Leaders of Iran

Monday, December 20, 2004

Shamkhani Presidential Candidate in 2001

Candidates Reflect Iran's Internal Struggles: "Candidates Reflect Iran's Internal Struggles
Even Conservative Rivals Echo President's Call for More Freedom; Only
Turnout Seems in Doubt

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 7, 2001; Page A25

TEHRAN, June 6 -- It started with the incumbent saying he really didn't want to serve another term. Television news programs refused to cover the front-runner. Negative campaign advertisements were banned, and candidates never mentioned opponents by name.

Just 20 days after Iran's presidential race started -- with President Mohammad Khatami breaking down in tears when he registered his candidacy and saying he'd rather do something else -- the campaign will officially end before the start of the workday Thursday morning. But however brief and sedate -- at least by Western electioneering standards -- the Iranian campaign has mirrored the struggles of a nation torn between the ideology of a 22-year-old Islamic revolution that has lost its luster and the aspirations of a new generation eager to see Iran join a 21st century world.

The outcome of Friday's election is not in doubt: Khatami is expected to easily defeat nine other candidates. One conservative Iranian newspaper described the contest as a battle between "one gladiator and nine soldiers." The only question is the role apathy could play in lowering the turnout of voters, especially those who gave Khatami a landslide victory four years ago but have become disenchanted by his failure to force more wide-ranging reforms during his first term.

Although this was a race without media blitzes or high-paid political consultants, the campaign and its candidates epitomized some of the extraordinary changes in Iranian cultural and political attitudes after four years of clashes between reformist and conservative forces.

Even conservative candidates have espoused greater freedoms. In comparisons that would have been considered sacrilegious four years ago, some suggested Iran should look to the U.S. Constitution as a model for guaranteeing individual rights.

"I was stunned by this phenomenon," said Hadi Semati, a political scientist and consultant to Khatami's campaign. "All the candidates are talking about freedom of expression. They think it will help them collect votes. It's political expediency, but that's good enough." Ali Shamkhani, who is both Khatami's opponent and his defense minister, said, "There is no contradiction between Khatami's point of view and mine -- there are only distinctions."

At the few campaign appearances Khatami has made -- none of them outside the capital, Tehran -- youthful supporters have greeted him with the kind of frenzied enthusiasm that would be accorded a pop star in the West. In return, Khatami has exhibited the personal touch that has endeared him to Iranians accustomed to aloof, inaccessible leaders.

At an open-air rally attended by about 30,000 people last week, numerous individuals charged the stage, shouting that they wanted to talk to Khatami. Each time, Khatami urged his nervous security guards to go easy. "Leave him! Leave him!" Khatami admonished on every occasion. "Get his name and address. Get his number. I want to speak with him!"

The conservative-controlled judiciary attempted to cancel the rally, the largest gathering of Khatami's campaign -- claiming it was illegal for candidates to use government property for electioneering. But Khatami's campaign insisted it paid a fair market price to rent the soccer stadium, and the rally was permitted.

During a youth rally at a sports hall last Saturday where Khatami made a surprise appearance, supporters threw roses to the president and released white doves with pictures of Khatami tied to their legs. Khatami responded by tirelessly tossing roses and rose petals back at the crowd. Beneath him, the stage was covered in a thick blanket of white chicken feathers symbolizing peace.

The impassioned chants of his supporters make Western slogans seem petty in comparison: "Freedom of thought -- always, always!" "Free the political prisoners!" "Khatami! You are the only hope for the youth!" Even so, the campaign has been far less energetic than the race four years ago that swept Khatami to an unexpectedly overwhelming victory with promises of major reforms and greater liberties. Now even Khatami has expressed disappointment and weariness after a term in which conservative forces shredded many of his reform efforts.

But responding to Western media reports characterizing the campaign as dull and nearly invisible, Khatami's campaign chief, Ali Shakorirad, said: "It's a cultural difference between Iran and other countries. At this point, if we increased the volume of propaganda, it would become anti-propaganda. As soon as people here think someone is craving power, they turn their back on him."

Some Khatami supporters have accused the government institutions that are under the control of the conservatives -- such as the Guardian Council, which sets the rules for electioneering, and the state-run television and radio -- of restricting campaign activities and coverage in hopes of lowering voter interest and turnout on election day.

State television has not covered any of Khatami's campaign events. On Tuesday, when Khatami gave his only news conference of the campaign, just his second in Iran since becoming president, television newscasts did not mention the two-hour event. Television networks have reported on the activities of Khatami's opponents in news programs.

State television has, however, given all candidates, including Khatami, up to 13 hours of free advertising time to express their views -- as long as they say nothing negative about their opponents. Some viewers have complained that the programs are aired late at night when few people are watching, but candidates have said that because of the short campaign season they were grateful for the airtime. Shamkhani, the defense minister who is running a distant fourth in recent polls of potential voters, said the television time has been critical to his campaign: "I didn't have much financial support . . . and those who claim to be reformists applied a news boycott on me."

Most of Khatami's competitors have concentrated their attacks on the president's economic programs, which have been unable to alleviate high inflation and unemployment. Assaults against his reform program have been left to conservative clerics addressing Friday prayer sessions in the country's mosques. But even their criticisms have been muted, compared with the admonitions four years ago suggesting that a vote for Khatami would be un-Islamic.

Several candidates' campaigns have been marred by scattered violence. The most serious incident was a fracas Tuesday that started in an auditorium in the western city of Islamabad-e Gharb, where candidate Ahmad Tavakoli, a former labor minister, was giving a speech. The fight spread to the streets, and police arrested about 50 people -- both supporters and opponents of Tavakoli -- in the two-hour melee, according to the Iranian news agency. Several of Khatami's campaign headquarters around the country have been vandalized, and a former adviser was attacked last week and prevented from making a speech on Khatami's behalf in the northern city of Amol.

As the campaign drew to a close, campaign workers fanned out across Tehran tonight to distribute fliers. Khatami is scheduled to make his final campaign appearance at 7 a.m. Thursday, just two hours before all electioneering must stop, at a breakfast where he will serve up an Iranian specialty -- stewed sheep brains.

Correspondent John Ward Anderson contributed to this report."

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