The damnedest thing happened in Tehran on Monday.
A massive rally estimated by Farnaz Fassihi of the WSJ at tens of thousands sprang up all along Vali Asr Street, the capital’s longest thoroughfare, stretching 12 miles across the city.
The scene reminded Fassihi of the enormous crowds that came out to protest the shah in 1978! They chanted angry slogans and adapted old, banned, nationalist and communist anthems. They attacked Ahmadinejad as a dictator and a tyrant.
They were encouraged to do that by Mousavi himself: ‘Returning to the question why he calls Ahmadinejad a dictator, Moussavi said, “I say so because he does not abide by the laws, so why should we not call him a dictator?” ‘
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps declined to intervene, as it often has in the past in the face of student demonstrations.
Mazier Bahari of Newsweek suggests that the IRGC itself has largely decided to back Mr. Mousavi, whom many remember as a skilled leader when he was prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. The Revolutionary Guards’ special loyalty to him had earlier been one of Ahmadinejad’s prized assets, setting him apart from his toothless predecessor, reformer Mohammad Khatami (a smart, nice man whom Iranians called a ‘dagger without a haft.’) If Ahmadinejad has lost the IRGC, he has become ineffectual whether he wins the election or not. Bahari says that a secret Iranian government poll suggests that there will be a landslide for Mousavi on Friday. (NB: Iranian polling generally not reliable.)
The presidential election in Iran this coming Friday is stirring passions in that country on a scale not seen for some time. The campaigning has been seen several personal attacks, and the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has replied to severe criticism by starting such vigorous food fights that they are generating libel suits. Rumors fly about hardliner clerics issuing legal opinions or fatwas authorizing ballot stuffing in favor of rightwing candidates.
Just as the US presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2004 ranged the rural red states against the urban blue states, so Iran’s red rural districts are lining up behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whereas the blue districts with the big cities– Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz– are backing former prime minister Mir Hosain Mousavi.
For the past several nights, urban crowds rallying for their candidates in the evening have created an almost carnival atmosphere.
A very large crowd gathered at a stadium to cheer on Ahmadinejad on Monday, as well. Indeed, the street rally for Mousavi probably came in response to the event at the stadium, which Mousavi supporters charged was intended to conflict with a Mousavi campaign event.
Iran’s new generation of educated women, including teenagers (the voting age is now 18) appear to have swung behind Mousavi, and can be seen pamphleteering for him. As in 1978, when crowds grew on a monthly then weekly then daily basis, so these rallies last weekend blossomed into Monday’s behemoth.
It is not just crowds in the street. The intrepid Borzou Daragahi of the LAT revealed that key elements of the Islamic Republic’s elite have swung behind the pragmatic Mousavi. Most important, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and multi-billionaire head of the Expediency Council (which settles disputes between Iran’s parliament and its clerical ‘senate,’ the Guardianship Council). Rafsanjani has established a string of universities, which he threw open to campaigning by Mousavi, and has developed a sophisticated network of electronic communications, which he also put at Mousavi’s disposal. Presumably this is one reason Ahmadinejad attempted to block Facebook in Iran until after the election was over.
One desperate clerical supporter of Ahmadinejad, Misbah-Yazdi, is alleged to have given a legal opinion or fatwa authorizing ballot fraud if it is necessary to safeguard the Muslim community. Mousavi’s people vow they will be especially vigilant about voting fraud.
During the heated debate between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi last Wednesday, the president charged the Rafsanjani family with financial corruption. The family says it is replying with a libel lawsuit. During the same debate, Mousavi frankly accused Ahmadinejad to his face of making Iran a laughingstock with his quirky pronouncements on the world stage and his intransigence on the nuclear issue. Mousavi is particularly ticked off by Ahmadinejad’s monstrous tendency to downplay the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Ahmadinejad also claimed in the debate that Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a well-known “Islamic feminist,” had forged her academic credentials. That allegation brought threats of another libel suit from the outraged reformer, who Iranian journalists say wants to be Iran’s Michelle Obama. (She campaigns for her husband in public, which is unusual in Iran).
You knew that in private apartments behind the scenes the facade of a pious puritanical revolutionary society had long since been abandoned for other pursuits– rock music, the internet, and less salubrious activities (the coke party with which the film Syriana begins was not a figment of Bob Baer’s imagination). But this election, and the polarizing figure of Ahmadinejad, appears to be bringing the new private Iran into public for the first time.
Aljazeera English reports on the frustration of professional women at being marginalized in Iranian presidential politics.
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