The 2013 Iranian presidential campaign in Iran officially begins tomorrow. Naturally, with just over a month left until the June 14th polls, the election season has been ongoing in a heated manner in the Iranian media for months. One issue that has remained at the forefront of the campaign coverage since well before the discussions of potential candidates has been the election as a landmark of national strength and resistance. Not only did the Supreme Leader declare the need for a “political epic” in his Nowruz speech, which has meshed with calls for a high level of voter participation to show the world the vibrancy of Iranian democracy, but there has always been the specter of foreign infiltration in the form of fifth columns. Coverage has frequently brought to mind the upheaval that followed the election of 2009, when supporters of ostensibly regime-approved candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, took to the streets in what the conservative establishment in Iran has called the “2009 Sedition,” which it has attributed to Western intelligence agencies. Thus, there have been attempts to tie candidates and political movements to foreign agents and brand them security threats throughout the pre-campaign season.
A prime example has been rhetoric by certain hardline commentators linking the reformist camp and its likely candidates to the “seditionists,” and suggesting that they should not be allowed into the election process by the clerics of the Guardian Council, which vets every politician who seeks to enter the race for acceptability. For example, a piece by influential Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari last week called reformist former President Mohammad Khatami a hypocrite for suggesting that reformists be allowed to participate when “hundreds of documents” make it clear that they can’t come up with “even one example of an action they have taken which was not directly ordered by the American-Israeli-British triangle.” This prompted retaliation from the reformist daily Bahar, which slammed Shariatmadari for resorting to twisting comments made by Khatami three decades ago to indict him while forgetting that only a few years back, Shariatmadari was on the record as a fierce supporter of the Ahmadinejad government, of which he has now become a strong critic. Two articles in Bahar suggested that Shariatmadari was only resorting to attacking the reformists, which he had previously called a dead force, because he was proven unable to back up his own advocacy of Ahmadinejad in past elections. On Saturday, Shariatmadari retorted that aside from the current economic predicament, the unsavory aspects of the recent phase of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, such as ties to corrupt groups and individuals, are the very same blots that mark the record of the Khatami era.
As many Iranians, including most of the political class, have become more consistently more disenchanted with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad due to issues including the state of Iran’s economy and his clashes both with the Majlis and the Office of the Supreme Leader, a large segment of the press surrounding the election has focused on the candidate to emerge from the president’s camp. For years, there has been speculation that the controversial advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei would be Ahmadinejad’s successor, and thus we have seen an increase in the number and intensity of articles criticizing Mashaei – painted as the leader of a “Deviant Circle” in the hardline media. There has also been great criticism, both from conservatives and moderates, of the vociferous attempts by the president to position Mashaei prominently before the election and to issue subtle threats to his opponents who wish to see him barred from running.
For example, last Monday, writers both in Kayhan and Etemaad noted with astonishment that Ahmadinejad’s camp seems to believe they can prevent any rejection of Mashaei, and have not considered any second-choice candidates (the former used more subtle language, while the latter referred to the government’s embrace of the “Putin-Medvedev model” in selecting Mashaei as an ostensibly one-term stand-in for his mentor). In a separate article, Shariatmadari wrote that, for a president who supposed cared so much about economic justice, Ahmadinejad was wasting a great deal of public money on provincial trips and a New Year-related celebration that amounted to thinly veiled campaign stops on behalf of Mashaei. When the president warned unnamed enemies that he had documents implicating illegal actions on their part, he was criticized from right and left, with Shariatmadari saying that blackmail was unbefitting a president – whom he insinuated must have something to hide himself if he is not revealing the details of such crimes – and Kasra Nuri in Bahar writing that it appeared he was trying to “engineer the election,” rather than defend Iranians’ democratic rights as he was claiming.
In spite of the high tension in spots, there remains an overall lack of clarity in the elections, as candidate registrations do not officially begin until tomorrow. Since the beginning of the year, outlets such as the conservative Resalat have argued that the pre-electoral season has been dominated by empty slogans rather than true proposals to attack Iran’s serious problems. Outlets have also considered the great abundance of possible candidates – including over 20 well-known politicians who have said they are up for consideration. In a piece called “Candidacy Fever” in the reformist Etemaad, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh wrote that the Principlists – the dominant conservative faction in the Majlis – had badly managed their selection process. He argued that by promoting themselves as the triumvirate from which a consensus candidate would emerge, the “2+1” group of former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, former Majlis Speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf had miffed others in the front, who announced their candidacies in response, leading to the glut of Principlist candidates. The reformist and moderate camp also remains cloudy, as a lengthy interview and analysis piece in Etemaad suggested that the reformists may form a consensus around the candidacy of former Khatami advisor Eshaq Jahangiri, assuming that Khatami and Rafsanjani both stay out of the race. With the registration period beginning imminently, the picture is sure to become clearer in the next two weeks.
APPENDIX: Translated Summaries of Selected Opinion Pieces (Newest to Oldest)
After Hossein Shariatmadari’s scathing editorial against the reformists and former President Khatami from the day before, two pieces in the reformist daily Bahar hit back at the hardline editor’s accusations and defend the reform movement. Najafi, in his piece, notes the conspicuous lack of any of Shariatmadari’s past vocal praise for President Ahmadinejad in his article, suggesting that since he has no track record of his own to base his arguments on he instead resorted to cowardly attacks on the reformists. After citing speeches from Shariatmadari prior to his distancing himself from Ahmadinejad, including lines referring to the president as “a hard-working brother who has done everything he has in service of the people and of the revolution,” he writes, “But apparently the sunny weather of the Ahmadinejad government has these days must have turned too cloudy for Hossein Shariatmadari, who seems to still remember the words of Mr. Khatami about artists from his time in the Culture Ministry about 29 years ago. Yet he has forgotten his own words from seven years ago.” He mockingly urges Shariatmadari to stay true to his convictions and show he deserves his accolades as a great thinker and writer by finding a way to maintain his support for Ahmadinejad, and not stoop to hurling ludicrous insults at the reformists. Meanwhile, in the paper’s unsigned editorial, Kayhan is slammed for accusing the reformists of complicity in foreign plots and of “selling out the country.” Bahar argues that the true sale of the country has been corruption and mismanagement which has seen “the auctioning off of the nation’s wealth and material and intellectual capital. Are the sellers of the nation the reformists or those who have remained silent while this unprecedented assault on the nation’s resources has occurred?” The paper argues that the “dear brothers” at Kayhan are incomprehensibly bringing down the level of political debate in the nation to the point where they seriously expect readers to believe that foreign intelligence services are openly and publicly using Iranian politicians as their pawns. Finally, it wonders why Shariatmadari felt the need to direct so much vitriol at a movement he has frequently described as dead and useless: “Have you not been saying that the reformists are dead and that society pays no attention to them and does not welcome them?”
Hossein Shariatmadari writes that there is an unrealistic belief among those who were part of the “American-Israeli sedition” in 2009, whom he says cannot provide “even one example of an action they have taken which was not directly ordered by the American-Israeli-British triangle”, that their candidates – namely, a reformist candidate – will be approved. He extends this criticism to the “deviant circle” associated with Ahmadinejad advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, which he claims the reformists are working in concert with now. However, much of the article is devoted most specifically to slamming the reformists in general and former President Khatami in general, as the influential Kayhan editor claims that the “seditionists” have forfeited their right to participate in the election and that any attempt by Khatami – who has not yet announced a decision on his entry into the race – to say otherwise would be hypocrisy. He cites Khatami’s own words during his time as Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance when he said filmmakers who had made works deemed contrary to Islamic morals before the revolution should not be allowed to return to the mainstream by appearing in the Fajr film festival. He says Khatami must be asked, “How is it that Your Excellency doesn’t accept corrupt people and those with tainted pasts in cinematic society but you hope that individuals who have tied themselves to hundreds of crimes of corruption and treason can work in the most central posts with the greatest responsibility in the entire system, such as the presidency?!”
Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari writes in the hardline daily that the recent series of provincial visits by President Ahmadinejad are nothing but a thinly veiled campaign tour on behalf of his controversial advisor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, whom he refers to as the candidate of the “Deviant Circle.” Further, he claims that the president’s comments alluding to fighting back against “threats” by unnamed parties – possibly referring to those who would like to see Mashaei prevented from participating in the presidential election by the Guardian Council – are not only politically crude but are insensitive given that the president is spending so much time traveling on an apparent campaign at a time when the inflation is deeply affecting average Iranians. He also excoriated the president for his recent rally – ostensibly in honor of the Iranian New Year – in the national Azadi Stadium, saying it diverted tens of millions of dollars from the people all to serve as a clandestine campaign event on behalf of Mashaei. “Do the 50 billion tomans in costs to the Treasury and from the poor and downtrodden people for a campaign advertisement for Mr. Mashaei in Azadi Stadium count as an example of the President’s constant quest for justice?” In response to the president’s claims against his unnamed adversaries that he has secret files that could end their political careers, Shariatmadari retorts that if there are true crimes that the president has knowledge of, he must reveal them – his refusal to do so indicates either that he is lying or that any files he has also implicate himself in wrongdoing.
Kasra Nuri writes in the reformist-leaning Bahar that recent vocal warnings by President Ahmadinejad that nobody should “interfere” in the election process are self-serving threats rather than a true attempt to defend Iranian citizens from electoral manipulation, in that they are aimed at those who wish to marginalize Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. He argues that defending citizen’s rights to free elections under the constitution is a noble cause, but that the president’s past indicates that he may be championing the people only when it suits him and his entourage. “Perhaps in his eyes, according to the law, all citizens are equal, but certain of them are more of citizens than others, and the president is obliged to do anything to defend their rights, or to help them attain their goals!” Essentially, he says, Ahmadinejad is trying to pre-empt decisions on the suitability of Mashaei to be an approved presidential candidate, and thus he himself is trying to interfere and “engineer the election” on behalf of his close ally.
In the reformist-leaning Etemaad, Former MP Falahatpisheh writes that there is an astonishing number of politicians in the traditional conservative (Principlist) camp declaring themselves ready to enter the presidential election, which he attributes to poor party discipline as well as a perhaps dangerous confidence among the Principlists that there is no worthy competitor for the office, and that they will thus be able to determine the next president in what essentially amounts to an internal election. He also suggests that many who have announced their candidacy had no true intention to run for president, but found the announcement of the “2+1” Coalition of potential candidates – Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and Former Majlis Speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel – to be a detrimental act to crowd out other potential candidates without consulting the party base, and declared their own candidacies in subtle defiance. He also suggests that there has been a low standard of quality among many candidates in recent elections, and thus politicians are less likely to view themselves as unqualified for consideration. But in the end, he writes, most are not serious candidates, but people trying to gain attention. “They are announcing themselves as candidates out of a desire to carve themselves a place in a unity cabinet after the election, and all this complexity is due to the weaknesses that currently exist in the party system.”
Citing the goal of realizing the “political epic” called for by the Supreme Leader in his Nowruz address, Imani acknowledged that high participation in the June election will strengthen the nation and defy Iran’s enemies – but emphasized that this high participation cannot come at the expense of allowing internal enemies freedom to join the election. Specifically, he cites the “Seditious Current” – the supporters of the Green Movement in the 2009 election – and the “Deviant Circle” around Mashaei. He says they are selfish, corrupt groups who act against the Leader, and act against the principles of the Iranian political epic, and thus cannot be given legitimacy to have candidates in the election. He claims that these very groups who wish to have their candidates approved for the election this year in the name of increasing participation were the very same who acted against it last year: “The Sedition and Deviant groups are the very same ones who tried and failed to bring the 9th Majlis Elections to stagnation last year.”
Hajji-Heydari writes in the conservative daily Resalat that the campaign has begun without true substance. Instead of attacking the very serious issues facing Iran, he writes, candidates are putting forth empty slogans and campaigning on personality. “Political elites must hear the comments of the people, must understand their problems, must devise solutions to those problems in adequate detail, must put those proposals in front of the people in different manners, and finally, after attracting the support of the people in the election and based on the support of the people of their policies and plans, must use electoral victory as political capital to build policies over the next four years.”
Hesameddin Boroumand argues that the West sees the election as an opportunity to sow discord in Iran, but that it will fail. “With only three months left until the 1392 Election, it is appropriate to reflect how the enemies of the Islamic Republic have, since the beginning of the current year [March 2012], undertaken every effort to influence next year’s [June 2013] presidential election.” He also argues that attempts to get Iran to fear a military strike through repetition of the phrase “All options are on the table!” are “now clearly seen as having been only a bluff.” He writes that, now that the efforts to create political turmoil within Iran have failed, the enemy will wish to try a more direct route to sabotage the Iranian election and use it as a platform for unrest – but also the “conspiracy of the enemy” was “exposed” by Khamenei in remarks indicating the foreigners’ plans for infiltration, with the goal of replicating the sedition of 2009 which was cached in such slogans as “Free elections!” He cites recent reports by WINEP and RAND to suggest that Washington well knows its efforts to pressure Iran have been in vain, and that Iran stands to deliver a further blow to its efforts by remaining vigilant in the 2013 election and turning out in large numbers.