Iran’s Green Wave
On June 12, Iranians will go to the polls to elect a President. On the ground, this is one of the most contentious elections in the thirty-year history of the Islamic Republic. With glitzy campaign videos, a so-called green wave taking the over Tehran’s streets, nightly riots between the supporters of the two frontrunners, and brazen accusations of corruption and lies unfolding on the first-ever televised debates between candidates, election fervor has gripped Iran.
Iranian politics are often reduced to a fight between conservatives or reformists. When commentators want to add nuance, they color these two categories with adjectives such as pragmatic or hardline. By this taxonomy, Friday’s contest is between the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardline conservative best known in the West for his questioning of the Holocaust and bombastic foreign policy; Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a reformist who served as the Prime Minister of Iran between 1980-1989; Mohsen Rezaei, a pragmatic conservative who was the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guard for two decades; and Mehdi Karrubi, the sole cleric among the candidates, a former MP who is a pragmatic reformist. As with usual coverage of Iran, a vote for Ahmadinejad is a vote for tradition; a vote for Mousavi is for modernity (It seems Iranians can never escape this dichotomy, even in a campaign where everyone is sending SMS messages, and all of the candidate have their own Facebook pages. But I digress).
And yet. These four candidates were selected from among over four hundred by the Guardian Council, who vets candidates for their Islamic credentials (a euphemism for their loyalty to the system). All of the candidates are deeply embedded in the structures of the Islamic Republic, a system that ultimately vests its power in the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad’s three challengers each have a long history within the Islamic Republic. The inanity of awarding any of these men moral high ground was on display over the course of the presidential debates televised over the past week. As Mir Hossein Mousavi condemned the violations of human rights in prisons and the persecution of student activists, Ahmadinejad, smirking, reminded him that these practices had existed under his presidency as well. In response to Mousavi’s litany of criticisms against the policies of the past four years, Ahmadinejad responded with a crude attack on the academic credentials of Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, claiming she had not been qualified for her position as the President of one of Tehran’s largest universities. When Mehdi Karrubi questioned the transparency of Ahmadinejad’s government, Ahmadinejad volleyed accusations of money laundering against Karrubi. In addition to questioning his opponents, Ahmadinejad also questioned the wealth accumulated by other regime heavyweights, including former President and current Chairman of the Expediency Council Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Brazen and often derisive, I find Ahmadinejad infuriating; and yet there is something strangely satisfying about seeing the internecine politics of the Islamic Republic collapse upon itself. As many observers have noted this week, these debates have shined greater transparency onto the system then any counterrevolutionary movement has managed to do thusfar. Ahamdinejad’s accusations are unprecedented; indeed, many have been imprisoned for far less dissent. And yet on national television, in front of at least forty million Iranians, Ahmadinejad effectively called the entire history of the Islamic Republic into question.
There is another facet to this spectacle. As noted, Ahmadinejad’s three rivals each have a long history in the Islamic Republic dating back to its beginnings. Despite the progressive rhetoric Mousavi and Karrubi espouse in their campaigns today, they both played a part in devising the oppressive laws and bureaucracy of the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad, however, is in many ways the product of the system. He came of age in the early days of the revolution, first allegedly as a Basij in the Iran-Iraq war, and then as a technocrat who eventually became the governor of Ardabil and later the mayor of Tehran. There is a certain poetic justice in seeing Ahmadinejad turn the arbitrary and tyrannical politics of the Islamic Republic - where the unproven allegations of regime insiders can and have ruined the lives of many Iranians overnight - onto their creators. Watching Ahmadinejad insult Mousavi’s wife, I remembered a story my mother has told me of the early days of the Islamic Republic, of Revolutionary Guards stopping my father and asking him how he could let his wife appear in public with improper hijab. My mother still seethes when she recalls the humiliation of my father having to answer for her, a grown, educated woman. Nearly three decades later, Mousavi has had to face what so many ordinary Iranians have suffered through.
Yet dismissing these elections as insignificant is a luxury that only those of us with coveted dual-citizenships can afford. My own Canadian citizenship allows me the freedom to choose whether or not I want to work and live in Iran. More then that, it gives me the freedom to hold out and dream for a truly democratic Iran. For the vast majority of Iran’s seventy-five million people, there is no such freedom. Their hunger for it is evident to anyone who has driven by a foreign embassy in Tehran, where dozens of people begin lining up in the early hours of the morning daily for the chance at a visa or immigration. Many succeed, as evidenced by the alarming rate of Iran’s brain drain. But for those who don’t, the past four years has brought about a distinct deterioration in their daily lives. I have spent significant time in Ahmadinejad’s Iran, and even for those limited periods the stress on peoples lives is tangible. Aside from a very real crackdown on civil society and a regression from the social freedoms gained in the Khatami period, Iranians have also endured daily blackouts and gasoline rationing, both implemented without any real logic so as to inflict maximum inconvenience on people’s lives. My peers have seen a second cultural revolution with a systemic restructuring of Iran’s universities, as respected scholars have been ousted in favor of revolutionary zealots who are more concerned with headscarves then academics. And four years of asinine economic policies have triggered skyrocketing inflation, leaving many Iranian youth unable to transition to adulthood.
For those who have to live through these changes, and not just condemn them from afar, this is not an election of absolutes, where one can afford to stand on dreams of a free and democratic Iran. It is easy to stand on principle from Toronto, but we are not dealing with abstractions that can be sacrificed, but the dignity of human beings who deserve better. I don’t really believe that the exhilarating displays of political participation sweeping across Iran this week are motivated by Mir Hossein Mousavi, a wholly uninspiring politician who mumbles speeches off of notecards. The millions of Iranians in green who have poured into the streets yelling “Ahmadi Bye Bye” and “Liar Liar” are rejecting the past four years and sustaining hope that tomorrow can be better than today.
So it is with a heavy conscience that I join the green wave, and hope for a Mousavi victory this week. I yearn for the day that I can vote without the Guardian Council vetting candidates; for the day that I can vote for a President who is not subordinate to an unelected leader. Until then, I vote for Mousavi.