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."

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:

"They send dollars to Argentina and Chile to bring grapes here..."

"They closed our factories so that the factories of China could be opened..."

The list of calamities eventually brings Rouhani to what will be his biggest applause line of the night:

"There are those who don't want to change the past eight years. Gentlemen, you who have brought the country to its present state -- We no longer want you!"

The rally ended, sending the crowd into the fading light of the early evening. A long line of police officers stood waiting outside, the walls of the American embassy obscured by their presence.

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Shervin Malekzadeh

Saturday's gathering marked the beginning of the end of Iran's compressed campaign season and the start of what is likely to be its most critical stage. Lacking real political parties, Iran's electorate remains uncertain and unstable, prone to turning presidential elections into mass movements as public sentiment coalesces around a particular personality, typically in the final days of campaigning.

With the emergence of Rouhani as the consensus candidate on the reformist side, the wave of the electorate appears to be once again breaking against the current regime. There will be none of the impromptu street rallies of four years ago, civic celebrations that for a few nights in June of 2009 turned Tehran into what one observer described as "open air parties." The increased presence of security forces along the capital's broad boulevards and squares have ensured that campaigning will only take place where sanctioned. Still, the enthusiasm of those who attended Rouhani's rally bodes well for his prospects in the first round of voting.

The same cannot be said for his opponents. Vaclav Havel, writing in a different context, long ago noted that the logic of ideological "systems" such as Iran's ensnares elites more completely than the ordinary citizen. Whereas the young folks who came to Shahid Shiroodi did so by their own choice, the Islamic Republic needs the participation of these kids for its own validation, both domestic and international (it is not by accident that there are 1,400 credentialed journalists in Iran). Turnout means legitimacy.

The problem, from the perspective of Iran's political conservatives, is that turnout also means potentially losing at the ballot box. Farideh Farhi and others have demonstrated that increased turnout, in the range of 70 to 80 percent, has historically led to a reformist victory, due to the participation of new voters who are normally either hostile or apathetic to the regime. At the very least, large turnout makes state manipulation of poll results more difficult.

Still, one wonders why, against the memory of failure in 2009, partisans of the reform movement would be willing to mount another run at the presidency. It may be the case that participation in presidential politics has become for many young Iranians a rite of passage, a chance to succeed where others could not. If nothing else, elections provide a regular, if infrequent, opportunity for catharsis.

It is not lost on Rouhani's supporters (nor on Rouhani himself) that some 34 years after the revolution and the consolidation of clerical authority in Iran, voters are turning to the sole cleric on the ballot for change. That Rouhani, a regime stalwart, the close companion of Khomeini, and the former head of Iran's National Security Council today embodies the leading edge of reform speaks to the peculiarities of Iran's democracy. The righteousness of the revolution is at stake, as it always is, during these elections. Iran seeks not only to stand against the United States, but to prove that its version of democracy, Islamic democracy, is the true version. Whether or not this impulse is sincere, the aspiration leaves the regime exposed to reinterpretations of what it means to be righteous, democratic, and Islamic. The creation of new narratives like Rouhani's occurs because of pressure from the Iranian public. The hustle for votes means finding and accepting new ideas into the old folds of ideology. Outside of another revolution, which is unlikely to occur, this is a considerable accomplishment.