Friday, June 17, 2005

Providence Journal: Election in Iran is Lovely, Real (Beeman) | Providence, R.I. | Opinion: Contributors: "TO THOSE in Washington who doubt that today's presidential election in Iran is a real election: They should have seen the excitement during the campaign.

TO THOSE in Washington who doubt that today's presidential election in Iran is a real election: They should have seen the excitement during the campaign.

This week was kicked off by a an dramatic, unexpected win by the Iranian soccer team over Bahrain -- a feat that qualified the Iranians for a spot in the World Cup championship. The soccer match became inextricably linked with the presidential campaign when women defied the ban on their presence in the soccer stadium (a longstanding provision to prevent mixing of the sexes), forcing their way into the game with chants and political slogans.

These women are viewed as heroic by almost everyone.

And once the game was won, the women began removing their head scarves -- a definite move of protest. They were then amazed, again, when nothing happened to them.

As always, there are a variety of explanations: too many people, too dangerous a situation for the police, no one wanting the police beating up women on the eve of a national election. Still, the acts of these women -- intrepid by Iranian standards -- set a new standard for public behavior in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

After removing their head scarves, the women began mixing with their male friends in massive demonstrations of exuberance. The mixing of young men and women in the post-game festivities was notable, as well as the extensive dancing in the streets, where men and women danced together.

It was the women dancing in public with no head scarves and no restriction by the police or others that astonished the public -- even the Westernized folks who are now living a pretty unfettered life in Tehran, with all the accoutrements of the United States. Excerpts of the soccer game are being rebroadcast continually.

On June 12, another organized demonstration for women's rights, with both male and female participants, was held at the University of Tehran, further cementing the power of women's political opinion. The public is now asking whether this all means a thaw in personal-behavior restrictions -- or the calm before a storm that will make landfall after the election.

The campaign itself has been a festival of advertising media, making everyone conclude that some high-powered consultants were involved. Some of the campaign material is amazingly effective, pushing all the cultural buttons. The most wonderful posters are of Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who has been given the glam treatment. This 40ish guy, a former member of the Islamic Guard, now looks like a movie star: In most of the representations he has been given electric-blue eyes, a cultural turn-on in mostly brown-eyed Iran. As icing on the cake, he has turned his name into a stylish calligraphic logo.

Ex-Majlis (Parliament) Speaker Mehdi Karroubi uses images of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni with himself in the background, as a young cleric. Not to put too fine a point on it, the TV ads all circle his face in the background. He appears benign and avuncular. This is very interesting, since he showed himself to be quite a firebrand in the past.

The TV ads have surely attracted a number of folks who are religiously oriented. What was wonderful about one of them was that long, boring images of Karroubi campaigning were surrounded with a frame of beautiful calligraphic poetry and tasteful music. This provided an amazing double message for Iran, where everyone is a poet.

Former President Akbar Hashemi (Rafsanjani) is running on a platform that features rapprochement with "the world" (read "the United States"), empowerment of youth, and increased rights for women. He has phalanxes of young people handing out fliers all over Tehran, presumably capturing the youth vote.

He also has an astonishing female spokesperson, Soheila Jelodarzadeh, a former labor organizer. She is one of the greatest political speakers I have ever seen or heard. She is Rafsanjani's Karen Hughes.

The "reformist" candidate, Dr. (as he bills himself) Mostafa Mo'in, seems to have fewer resources, but he, too, has some arresting graphic posters. He was weakened by exclusion from the original presidential list by Iran's Guardian Council, then let back on it only after Iran's Spiritual Leader and Head of State Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i intervened.

The biggest push is actually just to get people to vote. A lot of folks in Tehran are refusing to do so, for various reasons. They sound like Americans non-voters when they say, "It won't matter"; "X is going to be elected, anyway"; "They're all the same"; "I don't know enough."

Of course, there are the protest non-voters, as well. It should also be pointed out that although most people think that Hashemi (Rafsanjani) will win, the election is by no means a foregone conclusion. There are many supporters of other candidates, who are optimistic that their candidate will win.

A puzzling series of bomb blasts -- killing at least 10 people and injuring dozens more on June 11 and 12 in the cities of Ahwaz and Tehran -- may also dampen participation in today's election, especially if such blasts continue. Although the Iranian government has blamed Arab irredentist groups, their apparent purpose is unclear.

The bets on the street are that the election will be a runoff between Hashemi and Qalibaf, with the further results difficult to predict.

In a race between Hashemi and Qalibaf, the conservative candidates who don't enter the runoff may throw their support to Qalibaf -- giving Iran a whole new political ballgame. However, the polls change daily. On June 12, Mo'in was said to be in second place after Hashemi.

Whatever the outcome, the Iranian people are the winners in this campaign. They have shown that they know what an election is, and they are shaping their nation's future.

William O. Beeman, an occasional contributor, is a professor of anthropology and the director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. His forthcoming book is "The Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.

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