From A World to Win News Service

Iran Elections: A Glimpse of a Country in Turmoil

Revolution #011, August 14, 2005, posted at

The following article from A World to Win News Service was written before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the run-off elections in July.

20 June 2005. A World to Win News Service. The 17 June presidential elections in Iran ended in what the Islamic government announced as a near tie between Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and core regime figure now rebranded as a “moderate,” and ex-Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, close to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former leader of its paramilitary forces. A run-off between the two men is to be held 1 July.

Popular indignation at the intimidation, ballot-box stuffing and sheer lies about the results was so widespread that the regime resorted to a cosmetic measure, the recounting of the votes in a hundred ballot boxes supposedly selected at random in the capital and three other cities. Even Rafsanjani had to publicly admit that the elections were “tarnished” - which he said people should protest by voting for him in the next round.

The regime closed down two newspapers because they planned to publish a letter from Ayatollah Mehdi Karroubi, the candidate who came in third, saying, “There has been bizarre interference. Money has changed hands.” Karroubi accused the Council of Guardians of adding millions of votes to the accounts of “a certain candidate”Ahmadinejad. The leader of the religious nationalist forces, Ibrahim Yazdi, a supporter of Mostafa Moin, the favorite candidate of the reform faction of the Islamic Republic in this election, also accused the country’s ruling Council of Guardians of electoral fraud. The discrepancies were too obvious to hide. For example, in the middle of the counting the Council of Guardians announced that about 20 million had been tallied, while 15 minutes later the Ministry of Interior responsible for leading the voting process announced that 15 million or so votes had been added up.

The question of vote fraud had two aspects. In addition to the obvious questionability of the results, even bigger doubts surrounded the issue of how many people really voted at all. In some ways this is the most important question because the regime’s legitimacy and the legitimacy of whatever results they finally announce rest on that. In the weeks before the election people were told that their birth document would be stamped to show they voted and that their future employment, university admission, etc., would depend on it. Not content with indirect intimidation, the government mobilized the 300,000-member religious fundamentalist paramilitary force known as the Basij to coax people in the neighborhoods to cast a ballot.

The real issue in these elections was the regime’s future relations with the U.S. First, the regime’s inner circle wanted a massive voter turnout in order to impress the U.S. with their hold over the people and influence the Bush government to change its mind about working for “regime change” in Iran. It was widely said that Rafsanjani withheld announcing his candidacy until the last minute while waiting for the results of back-channel negotiations and wheeling and dealing with the imperialist powers. According to a leak by regime sources, a German diplomat delivered a last-minute letter on behalf of the U.S. to the Iranian leaders.

Second, the main competing programmes of the candidates were around how to mend relations with U.S. imperialism. Rafsanjani stressed his ability to establish relations with the U.S., saying that under him Iran and the U.S. could once again become as close as they were under the Shah. This represented all but open crawling, since the U.S.-backed monarch was overthrown in the 1979 revolution that brought the self- styled anti-imperialist Islamic Republic to power. Ahmadinejad put out a populist line, saying that he would not budge on opposition to the U.S. and would distribute wealth among the poor. Moin, identified with outgoing president Mohammad Khatami, warned against the conservatives’ attempts to wipe out the “republican” aspects of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Reformist leaders are now calling for rallying around Rafsanjani to block the “fascists” from taking power. It should be pointed out that Rafsanjani is one of Iran’s most widely hated figures among the common people, because of both his services to the regime and his use of office for personal enrichment on a scale that allowed him to become, according to some accounts, one of the planet’s richest men. Some observers have compared this situation to the last French elections, when President Jacques Chirac’s languishing political fortunes suddenly revived when France’s electoral left rallied around his candidacy to defeat the neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Mohsen Sazgara, the leader of the ruling class dissidents who in the past six months have forged a highly varied coalition around a project called “Referendum to Change the Constitution,” confirmed the widespread electoral fraud and called for recounting the votes under “international observers.” He was pointed in his criticism, accusing Khamenei, the Council of Guardians, a section of the Revolutionary Guards, and the Basij of usurping the elections. Sazgara himself was a founder of the Revolutionary Guards and is now a leading reactionary dissident. His coalition—said to be favored by the Bush administration—consists of a section of Islamic regime dissidents, the monarchists led by the son of the deposed Shah now being groomed for a future role in Iran by the U.S. State Department, and some opposition Iranian intellectuals in exile.

The Islamic Republic’s Interior Ministry claims that 62 percent of the eligible voters participated in the elections. Even if this were true, it would mean that almost 20 percent fewer people voted at all this time than voted for Khatami eight years ago. But few believe these figures.

Albohassan Bani Sadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran now in exile in France, says that his observers reported that participation in Tehran was a little over 20 percent. The Communist Party of Iran (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) says that its independent sources report that while there was massive arm-twisting to get people to vote, at most 40 percent did so. Voting stations were very, very empty in Kurdistan, Tabriz (the capital of Azerbaijan), Ahwaz (scene of a revolt by ethnic Arabs a month ago), Abadan, Isfahan, and the towns of northern Iran.

Scattered demonstrations against the elections were held in some parts of the country. Several days before the elections, the first protest by women the country has seen since 1979 took place in front of Tehran University. Its target was Iran’s constitution, which openly holds women to be second class citizens in all matters except voting. This gathering had been called by legal women’s centers, but the short officially permitted programme was followed by an unauthorized, militant demonstration some 5,000 women strong that was attacked by club-wielding police. (American actor Sean Penn was present, with press credentials from the San Francisco Chronicle.)

On election day, the candidates’ hired political operatives remained active until the polls closed (at the last minute, the regime extending the voting for four hours, until 11 p.m.). They found themselves involved in clashes with people disgusted with the whole process. For example, that evening in Isfahan, people got into a fight with Rafsanjani campaigners who were begging them to accept 10,000 tommans (10 euros) to put his stickers on their cars for three hours. The crowd got angry and tore up all the candidate’s posters. The campaigners had lost their official cars, too, because people flattened their tires. Rafsanjani had gone out of his way to recruit young and fashionable men and women as his activists. When confronted by indignant people, many of these youth confided that they were just doing what they were paid to do and that they personally didn’t intend to vote for anyone. Eyewitnesses report that helicopters landed in villages to give out money for votes. At the voting stations in the poor areas, Rafsanjani activists gave out packages of food and money.

Many of the votes the regime did get people to cast were based on the combination of sticks and carrots. But the regime’s attempt to bring the masses into the elections in massive numbers had a good side as well: there was much debate and discussion around the politics of this election. Iran is boiling. The turmoil around this election was one sign of that.