Reading the Tea Leaves from Tehran

Reading the Tea Leaves from Tehran

By David Ignatius - May 31, 2009

WASHINGTON -- As Iran heads toward its presidential election on June 12, there are signs that Iranian voters are embracing their own version of "Change we can believe in."

The fiery incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appears to be losing ground to a more pragmatic and experienced rival, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. China's Xinhua news agency reported May 27 that a recent poll showed Mousavi leading in 10 major Iranian cities, by a margin of 38 percent to 34 percent. Another poll, conducted by Iran's IRIB state television network, showed Mousavi ahead among Tehran voters, 47 percent to 43 percent.

An Iranian political expert who visited Washington several weeks ago flatly predicted a Mousavi victory and a new coalition government that would pull together the center-right and the center-left.

Hold the huzzahs for the moment, though: Iranian polls are highly unreliable, and the incumbent has enormous advantages in the closing days of the campaign. "Though Ahmadinejad has profoundly mismanaged the economy, he's still got to be the favorite," argues Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I don't trust any of the polls," he warns, noting that they failed to predict Ahmadinejad's victory in 2005.

And here's another caution: All of the candidates for president, including Mousavi, support Iran's right to develop nuclear technology. That's not an ideological issue in the coming election but a shared point of national pride. And Iran's negotiating positions on the nuclear issue will be shaped more by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, than by the elected president.

Still, the very fact that Mousavi is mounting a strong challenge illustrates the political ferment in Iran. Westerners often imagine that country as an Islamic boot camp with everyone marching in lock step, but there's a surprisingly open debate in the Iranian media. Mousavi's supporters have loudly criticized Ahmadinejad for Iran's rising unemployment and inflation, and for its growing international isolation.

Mousavi argued in a speech a week ago in Isfahan that Ahmadinejad's fulminations are "disgracing" Iran. "The president ... jeopardized the stature of the Iranian nation with thoughtless policies," Mousavi said, referring to his rival's anti-Israel diatribe at the United Nations conference on racism in Geneva in April. All Iranians share in the country's prestige, he explained, and Ahmadinejad's administration "undermines that prestige," according to Xinhua.

Ahmadinejad's supporters seem to be getting nervous. They burned Mousavi election banners at a rally last Wednesday in Isfahan, and used tear gas to break up a Mousavi rally in the city of Malard two weeks ago, according to Iranian news reports. These are isolated incidents, but they demonstrate Ahmadinejad's ability to use intimidating tactics as election day nears.

Mousavi's reform message is bolstered by his revolutionary credentials. He was prime minister from 1981 to 1989, during the years of the Iraq-Iran war, and is remembered for his competent management of the Iranian economy in those difficult times. That pedigree allows Mousavi to bridge the conservative-liberal divide in Iran, and pull support toward the center.

"His candidacy is being presented as a return to the 'good old days,'" notes the weekly summary of Iranian news prepared by the "Persia House" analytical group at the consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton. As a practicing architect, Mousavi represents the educated urban elite, but he also draws support from voters who remember him as part of the Islamic Republic's founding generation.

Backing Mousavi is the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, who withdrew from the race earlier this year. Two other candidates will also be on the ballot June 12: Mohsen Rezai, a former head of the Revolutionary Guard, and Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of the Iranian parliament. Mousavi and Ahmadinejad are expected to lead in the first round and face each other in a runoff later in June.

Maybe the real point is that Iran is having a contested election at all. This isn't a nation of fanatics with suicide belts strapped to their waists. It's a real country, with proud, well-educated people who take their democracy seriously, even with the constraints imposed by Iran's theocracy. Like people throughout the Middle East, Iranians have been astonished by the rise of Barack Obama and the new opportunities he embodies.

We'll find out in two weeks whether Mousavi's reform message will be strong enough to overcome Ahmadinejad's powers of incumbency. But the very fact of an Iranian election going down to the wire is a sign that change is in the air.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius

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