Iranian election campaign ignites as reformers see chance to thwart hardliners

The results of the election will be crucial not only for the people of Iran, but also for the wider international community

Street rallies are banned, as are loudspeakers. Iran’s first parliamentary election campaign since the nuclear deal with the West began as an understated affair.

But in the final days before voting on 26 February, the campaign has suddenly gathered pace. Posters, in vivid array, have appeared almost overnight on walls around Tehran. The number of campaign meetings has surged. Iran’s voters are acutely aware of the huge importance of what is about to take place.

The results of the election will be crucial not only for the 77 million people of Iran, but for the wider international community as well. A good showing by the liberals will bolster the government of President Hassan Rouhani, which signed last year’s historic nuclear agreement with world powers, and help its drive to bring the country in from the cold.

A victory for the hardliners, on the other hand, could mean a slide back into confrontation with world powers, the possibility of the nuclear agreement unravelling, and the return of the sanctions which for so long crippled Iran’s economy. 

Yasmine, 23, an art student at Tehran University, said: “Foreign investment is coming in and this is the ideal opportunity to have a modern parliament which can make the right decisions to take advantage.

“We have been through very difficult times and we, the young people, want a better future. We think these elections could be the start. As young Iranians we want to be able to enjoy our full rights, without being afraid.”  

The elections on 26 February are not only for Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, but also the Assembly of Experts, the body of clerics who from time to time elect the country’s Supreme Leader. Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is now 76 and apparently ailing, so that the Experts, themselves elected for eight years, are likely to choose Iran’s next ultimate holder of power.

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There are fears that the result has already been fixed: the country’s Guardian Council, which vets all candidates, has refused to allow thousands of reformists to run. Among them was Hassan Khomeini, who had been thought to be untouchable as the grandson of Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. The cleric, 43, who likes to send theological, political and social messages via Instagram, has just lost his appeal against disqualification.

But the reformists are not about to give up. They are not going to boycott the polls, as was initially proposed by a disillusioned few; such abstention by some in 2013 merely enabled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardline former president and bitter foe of liberalism, to consolidate his power. They have, instead, mobilised. 

Hundreds packed into a hall in central Tehran in one rally to show their support of a reformist coalition. The mood was one of defiance; the word “reform” in every chant, every cry, a demonstration of the insistent thirst for change. “Viva reform”, “You cannot kill reform”, “Reform will be the winner”, they roared out.

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Liberal movement leader Mohammad Reza Aref (AP)

The liberal movement’s leader for the parliamentary vote is Mohammad Reza Aref, a university professor who stepped down as a presidential candidate in 2013 to give Mr Rouhani a chance to win. Mohammad Khatami, the former president, a venerated figure among progressives, is their patron. 

Their choice for Supreme Leader is Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another of Iran’s original leaders after the fall of the Shah, and a key adviser to Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iran-Iraq war.

But it is allies of the reformists in unexpected quarters who may be their salvation. Ali Larijani, the veteran Speaker of the Majlis who leads a group of around 50 conservative MPs, is likely to swing his considerable political clout to back them. Among other conservatives a well-known former MP, Ali Motahari, has officially joined the reform list.

Mr Larijani has become increasingly concerned about the hardliners. He supported President Rouhani in his search for the nuclear accord and attempt to institute economic reforms, and was castigated in return by zealots. 

Three of the most prominent hard-line leaders – Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, head of the Seminary Teachers of Qom; Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Kermani, chief of the Combatant Clergy Association, and Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, of the Endurance Front – asked Mr Larijani to join them against the common liberal enemy. He was quick to decline their invitation.

The decision to bar Hassan Khomeini caused regrets among some in the religious centre of Qom. “He is known as a moderate person, handsome, charismatic, articulate and open minded,” said Fazel Meyboudi, a cleric. “He will come back strong for the next elections, he has eight more years to be popular.” 

The Guardian Council has maintained that Mr Khomeini’s disqualification was unconnected with politics, but that he was simply too inexperienced to become an Expert. “Let’s face it, he is just a kid,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, an analyst close to the clerical traditionalists. Most of the Council’s 88 members are more than 80.

Reformists believe that if only half those who voted for Mr Rouhani when he ran for the presidency back the alliance of liberals and conservatives, three of Iran’s most hard-line leaders will be thwarted in their own election attempts.

“Some politicians described as conservatives are not really conservatives in many issues so they can support reform,” Kazem Jalali, an experienced MP, pointed out. “The situation is complex.”

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A woman walks past electoral posters for the upcoming elections in Tehran (Getty)

It is not always easy to place politicians in the mosaic of Iranian politics and religion. Former MP Mr Motahari had been a critic of the establishment and the security apparatus. He has since taken up the case of Sattar Beheshti, a blogger who died in police custody, and has declared that civil rights must continue to advance.

“The first step was the 2013 presidential elections, and the next step would be the Parliamentary elections,” he has said. All this has burnished his new liberal credentials.

Yet Mr Motahari is also fiercely involved in another campaign – against women wearing leggings in public. Iran’s interior minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, was summoned to Parliament for failing to clamp down on the fashionable garment. MPs peered at photographs of women wearing leggings. Mr Fazli protested that this was not proof that hijab laws were being widely flouted – but he was censured just the same.

Women’s representation remains woefully low in Parliament; only 49 have served there since 1979. President Rouhani has talked of empowering women in politics but has done little to turn this into reality. A campaign was launched last autumn to raise the number of female MPs from the current nine to 30 per cent, but activists hold out little hope.

Young women as well as young men believe that, for now, the main problem they face is the lack of jobs. “The building block must be the economy which is in a terrible state,” said Mohammad, a 26 year old student of English at Tehran University. “International sanctions have been damaging on both psychological and economic levels. But our politicians have also really mismanaged the economy. Ahmadinejad was the one guilty, Rouhani is trying to sort out the mess.”

The students were also united in their fervent belief that the reformists will win   in the end. “OK, so they have unfairly dismissed many candidates,” said Navid, a philosophy student. “But the secret is people turning up to vote. If enough people do that, reform will win. We are talking to people, telling them they will really regret it if they let this opportunity slip away.”

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