June 21, 2005

Size matters - IRAN: In tense Tehran, ruling mullahs press for voter turnout, but opponents put their numbers in the street by Priya Abraham

Bombings in a country five days before national elections usually cause poll jitters. In Iran's case, they caused an explosion of conspiracy theories.

Blasts in the southwestern city of Ahvaz on June 12 killed at least six people and injured about 80. Another bomb exploded in Tehran the same day, followed by three small explosions in the southeastern city of Zahedan two days later. Such attacks are rare in Iran, where the last bombings were more than a decade ago.

The Iranian regime immediately blamed Iraq, then opposition groups, warning that voting for them would bring chaos. Opposition groups turned the suspicions right back: Mostafa Moin, a reformist and one of seven candidates allowed to contest the presidency, hinted that the ruling mullahs themselves were behind the blasts.

"I think the purpose of these acts and violent confrontations is to lead us into a situation where there is a low turnout or where people change their voting intentions," he told London's Guardian newspaper. "If they create tense circumstances, then people might think that if they vote for a military candidate, there will be peace and stability."

More likely, the blasts were the work of a marginalized ethnic or religious group. Arabs are a minority in the mostly Persian country, and some in Ahvaz harbor bitterness over government-confiscated land. But whoever the culprits are, the bombings did surprisingly little to jolt Iran's 48 million eligible voters. For many, the slim hope of loosening the mullahs' stranglehold is an opportunity not to be missed.

"I think when Ayatollah Khamenei and other authorities oppress the people and don't tolerate the democratic opposition, they prepare an atmosphere in society for violent actions," said Mohsen Sazegara, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "We have a saying in Persian: 'If you plant a wind, then you will cultivate a storm.'"

Mr. Sazegara knows all about stormy societies. He was a student leader in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and then a founder of the Revolutionary National Guard Corps, a national force formed to secure the regime. In 1989, he grew disillusioned with the hardline government and joined the reformists, eventually earning himself a year-long imprisonment in 2003.

Frustration with Iran's theocracy spawned an unprecedented show of people power in the week leading up to the June 17 vote. For days Iranians gathered outside Tehran's Evin Prison, protesting the abuse and jailing of political dissidents, bloggers, and journalists. Students demonstrated on university campuses. And in a first since the Iranian Revolution, hundreds of women young and old demanded that they be allowed to stand for presidential elections; currently they may only be candidates in parliamentary elections.

"The women's liberation movement in Iran is now very powerful," Mr. Sazegara said. "We have good, educated women who know what they are talking about."

Election results are virtually irrelevant—Iran's hardline Guardian Council approves presidential candidates, and its members can veto any policy put forth by a reformist president. That impotence plagued outgoing President Mohammed Khatami, and set off the Iranian movement for a referendum to change the country's constitution.

Now Iranians are swept up in demonstrations. "This is all they're talking about these days," explained Abe Ghaffari, president of Iranian Christians International, a Colorado-based ministry. "The Iranian people no longer support the government . . . there is a great sense of anticipation that people are going to show their will." For religious minorities such as Christians, too, the best exit from state persecution is a secular government—a principle opposition groups are united over.

Both hardliners and democrats say voter turnout size is key. The regime desperately hoped for a large one as validation. Democrats hoped for the opposite. "If the turnout is low then we understand we can accelerate the referendum movement and struggle for changing the constitution," Mr. Sazegara said. "But if it's half and half, then we think we should go a little slowly." In either case, Iran's air is crackling with a gathering democratic storm. —•



No-one has commented on this entry.