The most outspoken reformist in the Iranian presidential race withdrew Tuesday in a move intended to boost the prospects of another reformist, Hasan Rowhani, an experienced government hand who once managed Iran’s nuclear negotiations and is the sole cleric in Friday’s voting.
Mohammad Reza Aref, an academic who served as the country’s vice president under the last reformist government, that of Mohammad Khatami, pulled out a day after a boisterous indoor rally in Tehran, where as many as 10,000 people packed a volleyball hall – his fifth such rally that day, he said.
The crowd of mostly people under 30, pumping their fists in union, welcomed him with a chant of “Aref, we love you.” But as he spoke, they repeatedly interrupted with the call, “Coalition! Coalition!” – a chant with the clear implication that either Aref or Rowhani should pull out to support the other.
Aref waited until near the end to respond. “If Mr. Khatami, as leader of the reformists, comes to a conclusion about the leadership, I will accept it,” he said. “I hope Mr. Khatami will announce his decision in a few hours or by tomorrow. But he added: “If he announces my name, I would be honored” to accept.
It proved to be his swan song.
Later that evening, Aref received Khatami’s letter asking him to back out, and he announced it on his website Tuesday morning. “I have repeatedly stated that I will accept the leadership of Khatami,” he said. “Based on the experiences we have had during the past two presidential elections. . . . I officially quit the race.”
He was referring to disagreements among reformists in the past two elections that, coupled with alleged vote manipulation, led to the election of hard-line conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the bane of Iran’s reformers, of most Western governments and even of Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who’d once backed him. But Aref didn’t endorse Rowhani.
The reformist movement in Iran formally supports the Islamist constitution and its claim of divinely inspired judgment for the supreme leader, but its leaders say the basic law needs to be reformed, though in ways they rarely spell out.
They also favor a more open political climate and, perhaps, a friendlier attitude toward the West, though on the thorniest issue, the country’s nuclear program, they offer little dissent.
Rowhani thanked Aref for “such a humble move, a wise decision, based on his ethics and our old friendship and passion between us.” He added, “I hope you will cooperate with me in future,” suggesting that Aref would have a place in any government Rowhani might head.
Rowhani has been holding big rallies of his own over the past week. Drawing on studies of regional problems done by an institute he heads, he’s made carefully pitched appeals to the young, to a wide body of Iranians disenchanted with Ahmadinejad’s controversy-plagued eight-year rule and to at least two of Iran’s disaffected minorities.
Compared with Aref’s spirited presentation Monday, Rowhani was far more detailed in content and broader in appeal.
On the issue of greatest interest in the West, Iran’s nuclear program, Rowhani repeatedly has said that while he was serving as the secretary of Khatami’s national security council, he managed to save Iran from international economic sanctions while continuing to develop the country’s uranium enrichment program, which the United States and others worry is intended to develop the ability to build a nuclear weapon.
The most prominent reformist of all, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was blocked from running for president by the Guardian Council, which reports to Khamenei. Two of the most prominent reformist leaders from the last election, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest for the past two years.
Speaking Sunday in the Caspian province of Mazandaran, Rowhani hinted that he’d try to spring both men and the many other reformists who’ve languished in prison since the national protests that followed the 2009 elections.
“If we do not have a (negative) security situation, we could open the doors of prisons,” he said. His supporters – like Aref’s – have chanted “Political prisoners must be free,” a call that he and Aref have repeatedly urged them not to make.
On Monday, Rowhani proclaimed the end of the Ahmadinejad era.
“The extremists’ turn is over. I will replace extremism with moderation in my government,” he said before a crowd that his campaign estimated at 8,000 in Orumieh, in the country’s west.
In a pitch that will have instant resonance with Iran’s Azeri minority, he then said the Iranian Constitution gave people the right to decide on their own mother tongue, and “I will devise regulations to protect the citizens’ rights.”
As many as 10 million of Iran’s 80 million population are Azeri-Iranians, and previous governments have ignored them and their struggle to have their Turkic language recognized.
Rowhani made a similar pitch in Iranian Kurdistan, whose economy, infrastructure and rights have been neglected by successive Iranian governments.
“We will not let the people who believe in discrimination win,” he said in Sanandaj, the main city in the country’s northwest. “The Iranian Constitution recognizes all ethnic groups as equal and with equal rights.”Bagher Qalibaf
So long as Aref was in the race, Rowhani lagged in many polls behind Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the popular mayor of Tehran. But Rowhani’s chances of a good finish are likely to have risen as of Tuesday.
Some observers expect the field, currently at six candidates, will be reduced Friday to only Qalibaf and Rowhani. They’d face each other in a runoff a week later.
The other main contender, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator in talks with the international community about the country’s nuclear program, espouses a hard-line stance in all future talks and advocates a domestic policy of “resistance.”
Rowhani as president may not bring any immediate breakthrough in the long-stalled talks, especially under the complex political system in which Iran’s supreme leader ultimately has to approve all strategic policy, but he’d certainly bring a change in the discourse between Iran and major international powers.
He’s made it clear that he wouldn’t capitulate to international demands.
“In universities, in my government, professors and students will not be fired because of their political ideas,” he said. “We are not going to confront any countries in the world, but at the same time, will not surrender to foreign countries. We seek dialogue and negotiation. We will rein in the sanctions through negotiation and dialogue.”