Mousavi behaved with the quiet confidence of a mature statesman when Ahmadinejad - in Kafkaesque interrogator guise - waved a file about his wife, questioning her academic credentials. Ahmadinejad while not naming names, threatened to reveal Zahra Rahnavard's name, repeating 'Shall I tell? Shall I tell?' Mousavi just calmly told him to go ahead and he would have gained the support of many women voters who saw him defending his wife, proudly telling the nation that 'she is a great thinker' who had worked 10 long, hard years to gain her PhD. 

Mousavi has been met with huge crowds swathed in his green campaign colors as he has travelled through Iran. This has led to accusations that this is a prelude to a 'colour' or 'velvet revolution' like those that swept away governments in Georgia and Ukraine. There is undoubtedly a great deal of pent-up anger on the streets. During Ahmadinejad's visits to Iran's top Sharif University he was chased off by the students while they chanted Mousavi's name. Amateur footage shows the students telling some of Ahmadinejad's key advisors 'Just don't cheat, that's enough'. 

The election is overseen by the Guardian Council and run by the Interior Ministry; both are presently controlled by staunch allies of the president. One of the main slogans on the streets of Iran these days by those who appose Ahmadinejad is: 'If you cheat, it will be Armageddon'. 

Meanwhile, hardline daily Kayhan has written that 'a colour revolution under the guise of an election campaign is under way'. Similar charges have been made in the latest issue of Sobeh Sadegh, the official organ of the Revolutionary Guards, with threats that 'any such move would  be strangled as an embryo'.
Such accusations are not uncommon in Iran. But they raise serious concerns, coming as they do at a time of unprecedented clashes, and with military forces supporting Ahmadinejad. With Iran's emboldened youth on the streets in anticipation of hopeful change, there are ominous challenges that will still be there after polling day. 

For more background on Iran see New Internationalist 398

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