Yes, Iran Has Reform Candidates and Engaged Citizens

Signs of promise in the Islamic Republic, ahead of Friday's elections.
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Shervin Malekzadeh

Iranians return to the polls this Friday to elect a new president, and this year's voter turnout drive by state media has been noticeably more urgent than in years past. Days begin and end with reminders on TV and radio that voting is a national duty, that with each election the people of Iran strike a blow against the doshman, the enemy, by again showing the Americans that Iranians remain committed to their revolution and to the Islamic Republic. In a campaign season marked by the expressed disinclination of many Iranians to care about -- much less vote for -- the next president, the regime has become understandably anxious that citizens, especially the youth, will not participate.

But a rally held Saturday by reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani at Shahid Shiroodi, a sprawling sports complex, suggests that a shift in the electorate's mood is underway, or at least a moderate-sized swell, and the youth are becoming more energized.

Flanked by banners of wrestling heroes and triumphs past and present, they quickly filled the arena to capacity with some 5,000 people standing cheek to jowl in the sweltering gymnasium, with many more waiting outside. Many of the attendees arrived festooned in purple, the official color of the Rouhani campaign: Purple signs and polo shirts, purple ribbons wrapped around wrists and fingers; in the women's section one lady stood wrapped in a purple hijab.

The master of ceremonies, a former television talk show host wearing stylish spectacles, alternated between warming the crowd and issuing admonitions of calm, his eye on state security forces already assembled outside. "Don't give anyone an excuse or an opportunity to accuse us of being against politics," in other words, of being against the Islamic system and revolution.

Exhortations to follow instructions from the stage fell on deaf ears as the crowd repeatedly and continuously broke out into song and chants. Too young to have voted in the last elections, these kids were set on making the day their own.

On stage, young men and women dressed in the traditional garb of Iran's various ethnicities, Kurd, Baluch, Arab, and Turk, held the flag of the Islamic Republic. A break in the cheering allowed for the singing of the national anthem and a sung prayer, a rozeh.

A funky beat got the crowd moving. Rouhani came onstage to Ay Iran, a pre-revolutionary song and anthem adored by Iranians everywhere.

At this point the crowd broke into what can only be described as controlled chaos. There was a permanent jostle, a compression of bodies pushing against each other on the stage, bodies pressing together in the stands and on the crowded arena floor. The floor managers frantically tried to calm the crowd down, gesturing, palms downward, sit down! sit down!, to no avail. Only Rouhani stood untouched, protected on the podium by a barrier of campaign volunteers, their arms locked tightly together.

The MC tried again to restore calm: "We are about bringing order, nazm, the rule of law to Iran. Let's begin here, let's show everyone with our example that we are ourselves capable of order, of discipline."

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Someone presented Rouhani with an oversized golden key, his campaign's official symbol ("unlocking the economy, unlocking Iran's relationship with the international community"). It was an awkward, even goofy bit of political theater, but the crowd loved it. A great cheer went up and the assembled mass began chanting out a call for a coalition ahead of Friday's vote between the two reformists on the ballot, Mohammad Reza Aref and Rouhani:

"Aref eteram! Rouhani bad biad! Aref eteram! Rouhani bad biad!"

"Respect, Aref! Rouhani must be the one! Respect, Aref! Rouhani must come!"

Rouhani's campaign, working within official regime discourse, is proving to be one of the most subversive in recent memory. More important than picking winners and losers, the central thesis of elections in Iran is that each vote is "a shot to the eye of the enemy," proof that the Islamic system, with the support of the people, stands strong against the United States. Rouhani doesn't doesn't reject this narrative so much as turn it on its side: Iran must stand firm against the U.S., but it must do so in a way that serves the interests of the nation. Rouhani's platform is one of avoiding war and sanctions, not engaging in the politics of blind defiance and conflict:

"Instead of thanking the reformists for keeping war away, they insult us. Instead of thanking us for keeping the Security Council away, they condemn us..."

"They threw the country into sanctions and they're proud of it! Now there are 867,000 college graduates without work..."

"I will be friends with all of the world!"

Everything seems to be on the table now. Even the memory of the war with Iraq, long the pillar of regime legitimacy, is subject to reevaluation:

"I was present during the eight years of the Sacred Defense. I kiss the hands of [my political opponents] the principalists. However, we must no longer take advantage of the names of the martyrs and their families. Those days were a duty..."

Rouhani recited the crimes and catastrophes of the past eight years, making sure to conflate his various rivals in the principalist camp -- the term used to describe Iran's conservatives, those who adhere to the principles of the late Imam Khomeini -- with the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There was no distinction between the latter and the former, between "them" and "him." There is only they:

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Shervin Malekzadeh is a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College.

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