Searching for and finding similar instances of political brand making committed in wildly different settings and situations can be instructive. Followers of things Iranian may have noticed a couple of parallels between the campaigns of Iranian presidential candidates for the June 12 elections and those of the U.S. presidential elections past.
Most definitely, these are superficial likenesses, but they could also point to deeper parallels. For one, both political systems protect and prolong the rule of an absolute minority. Another deep similarity is that in both political setups, exclusively for the participation of the ruling elites (no matter how many factions they come in), a certain level of ‘democracy’ (meaning here, tolerance) is institutionally allowed/required.
Now to the superficial similarities. In these presidential elections, Iranians have a ‘candidate of change’ (yes, literally the same slogan) in the person of Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Now, this is very interesting, since Mir-Hossein Mousavi, currently a member of the ‘reformist’ camp in Iran, was the prime minister (when the post existed) from 1981 to 1989. Back then he was a member of the ‘left wing’ due to his advocacy for a state run economy. Nowadays, he has changed indeed and supports all manner of privatization (as do all ‘reformers’).
Mousavi’s premiership coincided with the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), during which his economic management carried the country through very rough times. Among other innovations, he introduced the coupon system that made sure everybody received the minimum ration of needed nutrients during those hard times.
Mousavi’s premiership also coincided with the bloodiest period of post-revolutionary internal violence against the people in Iran. Not only was the country engulfed in a World War I-type of high-fatality military conflict for eight years (which required active-to-the-point-of-forceful recruiting of people to send to the fronts), the new regime was also going through its consolidation; a period that has historically included eradication of internal opponents. During this period, thousands of dissidents were jailed, tortured and executed in summary executions after phony ‘trials’.
In one ominous event, at the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war, in the summer of 1988, according to human rights organizations in and outside Iran, between two and five thousand political prisoners were summarily executed. Among the executed were some who had served their sentences, or could qualify for early release. But, in a deliberate move to ‘clean up’ the political prisons, the government (headed partly by Mousavi) pushed for rushed executions of thousands of these prisoners.
Beside Mousavi’s ‘Elections for Change’ slogan that mirrors Obama’s, another interesting parallel is how Mousavi is situating himself to breach some of the divide between the so-called reformists with the conservatives; just like Obama promising to represent the Democrats and Republicans (not necessarily all the people, mind you).
In elaborate speeches, Mousavi has been mesmerizing university audiences thirsting for anything other than stale lectures filled with long quotations from Koran in Arabic verse, which most people don’t understand, riddled with militant-sounding speechifying typical of the ideological conservatives. Mousavi has been spreading the news that, unlike others, he believes that ‘principled orthodoxy’ (osool-geraa’ee) and ‘reformism’ are but two sides of the same coin, and both are needed for an Islamic society to thrive in the modern world. He calls himself a ‘conservative reformer’ or a ‘reformist conservative’, and does not care which particular way you say it. Mousavi, the ‘change candidate’, is the ‘reformist’ candidate with the biggest following supposedly, and with the best chance of ousting the incumbent president Ahmadinejad.
Another trend that has traveled well across the oceans is the ‘Anybody But’ phenomenon. This year, it finally reached our shores, and we now have the much awaited, ‘Anybody but Ahmadinejad!’ In many ways, he is Iran’s George W. Bush. Just as much as Bush was hated by all but the most dedicated American right-wingers, Ahmadinejad is hated by all but the most dedicated Iranian right-wingers (the Basiji’s and the Revolutionary Guards).
And just like George Bush Jr., Ahmadinejad is un-liked so thoroughly that he has split the Iranian conservatives. There are as many (if not more) conservatives against him as there are for him; hence, the decision by another conservative, Mohsen Rezaee, a former Revolutionary Guards chief commander, to run for the presidency in these elections. Some other bigwig conservatives who have chosen to distance themselves from Ahmadinejad include: Ali Larijani (former chief nuclear negotiator), Mohammad Reza Bahonar (first deputy speaker of Majles), and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (current Tehran mayor).
Indeed, Ahmadinejad is so not-liked by some conservatives, that he has driven some to the ‘reformist’ camp, presumably to assure Ahmadinejad’s ouster. According to reports, “some major figures in the conservative/principlist camp, led by Mr. Emad Afrough, the Tehran deputy to the 7th Majles (the parliament), announced the formation of a committee in support of Mr. Mousavi.”1
In short, just like Bush Jr., Ahmadinejad is too much of a divider, does not play well with others, is an anti-unifier of first degree, and that has become a source of deep worry in the Iranian elite establishment.
Naturally all this has really pissed off the Bush-like incumbent, who is just as testy with criticism, and he’s been getting it non-stop for his entire presidency, and with particular vigor during the past few months. In his first nationally televised debate with his ‘reformist’ rival candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the sitting president and candidate Ahmadinejad seemed to have opted for an all-out accusatory posture against all three candidates running against him, claiming, “I am not just running against one candidate. I am opposed by all three candidates,” intoning victimhood.
Of course, he is a fighter and vowed to continue his fight (to paraphrase him) for people and against an unjust gang of about 150 or so people, who, for the 24 years before his administration, controlled the government and tried to establish themselves as autocratic overlords, deciding what’s good for the country and for the people and what’s not good for them, and slowly yet deliberately derailing the Iranian society from the righteous path set by Imam Khomeini (bless his bygone soul), until the will of the people intervened in 2005 and put him, Ahmadinejad, at the helm of the country in order to correct the path of the state, to expose the corruption, and to redirect the country to the path of justice and equality.
The ‘reformists’, though, are not about to let go of a historic opportunity to fool the public in their own fashion, yet again. The ‘reformists’ are (and this is the other silly similarity) the Iranian ‘lesser evils’, and they seem to have sensed that the ‘Anybody but Ahmadinejad’ is putting enough wind in their sails.
[Note: In a constitution that bans from public life any and all political parties not explicitly vowing allegiance to an Inquisition-type theocracy, it is impossible to identify 'elections' as anything but an opportunity to examine different degrees of political meanness. What we have there is a clear, unadulterated case of a cyclical, meaningless 'choice' that comes around every so often between really bad and much worse.]
Be that as it is, a spectacle, especially a political one, can be appreciated by the peoples of many a different country, for any number of reasons. The accusations the politicians throw at each other reveal quite a lot. Likewise, claims made of extravagant successes could be quite entertaining to hear and read about. The more divisive political things look, in short, the more thrilling; especially for the endemically powerless. Participation can indeed be considered tempting, especially when the powerful are visibly squirming in their seats, begging to be voted in. To feel, even for a moment, that you really matter is a powerful opiate, on which politicians of all colors bank on.
Where Ahmadinejad has made loud claims of victory — e.g., pushing forth Iran’s nuclear program — the ‘reformists’ hit back with the assertion that the nuclear program started some 25 years ago (when the ‘reformist’ candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was the prime minister), and that Ahmadinejad should stop pretending as if he was the sole creator of the nuclear program.
Where the ‘reformists’ have piled on the accusations of economic mismanagement, Ahmadinejad has hit back with (I’m paraphrasing here): “It does not take a mere four years to be in such economic mess. Did it all just start with my government? Was there no unemployment before my government? Was there no inflation? Was I handed a spotless Garden of Eden created by you (Mousavi) and your reformist colleagues, which has now turned into ruins?”
As for some of the foreign policy ‘victories’ claimed by Ahmadinejad, the ‘reformists’ point to Iran’s pariah status in some diplomatic circles, to Ahmadinejad’s unnecessarily inflammatory rhetoric regarding the Jewish Holocaust, as well as to his adventurous overtures to leftist Latin American leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba. (Funny how readily Ahmadinejad buddies up to and has official dinners with leftist leaders abroad, yet the leftists who are unfortunate enough to be living inside Iran, should they dare speak up for anything, invariably end up in jail!)
Reformists, like good politicians and clerics anywhere, adept at sophism (safsateh), know a thing or two about electioneering rhetoric, and they definitely know a thing or two about sinister moves. So, they confidently object to Ahmadinejad’s ‘wild behavior’ and question why, instead of venturing across the globe to Latin America in search of glory, could not Ahmadinejad have been repairing/building more pragmatic regional connections and cooperation? And instead of over-vehemently beating his chest in defense of the dignity of the people of Gaza, the ‘reformists’ counter that he should have been paying more attention to the country’s economy and the sullied dignity of the Iranian people subjected to a direction-less Ahmadinejad government that only knows how to blow hot air, and not how to attend to people’s real needs.
It must be admitted, having watched the debate between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, this particular presidential debate was way more interesting to watch than the American ones I have suffered through, all filled with quasi-elaborations over sweet nothings and lock-jawed stabs clothed in self-righteous slick remarks.
It is very interesting for sure to hear a sitting president openly accusing all the administrations prior to him, all 24 years of them, of corruption, and to claim that he has documents proving this charge, and to promise that, if reelected, he would bring all the wrongdoers to justice and return all the looted wealth back to the public treasury.
Such open accusations, effectively condemning the entire governing structure, surely cannot be tolerated for too long by any ruling elite. Ahmadinejad’s major problem is that, though he really is clearly telling the truth (not the bit about the ’150 people dominating everything’ part, but the general truth) about the deeply corrupt nature and reality of the Iranian state, he himself is part and product of that state.
Ahmadinejad’s electoral problems, though, have less to do with ‘the truth’ and more with practical reality: besides the ideological armed forces of the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards, his urban social base is not numerous enough, especially given that the structural deformities of the Iranian economy prevent any president working within the current capitalist setup in Iran to deliver much needed economic relief to the Iranian lower working classes, to the unemployed or under-employed, and to the abject poor.
As a result, those outside the ideological armed forces, who were previously persuaded by his promises of economic equality, are mostly disillusioned with his presidency and unlikely to give him much enthusiastic support. It may be this very fact that compels him to grasp at whatever straws are at hand, and promise retribution against those allegedly stopping his efforts to help the people. That, at least, seems to be his story and he is not letting go of it. This, in hopes of energizing people who are outraged by lack of economic relief, and in hopes of getting them fired up enough to vote him into office, once more. And, besides, who knows how clean the elections are anyway?
As spectacles go, I’d say this one has shaped up to be quite entertaining so far. The sad truth, though, is that a majority of people in Iran would not find it funny at all. For those who are planning on voting this time around, claiming that this is THE MOST IMPORTANT election EVER in Iran (something that was claimed on the occasion of previous elections), these elections and the ouster of Ahmadinejad, or his reelection, is dead serious. And for those who are disenfranchised in Iran, a majority, the farce presented as ‘elections’ is as deadly serious as severe heartache, blood and tears.