Iran’s Technicolor Elections
By Robin Wright
Photograph by Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency / Getty
Tehran was awash with color this week as the election season began. It’s an enviably short campaign—the vote is tomorrow—and will determine the makeup of both the two-hundred-and-ninety-seat Majlis, or parliament, and, more important, the eighty-eight-member Assembly of Experts, which is like the College of Cardinals in that its members choose the country’s Supreme Leader. Since voters had only eight days to decide from among more than six thousand candidates, three new coalitions vying for parliament in Tehran chose theme colors for their candidates’ posters, rallies, banners, balloons, scarves, and T-shirts to help identify their nominees. Turquoise signifies the Universal Coalition of Reformists, whose slate is dubbed the List of Hope. Bright yellow is the color of hard-liners in the Grand Coalition of Principlists, so-named for their rigid interpretation of revolutionary doctrine. Indigo indicates an array of middle-of-the-road conservatives allied in the Voice of the Nation. Posters affixed to public spaces are legally limited to six-inches-by-eight, so walls and fences are often covered with rows of candidates’ faces on turquoise backgrounds, only to be plastered over a few hours later with dozens of small yellow placards. Independents pick their own poster hues, adding the odd accent to the standard election rainbow. Pity the color-blind voter.
A regime crackdown preceded the election—including detentions and harassments—but, as in the past, Iranians are allowed to vent more than usual during the noisy week of actual campaigning. And they do.
At a List of Hope rally this week, supporters held up pictures of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest (and banned from public mention) for five years. He was a Presidential candidate and leader of the Green Movement protests, in 2009, over alleged election fraud. At the rally this week, large handwritten signs declared, “Our message is clear. The house arrest must end.”
The architect of the List of Hope is former President Mohammad Khatami, the charismatic father of Iran’s reform movement, who is also banned from being quoted or pictured in the media, because of his association with the 2009 protests, which dragged on sporadically for six months. At rallies, supporters have carried large posters showing only Khatami’s hands, clasped—with a simple line of Persian poetry about inspiring a thousand lights. No face. No name. Everyone knows. The coalition is led by Mohammad Reza Aref, a former Presidential candidate who stepped aside to boost the prospects of Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013.
The hard-line coalition is led by Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, a tough critic of the Iran nuclear deal, which went into effect last month, and of contact with the United States. The parliamentary election is a kind of referendum on both. Principlists fear their ideology, power, and perks will be diluted by foreign influence. “We are worried that foreign companies coming here, one after another, want to turn Iran into a bazaar of useless objects,” Haddad-Adel said, at a campaign rally this week. He is a former speaker of parliament and is well connected, through family ties, as is common among the revolutionary élite. His daughter is married to the son of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The third coalition, of moderate conservatives, reflects one of the quirks of Iran’s ephemeral and constantly evolving political spectrum. The Voice of the Nation is led by Ali Motahari, an outspoken member of parliament who has disparaged hard-liners for banishing the Green Movement leaders and limiting personal freedoms but has also criticized the reformist agenda. He told Iranian reporters that he mobilized his own coalition because “we felt there were shortcomings in both other groups.” Yet the List of Hope has also put Motahari on its slate of reformists and centrists vying for one of Tehran’s thirty parliamentary seats. A few other candidates are also on more than one slate.
Campaigning is heavy on social media. More than sixty per cent of Iranians get their campaign news off apps and Internet connections on cell phones—and only twenty per cent from official media, according to a poll out this week by Tabnak, an Iranian news site. Telegram, a messaging app developed in Europe, has been popular among candidates across the spectrum. Iran has fifty-nine million potential voters—and twenty million of them are Telegram users. The app is also one of the few Western social-media services not banned in Iran.
Last Monday, Khatami circumvented the gag order on public or media appearances by posting a five-minute video campaign message on Telegram. He urged Iranians to vote for “those who care for reforms, improvement, progress in the country as well as the removal of threats and limitations.” It was viewed by some three million Iranians in the first twenty-four hours. This week, two of Tehran’s most popular young actresses—Taraneh Alidoosti and Baran Kosari—used social media to endorse Khatami’s List of Hope. Kosari used the popular app Dubsmash to make a selfie video lip-syncing Khatami’s message; many other young Iranians have since followed suit.
The majority of Iranian voters were born after the 1979 Revolution, many of them long after. Public-opinion polls indicate hefty support among them for recent breakthroughs—the nuclear deal, the lifting of international economic sanctions, and Tehran’s new interaction with the outside world. They know that the election will decide the future direction of their revolution, now that the original revolutionaries are aging or ailing. The vote will specifically determine whether the new parliament will work with or oppose Rouhani’s reform agenda. And it is highly likely to determine whom the Assembly of Experts will cultivate from their own ranks for the next Supreme Leader, the ultimate authority on most everything in the Islamic Republic.
As the election results trickle in over the weekend, capitals across the Middle East and beyond, including Washington, will be looking for signs of where Iran will head next politically. The Western powers gamed the nuclear deal so that it would be completed before Iran’s election, partly to enhance constructive engagement and other possible openings after it is over. The poll is unlikely to produce huge domestic change anytime soon, even if turquoise politicians prevail over the yellow and the indigo. Hard-liners still hold enough sway in the military, intelligence, and security forces, as well as around the Supreme Leader, to thwart bold initiatives. And they’re clearly willing to act.
On Monday, Iran detained another Iranian-American. Baquer Namazi, a former UNICEF official, is the father of Siamak Namazi, who has been held in the notorious Evin Prison since October. “I must share the shocking and sad news that Baquer was arrested,” his wife, Effie Namazi, posted on Facebook. “Now both my innocent son Siamak and my Baquer are in prison for no reason. This is a nightmare I can’t describe.” Baquer is eighty and in poor health. Iran has not announced any formal charges against his son, who attended Tufts and Rutgers and has been a business consultant based in Dubai. (Other Americans, who were released in a prisoner swap last month, had been charged with plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic.)
During the campaigning, the government has frequently warned the United States not to try to influence the voting. On Monday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei declared, “The Americans had a plot for Iran and a plot for the region after the nuclear agreement, and they are still pursuing these plans, since they are well aware which country has stood strongly against their ominous goals,” On his English-language Twitter account, he added, “Iranians want neither a governmental, nor an anti-governmental #Majlis; but a brave, faithful Majlis aware of its duties & not bullied by US.”