It may be a busy election cycle in Europe, with attention focused on upcoming parliamentary votes in France, Britain and Germany. But don't forget about Iran. On May 19, Iranians will go to the polls to elect their next president. Current President Hassan Rouhani is the front-runner, but his victory is far from guaranteed. Of course, there is a justified tendency to view any election in Iran with skepticism. In the Islamic republic's theocratic system, the presidency is just one pillar of executive power. The six presidential candidates were allowed on the ballot only after being vetted by the country's Guardian Council, a body of 12 powerful theologians and jurists. And it is Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who ultimately calls the shots. Nevertheless, the election campaign in Iran is exposing curious divisions. In televised debates, Rouhani has sparred with his more hard-line rivals, deeming them “extremists.”
As supporters of Iran’s president awaited his arrival to fire them up for his May 19 re-election bid, the thoughts of many were with two other men under house arrest for years. “Moussavi, Karroubi must be released!” the crowd of thousands thundered over and over, a reference to the country’s most prominent opposition leaders. Hands raised, they drowned out a warm-up speaker at the campaign event for the president, Hassan Rouhani. Many wore green wristbands, a political symbol that, not too long ago, could get someone arrested in Iran. Not these days — a concession in the modestly widened latitude permitted for political discourse when Iran gears up for elections. During the campaign, which lasts only a few weeks, politics are not only freer, but edgier.
The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has taken a combative tone in campaigning as conservative rivals pull out all the stops to prevent him from being re-elected. The favourite among reformists of the six candidates running for president on 19 May, Rouhani has crossed red lines in Iranian politics with attacks on the elite Revolutionary Guards and the characterisation of one of his main challengers as someone whose only talent was execution and imprisonment. The president had been put on the defensive during two televised debates in which conservative rivals Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the Tehran mayor, and hardliner Ebrahim Raisi attacked the country’s economic performance since he made the 2015 nuclear deal with the west, which lifted some sanctions. But Rouhani, a moderate, hit back with attacks on the hardliners as he sought to reach the estimated 40% of the 55 million Iranians who do not usually vote.
UANI IN THE NEWS
Bagher Namazi, an ailing 81-year old dual Iranian-American citizen, is languishing in one of Tehran’s most notorious prisons on bogus espionage charges. He’s already undergone triple-bypass heart surgery and shed 25 pounds during his year behind bars, according to his son, and his health is quickly deteriorating. In October, he received grim news: he faces ten years in prison, which amounts to a death sentence. His family is now pleading with the Trump administration to intervene. The injustice extends beyond Bagher: Along with his son, Siamak, who’s been held in isolation and also sentenced to a decade in prison, there are at least four U.S. citizens with dual nationality and two green card holders who are also being held as prisoners in Iran, as well as a former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who disappeared there a decade ago.
The Trump administration’s national intelligence director says the U.S. sees Iran working to maintain last year’s nuclear agreement. Tehran’s rationale is that by sticking to the deal, it gets relief from U.S. sanctions and preserves some nuclear capabilities. Dan Coats tells the Senate intelligence committee that the deal extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon. He cites the Obama administration’s estimates that the timeline has been delayed from a few months to about a year. Coats also says the deal has enhanced transparency of Iran’s nuclear activities. But, he says, the U.S. doesn’t know if Iran will eventually decide to try to build nuclear weapons.
Desperate to show off the rewards of his landmark deal to get sanctions lifted from Iran, President Hassan Rouhani has rolled out the red carpet for global investors before he faces the voters in an election next week. But so far the executives jetting into town have made more speeches than deals. "If at the end of the day, it is only words and no facts, there's a problem," Stephane Michel, French oil major Total's president for exploration and production in North Africa and the Middle East said at an EU-Iran oil and gas forum last month. "We are trying to make it work," he said on the sidelines of the forum hosted in Tehran's cavernous energy ministry, where speaker after speaker hailed the potential of Iran's vast oil and gas reserves. Total has been poised to be the first European energy major to put real money into Iran since sanctions were lifted: a $2 billion deal to help develop South Pars 11, part of the world's largest gas fields.
A judge presiding over a criminal case against a wealthy Turkish businessman said Thursday he’s not sure ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani can work for the defendant while his law firm represents Turkey in other matters. U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan asked prosecutors and a defense lawyer to submit additional information to the court before he decides if Reza Zarrab can keep his attorneys despite potential conflicts of interest. Zarrab, who has pleaded not guilty to violating sanctions against Iran, hired Giuliani and ex-Attorney General Michael Mukasey to work on a diplomatic solution to the case. Prosecutors say he processed hundreds of millions of dollars illegally for Iranian businesses or Iran’s government.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif congratulated Ismail Haniyeh on his election as the head of Hamas Political Bureau by sending a message. “I hope Haniyeh, with help of Almighty God and using the experiences of Resistance martyrs, foil the conspiracies of the enemy,” Zarif said in this message. “I hope you cope with the great responsibility under the special situation in Palestine and the whole region with help of Almighty God and using the experiences of Resistance martyrs and foil threats and the conspiracies of the Zionist enemy and its overt and covert allies who target the unity of the Islamic world sowing discord and sedition to destroy the Palestinian cause, and broke the resistance of the brave sons of the Islamic Ummah,” he added.
In an upmarket suburb of Senegal's seaside capital, a branch of Iran's Al-Mustafa University teaches Senegalese students Shi'ite Muslim theology, among other subjects. The branch director is Iranian and a portrait of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hangs on his office wall. The teaching includes Iranian culture and history, Islamic science and Iran's mother tongue, Farsi; students receive free food and financial help. The university is a Shi'ite outpost in a country where Sufism, a more relaxed, mystical and apolitical form of Sunni Islam, is the norm. Two miles away, the Islamic Preaching Association for Youth (APIJ) teaches the strand of Islam that predominates in Iran's great religious, political and military rival, Saudi Arabia. The APIJ funnels cash from donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai and Kuwait to mosques run by Salafists - conservative Sunni Muslims who are sworn enemies of Iran.
Any citizen or candidate who attempts to disrupt the upcoming elections will receive a “hard slap in the face,” warned Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in a recent speech reminiscent of one he gave in June 2009 amidst the widespread, peaceful protests against the vote count that year. “If we prepare to confront attempts to create insecurity and sedition, we could undoubtedly neutralize them,” said Khamenei on May 10, 2017—nine days ahead of the presidential and local council elections—while addressing cadets of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at the Imam Hossein University in Tehran. Iranian officials have consistently referred to the widespread, peaceful protests that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election as the “sedition.”
A teacher in a port city in northern Iran has been exiled for singing to his students. Aziz Ghasemzadeh has been ordered by the Gilan Education Department to move to Roudbar, 65 miles south of Anzali, for one year, an informed source told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). Ghasemzadeh, the spokesman for the local teachers’ union, has the right to appeal the decision. In early May 2017, the department decided to punish Ghasemzadeh after a video was posted on social media showing him singing a popular love ballad called, “Chera Rafti” (Why Did You Leave), by singer Homayoun Shajarian, in his art class. “The students had asked him to sing this very popular poetic song,” the source told CHRI. “There’s no regulation against singing, especially in an art class. But the Gilan Education Department’s Violations Committee ruled that the act of singing itself is against religious principles and not part of the class curriculum.”
Six candidates racing for the Iranian presidency are going to face off in the third and final round of nationally televised debates on Friday evening, only six days before the election. Known as one of the most-watched programs in the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting history, the debate today will revolve around the economic issues. During the past two debates, each of which lasted for more than three hours, the candidates discussed socio-cultural and political subjects. To be allotted equal minutes of speaking time each, the candidates are scheduled to explicate their plans to deal with the country’s major economic problems after taking the office. There are six candidates in the race for the highest executive post in Iran, including the incumbent president himself. They have been singled out by the Guardian Council from among more than 1,600 applicants seeking presidency.
Iran’s May 19 election is seen as a referendum on the policies of President Hassan Rouhani, the moderate cleric who accepted limits on his nation’s nuclear work in exchange for relief from international sanctions. In seeking re-election, Rouhani, 68, faces conservative challengers who complain that he’s failed to deliver on promises that the nuclear deal would bring prosperity. But he got a break when his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was ruled ineligible to join the race. At stake in the election is whether Iran will continue integrating with the rest of the world or backtrack toward isolation.
When Iranians go to the polls to choose a new president next Friday, all the names on the ballot paper will be male. In the nearly four-decade history of the Islamic Republic, no woman has been allowed to stand for the top office. But it's certainly not for want of trying. This year, 137 women put their names forward. Most famous by far is Azam Taleghani, a 72-year old former MP and daughter of a well-known ayatollah. She has registered to stand in most presidential elections since 1997, determined to challenge the archaic and ambiguous wording of the Iranian constitution which has traditionally been interpreted as meaning only men can become president. Ms Taleghani argues that the criteria can apply to both men and women and that, as an experienced politician, she is eminently qualified.
Ever since Iran’s 1979 revolution, clerics from the holy city of Qom — home to the biggest seminary in the Shia world — have been dispatched across the country to encourage people to vote. Nearly 40 years ago, these preachers, recognised by their turbans and flowing robes, were widely credited with helping to secure support for the new Islamic republic in a referendum. As campaigning intensifies before next week’s presidential poll, the conservative establishment is hoping they will be able to rally support around hardline candidates such as Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric and the custodian of Iran’s holiest shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran. But in a sign of how much has changed in recent years in Iran — which under centrist President Hassan Rouhani signed a nuclear deal with world powers — it is unclear how much power these clerics still wield.
OPINION & ANALYSIS
What will Iran’s May 19 presidential election mean for the Baha’i, the country’s largest non-Muslim religious group? Given that every candidate was handpicked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s Guardian Council, the answer is simple: Nothing good. The Islamic Republic considers the Baha’i faith heretical because it was founded after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, who is perceived in Islam as the final prophet. Since its founding 1979, the Iranian regime has taken this theological assertion to a violent extreme and used it to intensify persecution of Baha’i believers. Discrimination against this community, which numbers around 300,000, is codified into Iranian law. The group is banned from careers in the military and is often denied other employment since many companies don’t want to run afoul of the authorities. Baha’is cannot legally leave property to their heirs.
Senior Iranian officials have been heard making strong comments and threats against its neighbors in the region, specifically Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Although being alert is always advised vis-à-vis the Iranian regime, knowledge regarding the nature of the mullahs’ apparatus reassures us about this being an old Tehran tactics aimed at maintaining a straight face at hard times, desperately attempting to preserve the morale of their dwindling base, and a pitiful attempt to sway international attention from its domestic crises with a major presidential election just around the corner. Iran’s first such threat came against Saudi Arabia when Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan threatened the Kingdom soil. “If the Saudis do anything ignorant, we will leave no area untouched except Mecca and Medina,” Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan was quoted by Reuters citing Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency.
In any elections, including the ersatz ones held in Iran, the voter is expected to make his choice on the basis of the candidates’ personality, record and programme. Taking those three factors into account, how might Iranian voters judge the incumbent, Hojat al-Islam Hassan Rouhani who is seeking a second term? Let’s start with personality. With the talent of novelist, Rouhani has re-written his life story to suit the circumstances. In 1970s he was in England trying to learn English and study textile design. When the clouds of revolution appeared he donned a clerical garb and cast himself as a student of theology, spending a few weeks in the “holy” city of Qom. He also changed his family name from Fereidun, the name of the mythological king who is regarded as the father of Iranian nationalism, to Rouhani, an Arabic word which in Persian means both “clerical” and “spiritual”. Knowing that some Iranians like many others in the so-called “developing world” attach great importance to academic titles, especially when obtained from Western establishments, Rouhani shopped around for a “doctorate” in Europe.