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Arang Keshavarzian: Opposition candidates, media and bloggers restricted by Iranian government during presidential election

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Around 51 million eligible voters in Iran will be able to cast their ballot in Friday’s presidential election. There are six candidates to choose from. And under the election law, a presidential candidate must obtain more than 50 percent of the votes in the initial round to win outright. Otherwise, the two top candidates will face each other in a second round of voting on June 21.

Here to break down the details for us is Arang Keshavarzian. He is an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University. He is the author of Bazaar and State in Iran: The Politics of the Tehran Marketplace. He was previously on the editorial board of The Middle East Report. And he joins us now from New York.

Thanks for being with us.


DESVARIEUX: So my first question is really: can you break down who are the top candidates in this presidential election? And what are their platforms?

KESHAVARZIAN: Sure. At this moment, as you mentioned, there are six candidates. Most people would consider four of them to be the leading candidates.

On the kind of more hardline right we have three candidates that I’ll just mention in kind of random order. One is the mayor of Tehran, Ghalibaf, who has been mayor of Tehran for a number of years, has a degree [incompr.] social base. He’s kind of running on a good technocrat platform. But nonetheless, he comes out of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and comes out of the military security kind of background and is clearly–has made statements that aligns himself closely with supreme leader.

The other–there are two other conservative candidates. One is Velayati, a kind of a longstanding figure in the Islamic Republic, closely tied with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He also is very outwardly supportive of the supreme leader.

And the final conservative candidate is the current Iranian negotiator in the nuclear portfolio, Saeed Jalili. He is–out of these three conservatives, he is the one that’s probably most similar to Ahmadinejad, in that he represents a younger generation of Iranian elites. He is very closely aligned both with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard as well as the kind of volunteer paramilitary group known as the Basij. And he kind of represents a young, more confident, and more–a confrontational figure.

It’s unclear who exactly has the most support from the supreme leader. Some people think it’s Jalili. Others think it’s Velayati. But all three of these candidates are in a sense competing over the same segment of the electorate.

The fourth important candidate is someone named Rouhani. He’s the only cleric amongst the candidates running for president. He is closely aligned with the centrist camp within Iranian elites, most specifically with former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. He also–but it should be noted he’s, you know, a member of the national supreme council of security and has close relations with the supreme leader, so he’s not an outside opposition candidate. However, he’s someone that emphasizes diplomacy, has talked about creating greater space for women, university students, ethnic minorities, and so on and so forth. So he’s presented a more reformist or a more pluralist kind of understanding of Iranian society and politics.

And really it’s these four candidates that are going to be competing tomorrow in the first round of the election. And it seems likely that this election would be–go into a second round where no candidate is going to win 50 percent of the vote in this first round. And question is: which two will make it into that second round for elections next week?

DESVARIEUX: Also, there’s been a backlash from the West, specifically France and the U.S., who has criticized the Iranian government for banning and essentially barring a hundred candidates from participating in the election. What do you make of this?

KESHAVARZIAN: Well, I mean, that’s a very fair point. Not only have the U.S. and foreign governments criticized that, but many Iranians inside and outside have also been critical of the very restricted space both for people to run his candidates–the most prominent example is former president Hashemi Rafsanjani put his name as a candidate but was disqualified. And it’s become–seems clear that the Ministry of Interior was deeply involved in having him disqualified from the election.

But not only the candidates have had restrictions. The media, the press, bloggers, activists in recent weeks, but also leading up to the election for several months now, have been taken into questioning, have been put in prison, have felt a lot of pressure. So in no stretch of the imagination are these elections free or fair.

Nonetheless, there is a degree of space and opportunity for Iranians, for activists, for progressive forces to impact on who is going to be elected. And whoever does become president has an opportunity to change domestic politics in Iran–not so much foreign politics, but domestic politics and the space for potential activism, potential for journalists, women’s groups, human rights organizations, student groups, and so on and so forth. They will be impacted by who wins this election.

DESVARIEUX: How much real power does the president of Iran have when you compare that power to the supreme leader’s influence?

KESHAVARZIAN: I mean, the ultimate power really does rest with the supreme leader, and especially when it comes into the area of, say, foreign policy.

But the president, it’s an important office. The mere fact that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Iranians took to the streets in 2009 protesting the outcome is an indication of how seriously Iranians take their right to vote to select a president. And the fact that this election, these last few weeks of campaigning and debates that were televised in Iran were so vociferous and so combative also illustrates how much, how important it is to these different candidates and these campaigns for their candidates to ultimately win the presidency. So this all is indicative of how important that office is, even though, you know, the executive power is highly divided in Iran between the supreme leader and the president. But in the area of cultural policy, social policy, economic policy, the president does have power to set the agenda and either crack down on certain groups or create greater space for groups.

DESVARIEUX: Well, we’ll certainly be following the election results here on The Real News. Thanks for joining us, Arang.

KESHAVARZIAN: Thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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