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Published on June 13th, 2013 | by Usman Butt
Image © Ansarymehr


Once Upon a Time in Iran

Yeki-Bood, Yeki-Nabood or “There was one, there wasn’t one” is how Old Iranian stories begin- the Persian equivalent of ‘once upon a time’. On Friday the 14th of June, Iranians will take to the polls to elect a new president. Iranian politics and society are not straightforward. This is a country which will perplex any visitor. See my five-part travelogue ‘Strange Times in Persia’ (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) to see why. Iranians have a choice of 8-candidates: Saeed Jalili, Muhammadbaqer Qalibaf, Ali Akbar Velayati, Gholam-Ali Haddadadei, Hassan Rouhani, Mohammed Reza-Aref, Mohammed Gharazi and Mohsen Rezai.

Three of the candidates Jalili, Qalibaf and Rezai have strong military connections- Rezai is perhaps the most controversial of these candidates from a Western perspective. He was commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Whilst a commander he was embroiled in an alleged plot to blow up a Jewish Centre in Argentina in 1994. Two years later an Argentine court issues a warrant for his arrest. Since Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, some Iranians have watched, with alarm, the rise of the Iranian military into Iranian politics. In 2009, the elections which were allegedly stolen by Ahmadinejad, it was claimed that his victory was a secret military coup against the state.

Gharazi is considered a dark horse in Iranian politics. Very little is known about him except that he use to be a member of the banned anti-Islamic Republic terror group The Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Rouhani is the only cleric standing in the election. As well as being a religious leader, Rouhani has a master degree in public law and a doctorate from the University of Glasgow Caledonian in Scotland. He is considered a centrist and a fierce anti-Ahmadinejad opponent. The group of 8 candidates come from a range of backgrounds some are arch-conservatives, dissenting conservatives, centralists, reformers and liberals. In the debates between the candidates everything from improving relations with the west, economic reform, corruption, sanctions, criticisms of the current president and indirect criticisms of the Supreme Leader have come up.

The presidential debates between the candidates are not as entertaining as the run up to the 2009 election was. During a debate between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, Ahmadinejad pulled out a secret file on Mousavi (All Iranian politicians keep files on one another). He kept waving the file around  and saying “shall I show them what is in here?” to Mousavi. There was speculation of what was in the folder. Information on Mousavi’s financial practices? Information or pictures of Mousavi’s wife? Before the revolution she was very liberal and open minded, according to Ahmadinejad. The file was never revealed and Ahmadinejad was humiliated in the debate.

The Iranian elections are important for the Middle East and all powers that have vested interest in the region. The future of the Syrian conflict depends on it. Ahmadinejad declared in 2011 that Bashar Al-Assad should respect the wishes of his people (and go), but his government continues to give support to the Assad regime. Iran pushes for national dialogue- it has, since 2011, tried to push Assad into a series of reforms including incorporating the opposition into the government. He has, to their dismay, not done it. Some in Tehran state that Assad has until 2014, when Syria has elections and after that he will no longer be legitimate. Others, however, wish to see him stay.

The Nuclear issue is another regional issue which concerns Washington policy-makers. Tehran views the west with the same fears and suspicion that the West has of Iran. There are 125,000 US troops stationed near Iran and Israel makes constant threats against them. According to a 2013 Gallup poll 63% of Iranians support the continuation of the Iranian nuclear programme despite sanctions.

Iranian society is going through a transformation. In the last 30 years, Iran has seen the fastest drop in birth rates in human history, according to Afshin Shahi of Foreign Policy magazine and the Washington Post. The Iranian woman has on average 1.2 children compared to 1986 when they had 3.9. The sudden drop in population is bad for Iran’s economic future. The next generation of Iranians will be unable to support the current young generation of Iranians when they get older. On top of this, the Iranian economy will be unable to compete with its powerful neighbours. Turkey has about the same population numbers as Iran but, at present, Turkey’s economy is twice the size of the Iranian economy. The average Turkish woman has 2.1 children and the standard of living of the average Turk is also rising. In the future, Turkey, with its superior number in population and bigger economy will be able to overwhelm Iran both politically and economically.

Although, as with everything with Iran, this is only half the story. The elections are a story in themselves. When Iranians vote, they are voting for their futures. Iran is undergoing a political transformation. The question is, what is this political transformation? How will the social changes in Iran affect the future of the Islamic republic? Whoever is elected president of Iran will have to confront all of these questions. Despite the public image in the West of the Iranian regime. The government is quite pragmatic. Iran is at the forefront of the sciences. “Islam is very compatible with the Modern Sciences” said Hassan Ashktorab of the Howard University Cancer Centre, “policies that may be classified as liberal (controversial) in the American political system seem to be common sense to Iranian Politicians”.

Iran is currently in the top four countries in the world for embryonic stem-cell research and Iran invests an estimated $2.8 Billion on stem cell research. Iran is in the top 10 of many other sciences from nanotechnology, fertility sciences to plastics and metals. It has far higher scientific output (journals, magazine) than Australia and a few other western countries. It is this ingenuity that Iranians possess that makes one believe that Iran is a powerful country here to stay. The elections are coming. Who will captain this powerful ship?

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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.

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