United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Latest on the Race: Foreign Policy Split

Garrett Nada

            Iran’s third and final presidential debate on June 7 was by far the most heated. In often fiery exchanges, all eight candidates lashed out at their rivals, raising their voices and charging opponents with failing the revolution. The debate exposed deep divisions on how Iran should deal with the international community, economic sanctions, Syria, and nuclear policy. The candidates include two reformists, four “principlist” hardliners, and two independents.
     The third debate was technically about foreign policy. But the two reformists kept bringing the discussion back to basic freedoms—or lack of them. “Freedom of speech is my first goal in domestic policy,” said Hassan Rouhani. Mohammad Reza Aref blamed the principlist camp for virtually all of Iran’s problems. He admonished the conservative candidates for standing by current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his early years in office. Both men also repeatedly endorsed the achievements of former Mohammad Khatami, a reformer who was president from 1997 to 2005.
            The United States came up often in the debate. Rouhani credited himself with preventing a possible U.S. attack after 9/11. He served as Supreme National Security Council secretary and chief nuclear negotiator from 1989 to 2005. He was particularly tough on current negotiator and candidate Saeed Jalili for failing to do a deal with the international community. Jalili countercharged that Rouhani’s weakness had forced Iran to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment in 2003.
      Even the principlists― Mohammad Gharazi, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, Saeed Jalili, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, Ali Akbar Velayati ― took shots at each other. Qalibaf (far left), a former Revolutionary Guards officer, highlighted his battlefield role during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. He accused Velayati, a former foreign minister, of sipping coffee with ex-French President Francois Mitterrand while Qalibaf was being shot at on the front.
            Jalili and Velayati, who are both widely considered close to the supreme leader, clashed over diplomatic strategy in one particularly unusual exchange. Jalili accused Velayati of being too conciliatory on Iran’s nuclear energy program. Velayati countered that Jalili had failed to get sanctions lifted or protect Iran’s rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. “Diplomacy is not a philosophy class,” charged Velayati.
            Mohsen Rezaei and Mohammad Gharazi, the two (comparatively) independent candidates, attacked both the reformists and principlists. Gharazi claimed that both groups have failed the Iranian public for three decades. Rezaei called for the end of partisan politics and said that he had worked with all factions when he had commanded the Revolutionary Guards from 1981 to 1997. He criticized the policies of both Jalili and Rouhani, the current and former secretaries of the Supreme National Security Council. At one point, Rezaei even said about Rouhani, “God help us if he wins with this temper.” Rezaei warned that nuclear talks need to bear fruit soon to prevent sanctions from further damaging Iran’s economy. The following are excerpts and points made by the candidates from the debate.
Hassan Rouhani (reformist)
      “We need to move away from extremism. We should maintain the country's interests and national security to provide conditions where we create opportunities.”
      “The nuclear issue will only be resolved through real negotiations, not just announcements. Iran’s foreign policy should be placed in the hands of skilled, experience people ― not people who do not know what they are talking about.”
            “A successful domestic policy means peace of mind, security, prosperity for people… Freedoms should be protected.”
            “It is very good for [nuclear] centrifuges to spin. But it’s also good for the lives of people to spin.”
• People need to feel like they can speak freely. Freedom of speech brings national power.
Mohammad Reza Aref (reformist)
      “The fundamentalist movement in the country is responsible for all irregularities present in Iran…. Part of the problem is that principlists sidelined reformists.”
      “Our leaders care about their own purview, making decisions without considering how it affects other sectors.”
“We were supposed to bring oil [revenues] to the dinner table, instead we took bread off dinner tables.”
• Qalibaf lacks managerial experience on a large scale.
• Conservatives have monopolized Iranian media. They have called former President Khatami a “spy.”
Saeed Jalili (principlist)
      “Our government’s security is based on people’s support ― not on the police.”
      “Protesting against the official election result is against the law.”
• The opposition Green Movement did a huge disservice to Iran.
• The United States called Iran part of the “axis of evil” after former President Khatami cooperated with it.
• Former President Rafsanjani’s policies were in accordance with the West. But nothing came of them.
• The Ahmadinejad administration’s foreign policy caused the United States to ask Iran for help.
• Choosing between right and wrong does not mean taking the middle path.
Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf (principlist)
      “A government that is not accepted by its own people cannot wield any authority when dealing with other countries.”
      “Our foreign policy was not as successful as we wanted.”
      “While you [Velayati] were having coffee with [former French President Francois] Mitterand, I was being shot at… Is that diplomacy?”
• The Islamic Awakening was inspired by Iran’s 1979 revolution.
• South America is not a geo-strategic priority for Iran.
• The West accepts free speech and human rights only when it suits their interests.
• E.U. bans on Iranian satellite channels expose double standards on freedom of expression and human rights.
• Iran has disrupted U.S. hegemony by negotiating with the world’s six major powers on the nuclear issue.
• The shutdown of Iranian embassies in Europe was a diplomatic failure.
• Rouhani did not allow student associations to get permits to protest while he was head of the Supreme National Security Council.
Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel (principlist)
      “Even if international pressure increases on Iran, people will not give in and we will defend the country like we have been for the past several thousand years.”
      “Iran needs to cultivate good relations with the international community through cultural diplomacy. Millions of Iranians live abroad and we must use them as cultural ambassadors. They can send a message of peace to the world.”
• Solving the nuclear dispute is the toughest challenge Iran faces. The West accuses Iran of wanting to have a bomb, but it does not.
• Lifting sanctions should be a foreign policy priority.
• U.S. tensions with Iran are not tied to the nuclear issue. They relate to Iran’s independence and date back to the Islamic revolution. U.S. enmity of Iran is more intense than in the past.
•  Iran should strengthen its economic infrastructure to counter U.S. sanctions
• Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stood against the Shah with no means to do so. Iran can learn a lesson from his resistance.
• Ahmadinejad is not the cause of all of Iran’s problems.
Ali Akbar Velayati (principlist)
      “What we did during the Iran-Iraq War in international diplomacy was much more difficult than nuclear negotiations.”
      “Training, professionalism and efficiency in foreign policy staff is what is important.”
• Diplomacy is not resistance. It is interaction and not about reading a statement.
• Reformists sidelined principlists when they were in charge as retribution.
•  Iranians see current nuclear negotiations as futile and are concerned about additional economic sanctions
Mohammad Gharazi (independent)
      “Both reformists and principlists have disappointed and frustrated people.”
      “China was able to stand up to the United States only after it fixed its own economy and increased productivity. Iran is not yet at that point.”
• Fix domestic problems before foreign relations.
• Sanctions are not very important, whether they are related to the nuclear program or not.
• Allow provinces to elect their own leaders
Mohsen Rezaei (independent)
      “The resistance strategy against the United States has been ineffective.”
      “We can only beat the United States at the sanctions game by reversing unemployment and strengthening our currency.”
      “Negotiations [over the nuclear issue] need to bear fruit. We should not hesitate because with every passing day sanctions are doing more damage [to Iran’s economy.]”
• Public servants should be placed in positions according to their skills and talents.
• Iran is stuck between two competing groups. One only chants “resistance” and the other claims sanctions have ruined the country.
• Iran’s only allies are from the 1980s (Syria and Hezbollah).
• Rouhani and Jalili’s foreign policies were both too extreme.
• Abolish discrimination against ethnic minorities.
• Establish strong relations with Islamic countries like Syria
Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

Latest on the Race: Debate on Culture, Women

Garrett Nada           

            Iran’s eight presidential candidates clashed on issues of culture, personal freedoms and women’s rights at the June 5 debate. Hassan Rouhani and Mohammed Reza Aref repeatedly criticized government censorship of the internet, press and academia. They argued that censorship had prevented Iranian artists from creating quality productions and led people to watch foreign television shows and movies. Rouhani and Aref opposed the confiscation of satellites dishes and interference in people’s private lives. Even two conservative candidates ―Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf (below in black) and Ali Akbar Velayati― challenged government filtering.

      But Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel and Saeed Jalili defended state social controls. Jalili claimed that movies like “Argo” and “Lincoln” have furthered U.S. policy goals. He called for the production of movies to promote the Islamic revolution.
      Candidates also took opposing positions on the rights and role of women. Rouhani (left) promised to establish a ministry of women’s affairs if elected. “We must give women equal rights and equal pay,” he said. But Jalili argued that women should fulfill their family role at home. His campaign seemed to temper his statement with a tweet pointing out that his wife, a doctor, is a working woman. The following is a rundown of remarks and points made by each candidate during the debate.
Hassan Rouhani

      “The solution to the country's cultural problems is to minimize government interference and allow guild associations and experts to run their own affairs.” His other positions included:
• Give freedom to the press to eliminate corruption. In the event of violations, governments can close newspapers.
• Censorship kills creativity.

• The state should not interfere in private life. Police should not interfere with how people, especially youth, choose to dress.
• The state should not fire university professors for political reasons or impose harsh restrictions on students.
• Open up space rather than condemn anyone who thinks differently.
• Art can be a great tool for cultural diplomacy.
• Establish a ministry of women’s affairs and give women equal rights and pay.
• Women who head households should get financial support.
Mohammad Reza Aref
      “Government policing of cultural, artistic and social issues must be minimized.” His other positions included:
• Artistic activities are not a privilege that a government can revoke.
• The state’s closure of Iran’s House of Cinema Institute, internet filtering and confiscation of satellite dishes were wrong
• The state should not treat artists like government employees or complicate book publishing
• The government should not arbitrarily crack down on the press
• Government censorship of television has led many Iranians to watch foreign satellite channels
• The government’s role should be to protect culture, not to regulate it
• Iran did not use the winning of an Oscar by Asghar Farhadi’s film “A Separation”
Saeed Jalili

      “The main role for a woman is to be a mother. If we look at motherhood as a fulltime role to properly raise children, many social ills would be erased.” His other positions included:
• Culture is not just a right, it is an opportunity. But the state must ensure that it is kept pure.
• Iran should promote the Islamic revolution through cultural productions.
• A president must know the cultural arena’s capacities well, and he should use them as tools.
• “Argo” and “Lincoln” served the U.S. government agenda.

Mohsen Rezaei
      “Iran’s cultural issues are rooted in economic issues of poverty and unemployment.” His other positions included:
• Management of art and culture should be taken away from the state. Artists should be put in charge of culture.
• State television should not be afraid to hold real debates.

Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf

      “We all know that government policing of cultural issues is an incorrect and mistaken act.” His other positions included:
• Political decentralization will not improve public culture.
• Culture cannot thrive under strict controls.
• Do not criticize cultural policies just to garner votes.

Ali Akbar Velayati

      “There is [Western] cultural invasion. But the solution is not censorship, rather immunity is created through strengthening family foundations.” His other positions included:
• Culture should not be politicized. And filtering of culture is not a solution to combat Western influence
• The government should set the agenda for cultural activities and create a “culture of resistance” based on Iranian and Islamic values.

Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel

      “Would you censor a cultural work such as a book or film that insults people's religious beliefs or attacks the moral pillars of society?” His other positions included:
• Foreign soap operas broadcast on satellite channels are harmful to Iranian families.
• If Iran is not independent in the field of culture, it will not be independent in politics, economy or other sectors.
• Iran’s Islamic culture has influenced the region.
• Women have a right to education. Homemakers are not “jobless.” They need to be insured.

Mohammad Gharazi

      “Thinking that culture can be altered or controlled by the government is false.” 
• Who has influenced who? Has Iran influenced the West, or has it influenced Iran?

Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


What the world will learn from Iran’s election

By Robin Wright

            The field of candidates may be limited, but the outside world can still learn a lot from Iran’s 2013 presidential poll. The election will provide three pivotal metrics about the Islamic republic now that the Ahmadinejad era is ending. 

      First, the (real) turnout at the polls will indicate how many Iranians still have an interest in the world’s only modern theocracy. The government is quite obsessed with the number of people who vote to prove it still has a public mandate. Voting has become almost an existential issue for the ruling clerics.
      “A vote for any of these eight candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic and a vote of confidence in the system and our electoral process,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a public appeal on June 4. He charged that the outside world was plotting to ensure a low turnout. Leaders clearly hope at least 60 percent of the estimated 50 million voters will turn out.
            Second, reaction to the results will signal whether the public deems the election process itself legitimate. It’s no small issue. Many Iranians believed the 2009 presidential poll was fraught with fraud—and that Ahmadinejad was not really reelected. The reaction sparked the greatest challenge to the Iranian regime since the 1979 revolution. It gave birth to a new opposition movement.
            Over the next eight months, millions turned out in cities across Iran to challenge the results—and to demand “Where is my vote?” The regime used brutal force, arrested thousands, and held Stalinesque trials to quash the new Green Movement opposition.
            In 2013, the regime has already witnessed signs of discontent even before the vote. On June 4, thousands reportedly turned the funeral for Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri into an anti-government demonstration in Isfahan. Taheri had been the Friday Prayer Leader in Isfahan. He had earlier criticized the regime for corruption, eventually resigning from the post. He also called the 2009 election “invalid.”
            At his funeral, supporters chanted “death to the dictator,” a reference to the supreme leader and a rallying cry from 2009. Others shouted “Free Mousavi and Karroubi,” the two reformist presidential candidates in 2009 and co-leaders of the Green Movement. They have been under house arrest for more than two years.
            Again, the regime has publicly conceded its concern about the day-after-the-vote. On June 4, the supreme leader charged that unnamed foreign powers were plotting to foment “sedition” after the poll.
            Third, the new president—if the election is credible—may indicate who is capturing the public imagination. Iranians surprised the outside world—and themselves—in electing dark horses in both 1997 and 2005. The regime favorites were trounced in both polls.
            In a stunning upset, the 1997 election brought to power Mohammad Khatami, a purged former culture minister who was director of the national library. The vote marked the beginning of the reform era.
            In 2005, the final runoff was defined as a battle between “the turban and the hat” – or a cleric against a layman. Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, ran against little- known Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
            For the first time since the revolution’s early days, a cleric did not win. The vote was widely interpreted as public rejection of the clerical monopoly of power—more than as overwhelming support for Ahmadinejad, an engineer and specialist in traffic management.
            Because of past controversies and regime paranoia, the list of candidates in 2013 offers little variety—arguably less than in any election since the revolution. Even former President Rafsanjani was disqualified from running—along with more than 670 other candidates.
            But the eight candidates, all ardent supporters of the revolution and Islamic rule, don’t have cookie cutter views. The televised debates have even had flashes of disagreements over the economy, censorship, academic freedom, and women’s rights.
            The election will also be telling about the key to Iran’s future–its disproportionately large young population. Because the Islamic regime aggressively encouraged larger families in the 1980s, its population almost doubled from 34 million to 62 million in a decade. Today, about two-thirds of Iran’s 75 million people are under age 35. Even more striking, about half of voters are reportedly under 35.
            The young also face the widest array of challenges in Iranian society, from inadequate access to higher education and serious housing shortages to increasing unemployment or underemployment. All three are pivotal to independence and marriage. Frustrations among the young have been reflected in several growing social problems, from narcotics to prostitution.
            The big issue for the regime, however, is the level of political engagement. Half of Iran’s electorate was born after the revolution. They have no memory of the monarchy—or the factors that inflamed passions behind the revolution. Since youth played a huge part in the 2009 protests, their interest in voting, their choices at the polls, and their reaction to the results could also be disproportionately important—and potentially decisive.
            In the end, Iran’s president may not have real executive power. Khamenei—ironically himself a former president—still dominates the policy process. Iran’s supreme leader has a virtual veto over almost everything.
            Yet the president does matter in Iran. His administration strongly influences the tone of politics, the economy and the cultural atmospherics—as well as many appointments.
            Khatami allowed the flowering of an independent press, fewer restrictions on women, and wider cultural expression in the arts. He talked about bringing down the “wall of distrust” with the outside world and introduced the idea of a dialogue among civilizations at the United Nations. He also brought many other reformers with their own ideas about ways to open up Iran into top jobs.
            In contrast, Ahmadinejad brought into power many from his days in the Revolutionary Guards during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. His closest aide was an in-law through the marriage of his children. Both men framed policy considerations in terms of the return of the missing 12th imam, whom many Shiites believe went into “occultation” or hiding in 941 AD and whose reemergence would bring peace and justice to the world.
            So this vote will count. Despite the huge array of restrictions on the election, Iranians will be able to signal a lot about what they’re thinking at a particularly important juncture in Tehran’s relations with the outside world.
Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including “The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran” and “The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy.” She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center. See her chapter, “The Challenge of Iran” from "The Iran Primer."


This piece is published in collaboration with Foreign Policy.


Video: Largest protests since 2009 election

            On June 4, thousands reportedly turned the funeral of Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri into an anti-government protest in Isfahan. Taheri had been the city’s Friday Prayer leader. He had earlier criticized the regime for corruption, eventually resigning from the post. Taheri also called the disputed 2009 presidential election "invalid." Supporters chanted “death to the dictator,” a reference to the supreme leader and a rallying cry from 2009. Others shouted “Free Mousavi and Karroubi,” the two reformist presidential candidates in 2009 and co-leaders of the Green Movement. They have been under house arrest for more than two years. The following is a video clip of the funeral procession with English subtitles by the Telegraph.

Latest on the Race: Furor at First Debate

      At the first presidential debate on May 31, Iran’s eight candidates spent more time arguing over the quiz show format than debating each other. Tensions erupted when the moderator asked yes-or-no and multiple choice questions. “I’m not answering these questions,” said Mohammad Reza Aref (left). “I answered test questions 40 or 50 years ago.” Hassan Rouhani scolded the moderator, warning that the public also probably found the format “offensive.” The television station should have consulted with each candidate’s staff beforehand, said the cleric. Mohsen Rezai complained that the program did not allow candidates to engage directly with each another. Saeed Jalili and Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel refused to answer the questions. The moderator gave up after question eight, reportedly leaving 16 questions unasked.

      The debate— nearly four hours on the economy —had other unique aspects, including set-up. Candidates appeared caught off guard when asked to react to a series of pictures. One photo of a patient after surgery led to discussion about Iran’s health care system—and the need for various improvements. Shown a picture of cars stuck in traffic, candidates argued over how much carbon monoxide contributed to pollution. The moderator also showed pictures of a cargo ship, tractors in a field, an empty mine, a clock and a bazaar. 
      In another part of the debate, the moderator posed a random question to each candidate and gave him three minutes to answer from behind a podium. The other seven candidates then had two minutes to respond from their seats.
            This is only the second time the regime has allowed candidates to live debates on national television before a presidential election. The first debate in 2009 sparked fiery exchanges—resulting in a change of format for the 2013 vote. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tense arguments with two reformist challengers also generated greater public interest.
            The second presidential debate, slated for June 5, will focus on cultural and other domestic issues. The final debate on June 7 will be on foreign policy.
            For a flavor of the debate, the following video clip, with subtitles in English, shows Rouhani’s argument with the moderator.


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