Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

POLITICS-IRAN: One Gladiator Facing Nine Soldiers

Yassaman Taghi Beigi

TEHRAN, May 29 2001 (IPS) - Iran’s pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami does not face serious threat from his nine rival candidates in the Jun. 8 presidential polls, but votes for them could yet undermine a new electorate mandate for him.

For Khatami, a 57-year-old cleric seeking a second mandate as president of this country of 62 million people, the election could well be a test of support for his social and political reforms, including dialogue with western countries.

It is now election campaign time for Khatami and his nine rivals, who earlier this month were deemed qualified among a record 814 would-be candidates for president. The decision was made by the Guardian Council, a powerful conservative body that vets candidates for their political and Islamic credentials.

Khatami’s rivals are mainly from the conservative camp and whose votes could take away some votes from the incumbent president, who won a landslide victory in May 1997 with nearly 70 percent of ballots cast.

Although there are 42 million eligible voters this time, the moderate cleric seems to have more of a difficulty now winning a similar mandate against so many contenders.

The centre-right daily ‘Entekhab’, in a front-page headline last week, described the presidential race as a fight between “one gladiator and nine soldiers”.

During his first four-year term, the charismatic Khatami succeeded in introducing some social and political reforms into the country’s Islamic society and improve its international image.

Among others, Khatami has made it a point to reach out to neighbouring countries and visit key western countries and has launched an initiative of “dialogue among civilisations”.

In Khatami’s introduction of social and political reforms, he has had to face obstacles thrown his way by conservative forces.

Indeed, Khatami has experienced major political setbacks due to the strong opposition from the conservative camp who control many levers of power in Iran, including the powerful judiciary, the state media, the police and the armed forces.

Conservative-led courts have over the past couple of years ordered the closure of some 40 reformist newspapers and jailed dozens of Khatami’s close allies and supporters, including politicians, journalists and student leaders.

These moves were described by reformist lawmakers as efforts to undermine Khatami and “dishearten” him from seeking reelection.

Earlier this month, when filing his nomination for a second term — the maximum allowed under the Iranian constitution — Khatami said he preferred to serve the nation elsewhere rather than in the executive.

“It is natural that there are problems both inside and outside the country. To reach our goal — the reign of democracy in Iran — we must deploy major cultural means,” he said, without elaborating.

“Unfortunately we have so far paid a heavy price for independence and there will be more to pay,” Khatami added.

His remarks have been the subject of mixed interpretations. Some say his reference to the “heavy price for independence” could point to Iran’s efforts to tread its own path in the face of what is seen as pressure from the west as well as the price it has to pay, like economic sanctions.

But others say he could be referring to the price his administration has paid for its “independence” since it came to power in 1997, including struggles with conservative forces.

The conservatives — in disarray after a series of elections defeats which deprived them of their parliamentary majority last year — have not endorsed any candidate in the presidential poll far. It is also unclear whether they will back any of the nine other contenders.

The Militant Clergy Association (MCA), a powerful conservative party, issued a statement last week saying it had not reached consensus whether to support any specific presidential hopefuls.

“However, this does not mean a boycott of the elections. At this crucial juncture, it is our duty to maintain an active and strong presence in the scene and urge the election officials to pave the way for a free and healthy election,” the MCA said in a statement.

Three of the nine candidates for the presidency are members of the rightist Islamic Coalition Society (ICS), who will have the support of the traditional Conservatives. They are former MP Hassan Ghafourifard, university chancellor Abdullah Jasbi and Shahabuddin Sadr, Iran Medical Association chief.

Candidate Ahmad Tavakoli, an economist and former minister of labor, is seen as the figure most likely to secure the backing of the main conservative party. He had a respectable showing in the 1993 presidential elections against former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Ali Fallahian, a cleric and former minister of intelligence, is also standing and is likely to get support from hardline clerics opposed to the reform programme of Khatami.

Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani seems to be in a category all by himself and counts on the votes of the armed forces. Certain rightist groups have also indicated their support for Shamkhani.

The technocrats have two nominees: Mansour Razavi, a Tehran city councilor, and Mostafa Hashemi Taba, vice president and head of the Physical Education Organisation.

The last candidate is Mahmoud Kashani, an Islamist intellectual and civil law professor who is villified by the left.

Kashani used to belong to the rightist factions, but his outspoken views on human rights, including the belief that Iran has much to learn about individual rights from the U.S. constitution, has made traditional conservatives cautious of him.

Among those disqualified by the Guardian Council was Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, leader of a splinter group of radical reformists. Press reports said the pro-reform parties were against the candidacy of Asgharzadeh, one of the students who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.

They opposed his running because of Asgharzadeh’s criticism of Khatami’s policies, adding that he could draw the votes of those unhappy with Khatami’s failure to stop the judiciary’s growing pressure on the reform programme and his government’s weak economic performance.

Indeed, “Khatami has been good politically and culturally. True that we want political reform, but we also want an economy that works,” said Mohammad-Reza Souri, a senior student of history.

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