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The Clash Of Iran's Culture Warriors

Here's a scene you probably thought you’d never see: reviews of Hollywood blockbusters on Iranian state television by the country’s leading presidential candidate, Saeed Jalili, a serious, subdued ideologue who also happens to be the theocracy’s chief nuclear negotiator. Jalili offered his picks (Zero Dark Thirty, at least in terms of its timing) and pans (Argo) as part of the strange spectacle that was Iran’s second presidential debate, a four-hour-long round-robin among eight contenders that was broadcast live on state TV on Wednesday. The episode heralded the narrowing of the race and highlighted the challenge confronting an establishment that is desperately seeking a credible, uncontroverisal successor to its rabble-rousing current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The framework for the debate was revamped after several candidates openly ridiculed last week’s first session, which featured gambits such as multiple-choice questions and free-association responses to random photos. The second debate produced less contention around the logistics, and its focus on culture arguably offered a slightly more illuminating contrast among the candidates themselves. However, it also underscored that the fact that the problem with the debates is not the format of the face-off; rather, it is the quality of the candidates and the nature of the political system is what reduced each of these marathon sessions to— mostly— fatuousness.

In an incredibly compressed campaign season, the contenders have stayed mostly true to form. Conservatives are playing populist and religious themes, while the two moderates in the race are beginning to bid for Iran’s alienated, apathetic majority by denouncing government restrictions and calling for greater openness. Campaigning in the Islamic Republic is a tricky business, especially in this year’s unprecedented crowded field. It requires simultaneously distinguishing yourself from the pack while avoiding any hint of ideological impropriety or undue ambition— and of course, never forgetting that only vote really counts, that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

As the presumptive front-runner, Jalili has the most to prove and the most to lose in these discussions. Unlike all the other candidates, he has never run for office and his government experience has been mostly in the shadows, rather than a position of regular public engagement. His seemingly sanctified campaign would benefit from the perception of popular connection, if only to assuage public sensibilities if he is indeed proclaimed the winner after next Friday’s vote (or in a second round). It’s difficult to tell if he has yet accomplished this. Jalili has a solid base among Iran’s conservative minority, but his jargon-y vocabulary and business-like speaking style seems better suited to bureaucratic tedium than to electoral stumping. (Indeed, several Iran-watchers tweeted their newfound sympathy for Western nuclear negotiators after listening to Jalili’s perplexing soliloquies.)

Jalili’s performance was aided by the fact that his most prominent conservative opponent, Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, appeared somewhat out of his element on cultural matters— perhaps deliberately so, as compensation for past flashes of personality that reportedly displeased Khamenei's stern sensibilities. Still, Qalibaf has amassed a strong base of support as mayor of Tehran, which poses a quandary for the regime’s electoral engineering. After the unsettling experience of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was plucked from obscurity to serve as a compliant junior partner only to routinely and noisily exceed his brief, the name of the game this time around is obedience. Qalibaf’s strong polling (admittedly, in a system where public opinion surveys are by definition unreliable) makes him a force to be reckoned with, but that doesn’t necessarily help with Khamenei & Co.

The two moderate candidates came on strong on a set of issues where they have the comparative advantage of articulating positions that at are least within the ballpark of majority opinion. Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Reza Aref seemed to pull out all the stops in trying to appeal to Iran’s beleaguered moderates. They aggressively checked every reformist box. They praised Iran's football victory over Qatar and mourned the recent death of a dissident cleric. They advocated on behalf of women’s rights, Iran’s football victory, and its artistic achievements, and denounced censorship of film and publications, internet filtering, and the (infrequently enforced) ban on satellite dishes. There were some notes of caution; perhaps channeling candidate Bill Clinton’s assertions that he did not inhale, Aref asserted he does not have a satellite dish at home. Their fundamental argument— that the government should get out of the business of regulating culture— has considerable resonance among Iranians.

Of course, at this late date, neither Aref nor Rouhani would seem to stand much of a chance of winning. Their establishment backers are still bickering over whether and how to unite behind a single candidate, and their constituency is justifiably skeptical that even a massive turnout would dissuade Khamenei from simply consecrating his chosen minion. However, the tenacity of their campaigns in the face of likely official animus offers a reminder that the political movement once known as reform, later reborn as the Green opposition, is not wholly dormant or defeated within Iran.

The other four candidates seem already consigned to also-ran status, which means that the race is shaping up as a battle for primacy among the two leading conservative contenders, Jalili and Qalibaf, counterbalanced by the uncertain prospect that a burst of popular excitement around a unified reformist front could force either Rouhani or Aref into the mix. In either case, however, the regime is unlikely to relish a second-round of this contest. Given their relative charisma and constituencies, a head-to-head run-off between Qalibaf and Jalili would be an unfair fight. And there is simply no possibility that Khamenei will offer the reformers another two weeks to mobilize their partisans and potentially risk a repeat of the 2009 exuberance and subsequent unrest.

Jalili's repeated references to Hollywood were a bit comical, but they probably reflect an awkward attempt by a political neophyte to tap into a persuasive strand of Iranian national identity. Many Iranians harbor a reflexive resentment of their portrayal in American culture, beginning with the excruciating Sally Field clunker, Not Without My Daughter. Similarly, Jalili invoked Zero Dark Thirty, the film about Osama bin Laden's capture, to question why Tehran had failed to lionize its own battles with terrorism, highlighting the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists. Still, his fumbling efforts to articulate an appeal beyond basiji culture were eclipsed by another movie reference by a different candidate. Aref, a reformist technocrat who is not the most mellifluous speaker, had one of the debate's highlight moments when he praised the work of Asghar Farhadi, whose film A Separation was the first Iranian movie to win an Oscar.

To be fair, the discussion went well beyond Hollywood. The debate's focus was on cultural and social themes, and the candidates brought up a litany of issues including drug use, obesity, healthcare, corruption, the brain drain, and the interrelated marriage-and-jobs crisis that confronts young Iranians. In this sense, the candidates sought to bring the discussion back to the issue that really matters to most Iranians— the economy. Their persistent attempts at redirection underscore that even in an authoritarian system, where representative institutions are repressed and opportunities for democratic change are constrained, the imperative of public expectations remains impossible for governments to ignore.

Whoever inherits the mantle of the presidency in the upcoming weeks will face the herculean task of mitigating the decades of economic mismanagement and Ahmadinejad's particularly egregious policy missteps, while coping with the most far-reaching array of international economic sanctions in history. Unfortunately, it seems too much to hope that there will be a happy Hollywood ending to this story.