Received wisdom tells us in America that it is too hazardous to predict elections in Iran. Said wisdom, often from prominent think tanks and editorial writers, includes refrains denouncing Iran’s elections as badly flawed, mere “staged democracy,” and/or meaningless in terms of policy. (a tendency echoing Israeli foreign ministry talking points.)
I call it laziness mixed with institutional inertia and pre-set agendas. For those able to go beyond stale analysis and look closely, there are major signs suggesting Iran’s hotly contested Presidential race is leaning strongly in favor of Mir-Hussein Musavi. The tea leaves are decidedly green — Musavi’s campaign color. Musavi could win well over 50% on the first round, thus avoiding a run-off.
Here’s my top ten reasons for seeing green:
10. “It’s the foreign policy, stupid.” As I suggested here on May 23rd, current President Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy has been among the top symbolic issues in the contest. All three of his opponents have repeatedly pounded away at how his confrontational style has hurt Iran’s interests, how it has caused Iranian passports to be “worth less than a Somali’s.” Musavi even tied Iran’s economic troubles to foreign policy failings.
Moreover, Iranians by wide margins in recent polling actually prefer better relations with America — and Ahmadinejad has a credibility problem in saying he’s the best candidate to achieve it. By contrast, a common campaign poster for Musavi proclaims, “A New Greeting to the World.” The days of Marg Bar Amrika may be numbered.
9. Ahmadinejad’s return volleys at his primary accusers are back-firing. First, claims that it was “his” foreign policies that restored Iranian pride have infuriated leading system figures, like Hassan Rowhani, who (correctly) emphasize that Iran’s foreign policy decision-making, including on nuclear issues, is a multi-layered process. Condemning key strategies tried during the Khatami era in effect is a slap at Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Similarly, Ahmadinejad’s populist allegations of corruption of Musavi’s supporters, including “pillars of the revolution” such as former President Hashemi-Rafanjani and his family, produced shock waves in the system that may bite him back. Supreme Leader Khamenei, often presumed to be an Ahmadinejad backer, (a debatable assumption in my view) has strongly rebuked such mud-slinging, and has repeatedly reiterated his neutrality in the race.
Rafsanjani cried foul in a widely re-published poetic letter, accusing Ahmadinejad of “counter-revolutionary” behavior. Khamenei has not commented publicly, yet his silence may also speak volumes. He neither criticized the sensational charges, nor prevented their publication. On election eve, Khamenei received Rafsanjani for a 3 hour private visit. Of note, Rafsanjani also chairs Iran’s Assembly of Experts, which in theory, has supervisory powers over the Leader.
8. Ahmadinejad’s challengers have also made great sport lampooning his charts and graphs of Iran’s supposedly healthy economy. He’s been branded widely as “the liar,” a “delusional fanatic,” the “propagandist” who “squandered the nation’s wealth.” As Musavi put it quite bluntly,
“We are up against a person who says black is white and four times four equals five. He looks into the camera and lies with self-confidence…. There is nothing worse than when a government lies to its own people.” — So much for Iran being a “totalitarian” place that didn’t tolerate criticism of politicians.
While the less affluent rural areas may be swayed by memories of Ahmadinejad’s generous handouts and potato doles when oil revenues were high, inflation is again accelerating and unemployment rising — raising fears across social strata. Even his rural base may be eroding.
7. Women have also played an unprecedented and and even powerful role in this campaign, energized by Musavi’s wife, Zahrah Rahnavard, a politics professor, artist, and former University chancellor. (This will be news to Americans still Reading Lolita in Tehran, but yes Virginia, in the “real” Iran, women do vote, do think, and they’re quite politically aware)
Ahmadinejad’s brazen debate insinuations about Rahnavard’s Ph.D. were widely seen as condescending and insulting. More analogous to Hillary Rodham Clinton than Michelle Obama, Dr. Rahnavard shot back that, “Either [Ahmadinejad] cannot tolerate highly educated women or he’s discouraging women from playing an active role in society.” In Musavi’s wife, Iranian women and activists frustrated by recent set-backs again have hope. As Rahnavard recently put it, “Never have women had so much self-awareness. Women have always been just under the skin of history. Today, we assert ourselves.”
Iranians are also stunned to see the couple campaigning together and even holding hands as they move through crowds. As one amazed Iranian commented to the LA Times, “I’ve never seen a politician who holds his wife’s hand in public. And he holds it with love and respect, not with possessiveness.”
6. The unprecedented sharpness of the nationally televised debates among candidates, and substance packed campaign speeches have stirred tremendous excitement and energy, especially among younger voters. The Musavi camp regularly accused Ahmadinejad of behavior that fosters “dictatorship,” and has campaigned instead for a “civil rights charter” and guarantees for ethnic rights. Iranians nationwide realize that this time, there’s real choices to be made among candidates with sharp differences about real issues that matter profoundly to all Iranians.
Speaking of dictatorships or “sultanistic” behavior, a group of Iranian Interior Ministry employees risked their careers in signing a letter charging that an Ayatollah (presumed to be Mesbah-Yazdi — marja to A/N) had issued a fatwa condoning manipulation of the vote process, to protect the system. While this might seem to be evidence of vote rigging potential, I find it intriguing that the claims have not been denied — and instead we have intense calls for multiple forms of monitoring the integrity of the voting.
To be sure, the revolution knows how to bus in the masses for ceremonies, marches, and protests; Ahmadinejad has reportedly tapped into established networks to mobilize crowds. Yet Musavi’s team invoked cutting-edge technologies, from facebook to instant messaging, to twitter, to turn out massive support, draped hair to toe in shades of green.
When they couldn’t get permission to use a large Tehran stadium for one rally, they improvised, and in 24 hours, hundreds of thousands of Tehranis joined a 12 mile long human chain rally along Val-e Asr, Tehran’s central north to south street. As some observers have noticed, Musavi is the unlikely rock star, but he’s got the kids “screaming” anyway; some call it “their revolution.”
Musavi is also likely to reap benefits from huge campaign rallies held in major provincial cities. See these photo rich reports: from Urumiyeh to Mashad to Shiraz to Isfahan. In many of the rallies, former President Mohammad Khatami was the featured reformist star. (And for those still doubting Muavi’s reformist credentials, note that many of his campaign posters feature his mug next to Khatami’s)
4. The US President, Barrack Obama, has wisely avoided comment on the Iranian elections. Four years ago, when George Bush loudly condemned Iran’s electoral process, such comments were widely re-broadcast on Iranian television — and played directly into the hands of hardliners who rallied behind Ahmadinejad.
3. Ahmadinejad’s “helpers in the US Congress” who, at the bidding of AIPAC (the Israeli lobby), had tried to fast-track a punitive sanctions bill through Congress this week, thought better of the strategy. (Kudos to Trita Parsi and the National Iranian American Council for pointing out that such sanctions would again have redounded to Ahmadinejad’s favor)
2. Turn-out is likely to be very heavy — favoring Musavi. I do understand the reasons why many disillusioned reformists, pragmatists, and rank-and-file, sat out the last Presidential elections — and lived to regret that choice. I do take it as a promising development that Iran’s system no longer pressures citizens to vote — to “get their thumb stamped.” Even prominent dissident voices here in the west have been, for the most part, quite pronounced this time in encouraging their Iranian compatriots to vote.
1. Received wisdom about Iran is usually wrong. Having followed Iran matters for so long I’ve gotten used to being contrarian. Ok, some might call it professional “envy.” Still, when I read even esteemed analysts such as Karim Sadjadpour, currently of the Carnegie Endowment, telling us first that Ahmadinejad would likely win (simply because Iranian Presidents had previously always won a second term) and then yesterday telling us that even if Musavi wins, nothing will change (before comparing Musavi to John Kerry!) — then I know a contrarian call is even more likely to be… prescient.
Now, if we learn over the weekend that I’m flat wrong, then I’ll aim to find ten reasons explaining why I was not sufficiently impressed by the wisdom I just criticized. :-} (or why, as Karim, puts it, Iran is more like Florida)