June 8, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 59

The Presidential Election Campaign in Iran

June 8, 2001
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 59

One day before the presidential elections in Iran (June 8, 2001), the prevailing public mood is one of great indifference towards the candidates and their promises. This attitude is a result of disappointment with incumbent President Muhammad Khatami, and disillusionment with his promises of reform and openness, which were hindered by the conservatives, represented by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.[1] Last week the elections took on a militant and venomous tone against leading candidate Khatami.[2] The following is an analysis of the main issues of the campaign:

Absence of a Conservative Candidate

As the campaign nears its conclusion, the conservatives have yet to endorse an official candidate. With the prohibition of political parties, in accordance with Iranian law, the focus on a specific candidate becomes vital. Therefore, the lack of an official candidate by the conservatives could be detrimental to their cause. In order to avoid another humiliating defeat at the polls, the conservatives, well aware of their lack of public support, have purposely refrained from endorsing an official candidate. Additionally, the conservatives anticipate benefiting from the public's disappointment with Khatami, especially among the youth[3] which will lead to a low voter turnout. However, according to the latest poll, Khatami is expected to receive a 79% majority of the votes.[4]

Khatami's Political Reform

Khatami's political platform explicitly calls for "freedom of expression, civil society, social justice and fundamental rights," Western values which, he proudly said, are now commonly accepted by the Iranian people. Those who promoted these values, Khatami added, were once considered "anti-religious and counter-revolutionary". Khatami stated that these freedoms should be safeguarded in the constitution as a way towards "achieving full democracy". He also called for the institutionalization of the public's political participation and of political parties. [5] Khatami expressed his desire for students to become the driving force behind the reform movement. Noting their disappointment with the lack of progress made in implementing reforms, he called on them to be patient, stressing that youth "want an atmosphere in which they can breathe," [6] and warned that if their needs are not met, they will be distanced from Islam. [7] At an election convention, Khatami called for putting an end to discrimination against women, by allowing them to participate in the political, social and cultural life of Iran. He emphasized the status of young women and "the priority of priorities" to address their needs. [8] In addition, on the twelfth anniversary of the death of Khomeini, Khatami announced that, as far as he is concerned, the Salman Rushdie affair is over .[9]

The overwhelming support of Khatami's reform agenda has led conservative candidates, who are united in their criticism against President Khatami, to adopt his slogans for democracy and economic and political reforms. For his part, Khatami is trying to bridge the ideological gap between himself and the conservatives, stressing that he does not consider the elections a "referendum on the reforms", as referendums are mechanism in its own right.[10]

Religious-Ideological Attacks on Khatami

As the election nears its end, there have been unprecedented attacks against Khatami by the nine conservative candidates and from conservative religious leaders. Up to this point, criticism of Khatami had focused on his poor management of the economy. Religious-ideological issues such as Khatami's and the reformists' contributions to the "deficient morality" among the youth and the "undermining of Islamic values" in Iran, are now a main focus of criticism. Conservative newspapers have accused Khatami's campaign of being "against Islamic values" and "conducted in a Western style."[11] For example, a group of conservative clerics from the city of Qom are now attacking Khatami's policy of openness because it has allowed the regime's opposition and counter-revolutionary forces to operate freely. [12] They published a communiqu‚ which stated the reformists are "exploiting the climate of the electoral campaign to hurt religious and national pride."[13] In a fierce criticism of the reformists and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance which they lead, Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi stated that the reformists "are keeping the youth from returning to Koran studies, and leading them to cultural centers where young men and women have illegal relations in the name of culture." Yazdi also accused these cultural centers of "selling drugs and indecent videos."[14]

In addition, both the clerics and conservative candidates accuse Khatami of factionalism. Muhammad Reza Bahonar, a leading conservative and Habibollah Asgarowladi, the secretary of the rightist Islamic Coalition Society (ICS), accused Khatami's supporters of attempting "to polarize society into two groups, one supporting Khatami and the second supporting the Supreme Leader, Khamenei." [15] Leading conservative candidate Ahmad Tavakoli called for an end to "family favoritism, aristocracy of the officials, sectarianism and political apartheid, administrative corruption and collusion of the power and wealth wielders."[16] Candidate Ali Shamkhani also emphasized that "the President should avoid favoring special groups and individuals."[17] Even the pro-reform Persian daily Iran News, which describes the institutionalization of party politics as a positive development, recognizes this as Khatami's political legacy.[18]

Islam in the Election Campaign

Although Islam has been used by the clerics to attack the reformist camp during the election, surprisingly, there has been a lack of calling for adherence to Islamic values, especially from among conservative candidates. The slogans highlighting the Islamic Revolution, such as religious and cultural values and Vilayat-i Faqih (Rule of the Jurisprudent), have been replaced by calls for reform and economic development. In an attempt to gain public support over Khatami, conservative candidate Tavakoli went as far as declaring that "a society may long live without religion, but injustice would destroy it."[19]


While the conservatives have decreased the emphasis of their campaign on Islam due to their lack of popularity, the reformists have increased their emphasis on the Western concept of republicanism, stating that it is "as important as Islamism". Reformist MP, Mohsen Armin, warned against the attempts in the last decade "to weaken republicanism" due to the fact that civil and social institutions were not formed. He claimed that "Islamism should be in accordance with democracy and the people's needs. Otherwise, the people will keep away from religion." [20]

Populist Election Campaign

Several newspapers, including those identified with conservatives, have criticized conservative candidates for "resorting to cheap, unfair and unethical means of attracting a larger number of voters", and making "hollow and empty promises". Such promises include removing university entrance exams, building hundreds of new universities, creating millions of new jobs and providing housing for all young people. The candidates, claimed the critics, have failed to provide details of how they are going to work these "wonders and miracles." [21]

Relations with the US

In the past, conservatives ruled out any possible renewal of relations with the US, i.e.," The Great Satan," due to its policies and behavior towards the Iranian people. However, in the current election campaign, conservatives, including some candidates, have called for the settlement of the dispute with the US through secret, then open negotiations.[22] Nevertheless, the conservatives stressed the US must make the first move. Khatami also called for "fundamental changes" in the US policy towards Iran as a precondition for the resumption of relations and accused "certain lobbies" of preventing a rapprochement with the US.[23] Most recently, Khatami has hardened his position on this issue, apparently in order to appease the conservative camp.

Israel and the Jews

Contrary to the moderation demonstrated on the issue of relations with the US, the Iranian position regarding Israel has remained unified, extreme and uncompromising, as candidate Shamkhani declared: "Israel is an illegitimate regime and we will never restore ties with them."[24] Although Israel is not a specific issue in the election campaign, it has received daily attention in the news coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the Iranian media.

* Ayelet Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.

[1] See previous analyses of the elections and the distribution of power in Iran, on the MEMRI website.

[2] For example, calls from the Conservatives not to vote for the "whiner", a hint at Khatami, who shed tears when he announced his candidacy. (Al-Hayat June 3, 2001) Khatami's supporters blame the conservatives of "spreading a malignant dismay" among the people against Khatami (IRNA [Islamic Republic News Agency], May 31, 2001).

[3] The number of eligible voters is more than 40 million, most of whom are young people between the ages of 16 and 25.

[4] IRNA, June 4, 2001, quoting from the Persian reformist daily Tose'eh, June 3, 2001. The candidate Ahmad Tavakoli gets 10% of the vote, Jasbi, 4%, and Shamkhani, only 3%. Bazaar merchants announced their support of Khatami (Al-Ayyam, (PA), June 4, 2001), as well as many other MP's, (IRNA, June 3, 2001).

[5] IRNA, May 28, 2001.

[6] IRNA, June 1, 2001 and June 3, 2001; Iran Daily, May 29, 2001. Khatami condemned the way in which confessions were extracted from two reformist activists, who were imprisoned for expressing their opinions against the regime's leaders, this following public pressure from the students to intervene.

[7] IRNA, May 28, 2001.

[8] Iran Daily, May 28, 2001; Al-Safir and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, May 31, 2001.

[9] IRNA, June 4, 2001, cited from the Persian reformist daily Tose'eh.

[10] IRNA, June 5, 2001.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, May 31, 2001; Al-Hayat, June 3, 2001.

[12] For instance, the FMI (Freedom Movement of Iran) which was recently banned, IRNA, June 3, 2001.

[13]IRNA, June 1, 2001; Persian daily Ettela'at, June 2, 2001.

[14]Al-Hayat, June 2-3, 2001.

[15] IRNA, June 3, 2001. The Conservative camp sees "factionalism" as a negative phenomenon, both religiously and politically.

[16] IRNA, May 29, 2001.

[17] IRNA, May 30, 2001 and June 3, 2001.

[18] Iran News, May 31, 2001.

[19] IRNA, June 4, 2001.

[20] IRNA, June 2, 2001.

[21] Tehran Times May 31, 2001., Iran News, May 30, 2001. These included criticism of attempts to raise political affinity through false allegations of physical assaults on the candidate's activists and headquarters.

[22] IRNA, May 30 and June 3, 2001; the conservative Kayhan International, June 3, 2001; Al-Hayat and Al-Safir, May 30 and 31, 2001.

[23] IRNA, June 5, 2001.

[24] IRNA, June 3, 2001. The MP Jewish minority representative in parliament announced June 3rd that the Jewish community supports Khatami's candidacy.

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