Yet again the Iranian presidential elections have taken an unforeseen turn. After excluding all his critics and most obvious competitors from the race, Khamenei had thought that he could secure a peaceful campaign period concluding with his handpicked candidate on top. But contrary to his calculations his recent actions have opened up even deeper rifts in the ruling clique. His feeble attempt at forcing unity within the regime has resulted in his faction coming out as the weakest one in the race. At the same time the campaign of Hassan Rouhani has seen a sudden surge in popularity with hundreds of thousands of discontented youth at its mass meetings and rallies.
Less than a month ago the Guardian Council, which is seen as loyal to the interests of Khamenei, sparked off one of the most controversial presidential races in the history of the Islamic Republic. By excluding Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, it openly expelled the faction of the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from the ruling circle. But even more controversial was the exclusion of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the chief architects of the Islamic Republic and one of the closest allies of Ruhollah Khomeini.
The exclusion of Rafsanjani was a direct attack against one of the most powerful layers of the Iranian bourgeoisie. Through this manoeuvre Khamenei was attempting to force unity on a regime which has been deeply divided ever since the 2009 elections and the ensuing mass movement.
Amongst the eight candidates that were allowed to participate in the elections were mainly people who were more or less on the same line as Khamenei. The only two candidates with a Reformist background who were allowed to run were Mohammad Reza Aref and Hassan Rouhani. But even these were seen as unappealing and far to the right of the general Reformist line. Rouhani, for example, made a name for himself by appealing to the judiciary to intervene against the Green Movement of 2009. The rest of the candidates were composed of different shades of the Principlist faction who had been united against the Green Movement and the Ahmadinejad presidency.
Amongst these, Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, was the one clearly favoured by Khamenei. With his move Khamenei thought that he could secure a loyal President in Jalili that would follow the line of Khamenei without any objections.
Like cats in a sack
But Khamenei’s calculations have been proven wrong. Far from having secured calm and unity within the regime the crisis and splits have moved closer to the centre of the regime. In a television debate amongst all the candidates on June 7th Jalili was met with harsh criticism from Hassan Rouhani and Ali Akbar Velayati.
Velayati made a humiliating attack on Jalili for not being rational in relation to the nuclear negotiations and implied that he had invited the sanctions that are crippling the Iranian economy today:
"What people are seeing, Mr Jalili, is that you have not gone forward even one step, and the pressure of (international) sanctions still exists. The art of diplomacy is to preserve (our) nuclear rights, not to see sanctions increase," he said.
"When the other side is ready to take three steps and you want to take one step it is obvious that you do not want to make progress,"
And when Jalili tried to defend his performance Velayati responded by saying that:
“Well, Dr. Jalili, speaking of diplomacy, it’s not a philosophy class to say that our logic was strong, you have been in charge of the nuclear issue, we have not made a step forward, and the [sanctions] pressure has been exerted on the people.” (…)
“Being conservative does not mean being inflexible and stubborn." Diplomacy, he added, does not mean to just “give a sermon to other countries,” hold press conferences, and “sit at the [negotiating] table and say something without doing anything else.”
Obviously Jalili fought back attacking Velayati for misleading the public and fabricating news, but Velayati replied by exposing two instances where deals with France and Russia had fallen through although an agreement had been made to avoid further sanctions.
Velayati is not anyone to say these things. He is a very close advisor to Khamenei and his attacks against Jalili are in fact direct and public attacks against the line of Khamenei himself. He is in fact expressing the increasing nervousness of a layer at the core of the regime that is being hit by the sanctions and the economic crisis in the country.
In the same debate Hassan Rouhani also attacked Saeed Jalili saying that:
“All of our problems stem from this – that we didn’t make the utmost effort to prevent the [nuclear] dossier from going to the UN Security Council, It’s good to have [uranium enrichment] centrifuges running, providing people’s lives and sustenance are also spinning.”
It is clear that Jalili, and therefore Khamenei, have attracted the fury of the rest of the ruling class. Besides being criticized by all presidential candidates, Jalili was also criticized by other powerful forces.
Alef, the website controlled by the influential conservative Majles deputy Ahmad Tavakoli, criticized Jalili strongly. The website asked rhetorically, “While the secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council [Jalili] is campaigning, who is tending to the affairs of the Council? Is this post only ceremonial, such that it would not make a difference who its secretary-general is?”
“Mr. Jalili has appointed his deputy in the Council as his campaign manager, who could have at least taken care of some of the issues… Let us assume that he will not be elected. Will this not damage him and his team in the nuclear negotiations?” Alef referred to Jalili’s candidacy as a “lose-lose game.”
The above mentioned television show also showed other fault lines when Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf - Former commander of the Air Force and the current Mayor of Tehran – attacked Velayati asking him “If you are such an expert negotiator, how come you didn’t get a penny in Iraq war reparations?”
Qalibaf’s attack on Velayati is significant because these two along with Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, had made a coalition – called the 2+1 Coalition – agreeing that two of them would withdraw after the first polls, giving their support to the third one who would then incorporate the previous two in his cabinet. They claimed that they would form the most powerful government in decades, but this plan quickly disintegrated when none of the three seemed to be willing to give up their candidacy. Although Haddad-Adel later withdrew, Velayati and Qalibaf are still in the race.
No honour amongst thieves – Khamenei Isolated
As we have written before, the purging of other factions of the regime would only leave Khamenei isolated. The result, however, appeared sooner than we had anticipated. Seeing how Khamenei is putting his own men in key positions without regard to the other traditional factions of the regime, the same men who yesterday were supporting him fully against the Green Movement and Ahmadinejad have now turned against him.
The process is a display of the decaying Islamic regime that is not capable of understanding the reasons of its own decline. Khamenei thought that he could solve the crisis and the divisions within the regime by expelling the Reformists and Ahmadinejad from power. But the crisis of the regime has deeper roots and the deep splits within it are not due to personal or political characteristics.
As we wrote a few weeks ago:
“The country is experiencing a deep slump that has no end in sight. In fact everything points to a deepening of the economic crisis which would also further deepen the social and political crisis. The same centrifugal forces that caused the open split with Ahmadinejad will continue to work and new splits and crises are inherent in the situation. Khamenei is desperate to escape the crisis and create unity within the regime. This is a utopian dream. The Iranian bourgeois are particularly vicious and particularly stupid. They are conspirators themselves and they only see conspiracies. In the best bazaari tradition they do not see further than to the next deal or the immediate next step. They cannot understand the underlying processes in motion.
“The crisis in Iran is not caused by Ahmadinejad or any other individual for that matter. It is a reflection of the general world crisis of capitalism which is amplified by the backward nature of Iranian capitalism. The crisis will not disappear because its causes cannot be dealt with within the framework of this system.”
It is now very unlikely that Jalili could win the race without massive fraud which is equally unlikely. Not only has Jalili been isolated by all the other candidates, he has not been able to attract any real traction amongst the voters either.
At the same time the general disgust against the political circus of the regime initially meant that many people were not planning to vote at all. This would be a further exposure of the weakness of the regime and the position of Khamenei. The Supreme Leader was so pressed that on Wednesday he had to appeal to the people on live television to come and vote. In a historical message where the Supreme Leader for the first time in Iranian history admitted that an opposition to the regime existed, he said:
"My main advice is enthusiastic participation in the polls. There may be some who for some reason do not want to support the system, but they should support their country. Everyone must participate."
Splits at the Top Create Room for the Masses
Khamenei’s statement shows his utter desperation and the depth of the crisis of the regime. The fissures that are opening up in the slipstream are creating new room for the masses to enter the stage.
Until this week none of the candidates had any special attraction amongst the masses. Hassan Rouhani, who was seen as the most popular Reformist was trying hard to appeal to the youth. In a television show about his person he said: “Ignoring and neglecting a party of a group of society and the freedom-seekers and criticizers in society is not possible.”
At the same time he has struck a very critical tone against the regime’s foreign and domestic policies throughout his campaign. But despite all of this he still had not harvested significant support. This was probably because he had played a very dirty role during the Green Movement where he had condemned the youth on the streets and called on the judiciary to take measures against them. He even supported the imprisonment of the Reformist leaders Mousavi and Karroubi. During his campaign he defended these positions and attacked those who took matters to the streets.
But last Monday the tide began to turn. First the other Reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref withdrew from the race at what he said was the request of the Reformist veteran ex-president Mohammad Khatami.
Then following that both Khatami and Rafsanjani gave their public support to Rouhani. The same was the case with the Islamic Iran Participation Front, a major Reformist party which was banned following the Green Movement.
This had an electrifying effect on large layers of the youth that have a burning desire for change. Suddenly the campaign offices and meetings of Rouhani were filled up with hundreds of thousands of youth. (See videos belos)
One source of ours who participated in these events told us that, “Everything has changed over the past 24 hours. Before nobody wanted to vote, now everybody wants to vote for Rouhani. I went to his campaign office yesterday [Tuesday] evening and it was full of 20-21 year-old youth. They were very radical. Obviously they had illusions in Rouhani and the Reformists, but they were very radical in the sense that they wanted to get rid of the regime.”
Another source told The Guardian:
“The atmosphere just completely changed after Khatami and Hashemi put their support behind Rouhani. People are really excited. Wherever Rouhani speaks there's a frenzy. Today in Mashhad it was like four years ago with the appearance of Mousavi.”
In fact in Mashhad a Rouhani meeting attracted tens of thousands of youth. Not only did they fill the whole hall, but thousands were left outside. One of our sources told us:
“I was outside the building and there were so many people that I couldn’t even find my own friends. It was like a carnival, people were dancing and singing like a free carnival [the kind that you don’t find in Iran]. It was mostly youth, mainly Middle Class, but also some workers and poorer layers.
“Later that evening there were 30 Basijis on motorcycles that came to make sure that it didn’t develop into a street demonstration. A 70 year old man made a ‘V’ sign right in their faces and they didn’t do anything, everybody was laughing at them.”
What our source didn’t hear was the roaring sound of the thousands in the hall who were chanting “All political prisoners should be free”, to which Rouhani was replying “yes, yes everybody should be free”.
In Tehran the situation was similar and mass rallies took place all over the city with similar moods and slogans. This is just a glimpse of the situation that is prevalent beneath the surface of Iranian society.
The divisions that we see in the regime are taking place because of the economic crisis and the pressure of the discontented masses. Official inflation is 30 percent, although the real inflation rate is around 100 percent. Unemployment has skyrocketed and more than 40 percent of industry has shut down. The Middle Classes are bankrupt and the working class is desperate.
For the youth there is no tangible future in sight. This is paired with a suffocating lack of the most basic democratic freedoms.
These pressures are opening up the fissures in the Iranian ruling class – fissures which the masses in turn use to try to express themselves.
Rouhani is not a representative of the people. He represents the reactionary liberal bourgeoisie of Iran and he has as much blood on his hands as anyone else in the regime. The Iranian masses do not have anyone to represent them in these elections.
However, that is not the point. The pressing needs of life are pushing the masses into struggle through any means and through any path that they can find. For a large part of the youth, Rouhani’s campaign is a means to try to express themselves. They do not see the liberal reactionary positions of Rouhani or his slick populism. They see the campaign as a means to change their situation – as an excuse to gather, organise, discuss and ultimately to struggle. The masses sensing the deep divisions at the top are pushing ahead through these.
The Reformist leaders have probably tried to keep the mobilisations to a minimum of days so it doesn’t run out of control. But such a mood can acquire a life of its own and spiral out of control. Whether this will materialise is not clear. But the explosive growth of the campaign provides a glimpse of the pressures that have gathered under the surface and that are waiting to explode.