Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's penchant for loopy one-liners and unsubstantiated allegations may finally be getting the best of him. A raucous presidential debate -- featuring comments so outrageous that Ahmadinejad provoked rebukes from all across the political spectrum -- has energized the Iranian electorate, and riveted attention on the June 12 presidential vote. Turnout may end up being so large, and attention so great, that it may make it difficult to rig. That can only be bad news for the incumbent.
There are seven days now left before the presidential vote. Political apathy has characterized Iranian election cycles for almost a decade. Low voter turnout, in fact, paved Ahmadinejad's path to power. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Intellectuals and members of the economic middle class have been especially prominent in staying away from politics since experiencing disappointment during the administration of former reformist president Mohammad Khatami. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But now the election is practically all that Iranians can talk about. Interest in the campaign is reaching a fever pitch.
The catalyzing event for this development was a bruising nationally-televised debate on June 3 between the two main presidential contestants: Ahmadinejad, who is bidding for a second term, and his moderate-reformist challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was a former prime minister and a confidant of the Islamic Republic's founder, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Roughly 60 percent of Iranians tuned in to the debate, and they were treated to a 90-minute verbal brawl that at times veered between a rhetorical prize fight and a professional wrestling bout. The candor that surrounded the debate had not been evident in Iran's political discourse since the early days of the Islamic Revolution.
Ahmadinejad came out swinging, throwing out charges that his opponent was in an unsavory alliance with former presidents Khatami and Aliakbar Rafsanjani and others, whom he variously accused of corruption, mendacity and perfidy. He named several people, including a top cleric, as having acquired their wealth illegally. He went on to claim he had proof that former president Rafsanjani's sons had accumulated ill-begotten wealth and Rafsanjani himself had secretly colluded with an Arab state against him.
Throughout, Ahmadinejad displayed a caustic and aggressive demeanor that many Iranians, due to the government's heavy control of state media, had not seen before. The highlight from Ahmadinejad's corner was when he pulled one of the files stacked in front of him and said he had proof that Mousavi's wife, who is an intellectual and dean of a university, had obtained her degrees inappropriately or illegally.
After an uneven start in parrying Ahmadinejad's jabs, Mousavi went ballistic after the attack on his wife. He threw a haymaker at the president, painting him as unbalanced and accusing him of "adventurism, instability, unlawfulness and radicalism." Mousavi followed that up with a combination designed to impugn Ahmadinejad's patriotism. Referring to Ahmadinejad's repeated denial of the Holocaust, Mousavi said the incumbent has disgraced Iran in world opinion. "Shame has been brought on Iran. You have created tension with other countries. Heavy costs have been brought on the nation in these four years," Mousavi said. After listing a series of measures taken by the government that Mousavi said were illegal, he pointed his finger at Ahmadinejad and said his actions were paving the way for dictatorship.
Mousavi also characterized Ahmadinejad's debate behavior as sinful. "We are Muslims, we believe in God. We cannot name people like that and accuse them," Mousavi said, referring to the incumbent's multiple, unsubstantiated corruption claims.
The debate ended at midnight on June 3, and it immediately had an impact on the national atmosphere. In the capital, thousands of people poured out of their homes spontaneously and drove or walked to major intersections or gathering points, sounding car horns, shouting slogans and holding impromptu rallies in small numbers into the early morning hours. Several thousand security agents in riot gear, along with uniformed police, were deployed to prevent physical clashes. In some cities, like in the holy city of Mashad, violent clashes did occur. At least one death was reported, that of a student supporter of Mousavi beaten to death by vigilantes.
Analysts believe that Ahmadinejad's reliance on smack-down tactics was calculated to portray Mousavi as a hireling of the corrupt and powerful few, and to inflame public passions based on class divisions. By linking Mousavi with Rafsanjani, the incumbent president clearly hoped to repeat tactics that proved successful in the 2005 election. In that campaign, Ahmadinejad succeeded in smearing his main challenger, Rafsanjani, and framing the election as a battle between rich and poor, greed and social justice.
In an indication that Ahmadinejad's debate zingers were carefully prepared, the hard-line Fars News Agency reported the day before the debate that a number of students would hold a rally on June 3 outside the headquarters of the Expediency Council, which Rafsanjani chairs. In the days since the debate, members of the Basij militia, which has served as Ahmadinejad's de facto campaign organization, were shouting slogans at rallies, such as "Mousavi is Rafsanjani's scarecrow." And during Friday prayers on June 5, pro-presidential supporters distributed anti-Rafsanjani pamphlets outside mosques.
There are signs that Ahmadinejad's tactics may backfire for this election. At the very least, they earned him a rebuke from one of his staunchest supporters -- Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Speaking at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's death, the Supreme Leader indicated that Ahmadinejad had crossed a line.
"One doesn't like to see a nominee, for the sake of proving himself, seeking to negate somebody else," Ayatollah Khamenei said. "I have no problem with debate, dialogue and criticism but these debates must take place within a religious framework."
Rafsanjani, for his part, announced that he would press a defamation suit against the president, the Mehr news agency reported June 5. That would be a legal case that could divide the Iranian establishment. The Expediency Council that Rafsanjani heads is Iran's top forum for legislative arbitration. It also functions as an advisory body to the Supreme Leader, who is one of Ahmadinejad's top patrons.
On June 4, Rafsanjani publicly aired concerns that pro-Ahmadinejad forces were preparing to carry out widespread ballot-stuffing.
Ayatollah Khamenei's injunction against attack-style politics would appear to leave Ahmadinejad in a difficult position for the campaign's home stretch. Having embraced a Rovian philosophy of hate-and-divide, he can't be seen as backtracking, or he will lose the support of the poor masses that he needs to manipulate in order to win the election. But disobeying the Supreme Leader can have its own consequences. Ahmadinejad also runs the risk of waking a sleeping giant -- the large bloc of reformist-leaning voters that has slumbered through the last two presidential elections.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.