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Iran Presidential Race Heads to Unprecedented Runoff in Election Marred by Fraud Allegations

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Allegations of vote rigging and fraud mar presidential elections in Iran that pit a hardline mayor against a former president in an unprecedented run-off election. We speak with veteran Middle East journalist Dilip Hiro and Iranian-American writer Roya Hakakian. Her family supported the 1979 revolution, then fled. [includes rush transcript]

Voters in Iran headed to the polls Friday in the closest presidential election since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But electoral officials today ordered a random recount of 100 ballot boxes following accusations of vote rigging and fraud by several of the candidates.

In a surprise result, the hardline mayor of Tehran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came in second behind former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The two candidates will face each other in an unprecedented run-off election later this week.

Ahmadinejad is a former revolutionary guard who is looking to reinforce Iran’s strict Islamic code and has spoken out against restoring ties with the United States. Rafsanjani, who was president of Iran from 1989-1997, is described as a conservative pragmatist and has called for a “new chapter” in US-Iranian relations.

Ahmadinejad came in only one and a half percentage points behind Rafsanjani in Friday’s poll, despite being a virtual unknown ahead of the race. Allegations of vote fraud soon followed with the circumstances around the election raising suspicion.

When the Interior Ministry issued its first results, it had Rafsanjani in first place, followed by reform candidate Mehdi Karroubi. Half an hour later, the Guardian Council announced that Ahmadinejad was actually in first place. The Guardian Council is made up of hard-line clerics that has ultimate control over government actions but is not supposed to interfere in ballot counting. When the final tally was announced, Rafsanjani finished with 21 percent of the votes and Ahmadinejad with 19.5 percent.

Critics pointed to other irregularities, including Ahmadinejad’s announcement on Saturday that he would be in the run-off, hours before official results were issued.

Meanwhile, Iran has called on President Bush to apologize for criticizing the election as undemocratic ahead of Friday’s vote. Some say the high turnout of 62 percent discredited Bush’s comments. The Intelligence Minister said Bush “motivated people to vote in retaliation.”

On Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also criticized the legitimacy of the electoral process, in which unelected clerics barred most of the 1,000 presidential hopefuls, including all the women, from running.

  • Roya Hakakian, Iranian-American author and journalist. She grew up in Iran before leaving for the United States when she was 18. She is a founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. Her memoir of growing up in post-revolutionary Iran is titled “Journey from the Land of No.”
    See website:
  • Dilip Hiro, veteran journalist on the Middle East. His trilogy of books on Iraq and Iran are considered some of the most definitive histories of the wars in the Persian Gulf. His latest book is called “The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Iranian American author and journalist, Roya Hakakian. She was raised in Tehran before leaving Iran for the United States when she was 18. She is a founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. Her memoir of growing up in post-revolution Iran is titled Journey from the Land of No. We are also joined by veteran Middle East journalist, Dilip Hiro. His latest book is called The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

DILIP HIRO: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Well, I’d like to start with Roya Hakakian. Your response to the elections?

ROYA HAKAKIAN: I think the elections were, as far as I’m concerned, illegitimate to begin with, which is why pretty much everyone in Iran and outside — I mean, a lot of the leaders, boycotted the elections to begin with, including Shirin Abadi, the Nobel Peace Laureate. I — you know, an election where, you know, the leading candidate is — Hashemi Rafsanjani — is, compared to 1997 elections that brought in sort of the hope of reform, is profoundly disillusioning, and I think it was the right decision to boycott the elections to begin with.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is it disillusioning?

ROYA HAKAKIAN: Because we witnessed since 1997 the hope of reform dying in Iran. We witnessed a lot of the newspapers that were inspiring hope among Iranians be shot down. We witnessed journalists be taken away and remain in prison, bloggers being hauled away and remain in prison. And we basically saw a crackdown on what we thought would bring in the era of reform. And in the aftermath of all of that, having this election, which was basically lackluster and lacked all of the, you know, leading candidates that we had in 1997, was just, you know, two steps back.

AMY GOODMAN: Dilip Hiro, do you share these thoughts?

DILIP HIRO: I think I will start with — of course, we have to remember there’s something called Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Let’s just take a very quick example of Mr. Bush and Rice applauded in Saudi Arabia [inaudible] got one-quarter of one-quarter election. It was for local councils. It was only for half of the seats were allowed to be contested. Women were completely barred from voting; that’s one-quarter. And after all of the people, let’s remembering, who were entitled to vote, only one-quarter bothered to vote. So that was one-quarter of one-quarter election. And what we get from the White House: democracy is arising by camel on a camel’s back in Saudi Arabia.

So what I’m saying, let’s compare like with like. You know, here is the Islamic Republic of Iran, here is the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And, you know, let’s look at Condi Rice talking about outpost of tyranny. Now an outpost of tyranny, we don’t know who is going to win. And out of outpost of tyranny we don’t know what the turnout will be. An outpost of tyranny, there are tens of western correspondents and television companies covering the whole election. And an outpost of tyranny, you have voting system almost like in the U.S. So that’s the background. It’s specific, sure.

Of course, all of the pollsters were saying that this Rafsanjani won, to be followed either by Mr. Mustafa Moin, reformist, or by Mr. Qalibaf. Generally speaking, I know, of course, I have done a book on the subject; I have been to Tehran dozens of times. You know, I’m very much aware of the whole thing. Khatami, of course, failed to take head-on the mullahs. That’s a fact. You know, he failed in that. At the same time, this particular election, including this hard-liner, he described himself as a fundamentalist reformist.

So you see that the format, the language that was used in this election always was on the side of — why did it happen? Because in Iran, you know, the voting age in Iran is 15, (1-5). And no politician can afford to ignore what the young people want. You know, and the second point simply, it doesn’t matter whether there was a rigging or whether there was too much money spent, etc., etc., as long as there’s a system where every four years or five years, politicians have to go back to the citizens and say, please vote for me. I will do this and that. They may not do it, but that is for me, a dynamic. And Iran, this was the ninth election of president. You know, last year, seventh parliamentary election. And they had four elections for assembly of experts. If you add all of them, they have 20 elections in 26 years. You find me a country anywhere in the world where they had 20 elections. Now, they may be rigged, I don’t care, but at least they are holding them on time.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then we’ll come back to our discussion on Iran. Our guests are Dilip Hiro. Among his books, well, the latest is The Iranian Labyrinth. We’re also joined by Roya Hakakian, Iranian American author and journalist. Her book is Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran.


AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman as we talk about the elections that took place this weekend in Iran, condemned by the Bush administration. Our guests are the author of The Iranian Labyrinth, long-time Middle East expert, Dilip Hiro; and Roya Hakakian, Iranian-American author and journalist. Her book is called, Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran. Let’s talk about the lead-up to the elections. Roya, could you talk about both the bombings and the women’s protest, and where women stood?

ROYA HAKAKIAN: The bombings — I don’t — I personally don’t have very much to say, except that the period of bombings that I remember the most occurring in Iran were in the early 1980s to mid-1980s when we were involved in the Iran-Iraq war, and then the Mujahadin, the People’s Mujahadin of Iran, recognized they were losing power to the fundamentalists and started to, you know, commit acts of, you know, suicide and that sort of a thing. I think part of what became clear about the sources of the bombings is that there are ethnic tensions in southern Iran and possibly ethnicities that want to create a sense of independence or want to create their own separate republics, or have a bigger voice within the ethnic mix, are responsible for them. That’s as much as I know. I don’t know very much more. However, I think what’s really, really uplifting and terrific to watch about Iran is the women’s movement. The fact that women in Iran came together to stage exactly where they had staged the biggest protest early on, almost six weeks after the revolution, in fact on March 8 of 1979 in front of the University of Tehran, and repeated that.

AMY GOODMAN: International Women’s Day.

ROYA HAKAKIAN: Exactly. In fact, Kate Millett and a lot American feminists went to Iran in March of 1979 to join the Iranian feminist movement against the edict that Ayatollah Khomeini very early on upon returning to Iran announced, which was, let’s bring the Islamic dress code back. And women staged a massive protest in 1979. And this was very much reminiscent of that. And I think, in fact, part of what that reminded me of, and I think part of what really connects these two pieces of history is that we are recognizing that much of what the 1979 revolution was all about has come back in 2005 in a way — in a bigger way than 1979 could — you know, people in 1979 who engaged in it ever dreamed of, which is women’s rights and democratic rights and civil liberties.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened to the women protesting this time.

ROYA HAKAKIAN: Well, they — it came as a result of, I suppose, weeks and months and months of organization. You’re looking at a population of women who have become extremely outspoken through —-either through blogging, establishing internet communities, establishing small NGOs. It’s basically women in Iran who run great many women’s shelters and newspapers, and write for various newspapers, whether it’s on the net or not. And the idea of, you know, as women, if you cannot participate in the elections, then, you know, how can you possibly consider the elections fair, if, you know, if a woman candidate cannot run? And there were women candidates who wanted to run. And it seemed like in light of the reform movement being dead, as far as, you know, the developments that Iran -— many of the Iranian intellectuals consider, the best thing was to use this, use the attention that was coming to the elections as an opportunity to stage women’s demands before the media and the general public, who were intensely watching Iran and the developments. And I think it was a brilliant idea.

AMY GOODMAN: Dilip Hiro, the significance of this, and how the Iran elections fit into the whole picture of the Middle East right now. Condoleezza Rice today is in Egypt, this weekend was in Palestine and Israel. And of course, what’s going on with the resistance in Iraq right now?

DILIP HIRO: Yes, Amy, let me give you a couple of simple facts. Between 1976 and 1996 in Iran, the female literacy rate went up three times. It was 28% in 1976, and in 1996 it was 80%. One. Secondly, I have been to Tehran University, and in humanities and so on, 90% of students are women. All over Iran, in the universities, 60% of all students in Iran are women. Now, you tell me any western country where they have 60% women students, I’ll take you out to the best restaurant you choose in New York. Seriously. You see, I’m not such — I am very much aware that they cannot be judges, they cannot be president. I tell you one other thing about women.

ROYA HAKAKIAN: You’re leaving out the fact that the population of Iran has doubled.

DILIP HIRO: I did not interfere when you were speaking. Please don’t interfere. Wait for your turn. You know, it’s not a question of — I’m giving you percentage. 80% of women in 1996, women were illiterate. I can give you the reason why. The trouble is, we don’t have the time here. I’m just giving you basic facts. In 20 years under the revolution the female literacy rate tripled. Why? Then we come to the simple thing about what they can and cannot do. Of course, I’m very much aware, you cannot be a judge. I know that. I’m not allowed — I fixed it. Okay?

But Assembly of Experts is the most important thing. Unlike most people that don’t understand, if I stand up here and say, the way Iranians elect their supreme leader is the same as the way Americans elect their president. How do they do it? Electoral college. Indirect election. In Iran, they do the same thing. And that electoral college is called Assembly of Experts. All 83 members of Assembly of Experts are directly elected. So, there are parallels between Iran and America, you will be surprised to hear. There are parallels, but Iran and America there are different centers of power. Okay now, Assembly of Experts last time in 1990 election, women said, why can’t we contest and why cannot — because all of them are mullahs now, and now mullahs say, why can’t we contest? You know what happened? [inaudible], yes, you can contest. Take this test on theology. There are 89 people allowed to take a test; of course, all flunked. But the point is, the principle is accepted, women can now contest for Assembly of Experts, which is the most powerful party.

I’m just giving you some facts because we all have this image where in the shadow that is Iran. I have myself been to Persepolis. I have been women employees who are guides, who sell books. They are wearing makeup. They have very skimpy, you know, jackets, just below the knee. I have been to the Shah’s, you know, what you call the old palaces where women employees wear makeup and so on and so forth. This is a basic fact I’m just telling you. On paper things are awful. In reality, you want to see men and women holding hands when they are not married. Go to any park in Tehran after sunset. Okay? I’m just — satellite dishes? One out of two houses in north Iran have satellite dishes. A police guy comes there, and he says, “oh, okay” — then they say, I will confiscate this and they pay them some money and they go away. Okay. So, I mean, I just give you facts.

Now, in terms of what happens next, certainly, you know, I see the parallels. Do you remember what happened in the French elections when the socialist candidate did not get number two and Mr. Le Pen was in the second run? What happened? All of the socialists and all of the left wing people, they said vote for Chirac. And that’s how Chirac got 82%. I think that is what is going to happen now. The reformists already have decided to support Rafsanjani, not because he’s the ideal guy. Of course, Rafsanjani has got so much baggage. I can add to what she said earlier that during Rafsanjani’s watch in eight years, 87 intellectuals and journalists were assassinated in those 8 years. And these are facts. So, I’m not saying that Rafsanjani is a great guy. But now the reformists have a choice, either very hard-line Mr. Ahmadinejad or Rafsanjani. I think they will support him on the same principle that the socialists and left wingers supported Chirac, when he was against Le Pen. You know, and that’s basically what is going to happen, and therefore I think they will encourage reformers to go and vote. So the next thing to see in this next election on Friday, what is the turnout? Is it going to be more than 60% or less than 60%?

AMY GOODMAN: Roya Hakakian, your response.

ROYA HAKAKIAN: You know, statistics are meaningless unless there is a context. And the context for these statistics is that the Iranian population in 1976 was only 35 million, and it’s now nearing 70 million. So when you have a population that has basically doubled since 1976, you are going to have more of everyone having registered, including women and all other minorities in all sorts of fields. So I’m not sure the statistics themselves without the proper historical and population context will make sense.

The second thing that I think is very important to bear in mind is that the fact that there are satellite televisions in Iran, the fact that women are being very subversive and do in fact as Dilip mentions wear, you know, their Islamic dress code in extremely subversive ways isn’t a credit to the regime or doesn’t reflect in any way, as far as I’m concerned, the democratic values of the ruling elite. In fact, what it really proves is that a population, and by the population I’m referring to the Iranian women, that were extremely oppressed over the first ten years of the revolution found a way to speak up and have turned into the regime’s biggest opposition power. I think I want to credit that to the power of women and to the growth and consistent emphasis on women’s rights and the way in which Iranian women really regain their voice, as opposed to really chalking it up to anyone else’s credit.

The last issue that we’re talking about here, and I think it’s really worth mentioning is that the only thing — the only strike against Rafsanjani, although it’s a significant one, isn’t the loss or the assassination of the intellectuals, which is a very, very significant issue, it’s also the fact that you are talking about a man who is the eighth richest man on Forbes’ list of the richest men in the world. You are talking about someone who in 1978 was basically, you know, your average cleric. And we know that Rafsanjani, since, you know, twenty —- the past 27-28 years doesn’t really have any patent or discoveries to his credit. So, 27-28 years of being, you know, in the service of the Iranian public couldn’t have made him that rich. So you are talking about -—

AMY GOODMAN: What did?

ROYA HAKAKIAN: I mean, that’s actually the subject of many, many interesting investigations. He has really basically turned — the Rafsanjani family have turned into the biggest mafia going within Iran. Part of the reason that the reform movement couldn’t make the headways that, let’s say, the Chinese have made since Tiananmen, because, you know, if you look at the China model, you see that the Chinese made economic reform, and as a result, the issue of civil liberties really died away in China. The fact that Iran cannot make economic reform is the reason why the issue of civil liberties cannot be pushed to the side the way it was pushed to the side in China. And the reason is because the Rafsanjani family is extremely corrupt. It is a mafia that runs Iran economically. And basically nothing can get done in Iran without the involvement of the Rafsanjani family and without other people, you know, whoever wants to invest paying some degree of money to this family. So, to imagine that after eight years of hope for reform, you’re basically putting in power the man who not only runs the biggest mafia going in the country, but was also responsible for the assassination and the killings of Iranian intellectuals, then the picture is extremely grim.

AMY GOODMAN: In the context, Dilip Hiro, of the Middle East, the trip of Condoleezza Rice. She’s now in Egypt, Iraq, what’s happening there, Israel, Palestine?

DILIP HIRO: Yes. I think let’s take Egypt. And of course, I heard the press of the country saying Egypt has the first elections in 7000 years. I didn’t know this guy was an Egyptologist. The point is that Egypt had multiparty elections from 1922 to 1952, when there were the military coups. And now Mr. Mubarak has put conditions for individuals to run. I can assure you, Amy, you can actually push through a camel through a needle’s eye than you as a Egyptian citizen can get the 350 signatures of legislators at the local level, provincial level, and the national level. And that — Laura Bush suddenly became an expert on democracy. Now, maybe you should give her a membership, you know, of Democracy Now! She should be an associate of this. What does she know about it?

You know, that’s what Palestinian people forget that the first election of Palestine took place in 1996. And the turnout was 75%, Arafat got 87%. This time the turnout was less than 50%. And if you take all in all Mr. Abbas got only 40%. Is it that Mr. Bush and Condi Rice invented democracy for Palestinians? They’ve been at it long before.

As far as Lebanon is concerned, Cedar Revolution, that has been the republic since 1927. They had elections all along, except during, you know, the civil war 15 years. And that again is a very religious division. A quick example, half seats for Christians, half for Muslims. You know, amongst half of them, the Shiites have half of the Muslim seats than the Sunnis have. The Shiites are twice more numerous than Sunnis. But they have the same number of seats as Sunnis have. Now you tell me. That is the kind of basic democracy, which Mr. Bush should be taught to say, ah, elections in Lebanon violate the basics of democracy because for two Shiites you are giving one Sunni vote.

You know, I mean, this — so much of this — basically, what I have always said, it isn’t that Iran is a democracy. What I keep saying is very simply, Iran has what I call a representative government. I don’t say they have multiparty system, you have multiple choices. Even in the case of Mr. Ali Khamenei after the death of Khomeini, Assembly of Experts met up. He only got 60 votes out of 83. One. Secondly, which not even many of us know, that is a major flaw. My book has the information. Would you believe Assembly of Experts actually has a subcommittee, which monitors the performance of the supreme leader? And clearly, they can throw him out. He is not supreme leader for life. He is only for eight years, which is the tenure of Assembly of Experts. So, some of these basic things have to be understood. Constantly, you hear, “unelected leader.” No, he is not unelected, including the C.I.A. website has got it wrong. I hope somebody pick up the phone and tell them to get it right. Khomeini was for life but Ali Khamenei is not for life.

AMY GOODMAN: Last comment, Roya Hakakian. You seem to be shaking your head on the last comment.

ROYA HAKAKIAN: You know, again, one can look at what’s on officially on paper, you know, officially on paper I was — someone mentioned to me at a different radio interview that the Iranian constitution was taken line by line from the Swiss, except that the Iranian women having to testify in a court of law, their testimonies count as half that as men. So, you know, tell that to the Swiss or the Iranian women and tell them that they have equal rights, and we obviously know that they don’t. The reality about the supreme leader is that you have a guy that basically has the power for 8 years, 16 years or — you know, 1,600 years, who has the power to basically overrule any election, and the constitution itself. So, the period in which that he gets elected is really irrelevant. What’s really important is that he becomes so almighty that every other institution and law gets to be subverted.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Certainly, an issue we will continue to cover. The runoffs are taking place, the election next Friday. Roya Hakakian, Iranian American author and journalist. Her book is called Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran. Dilip Hiro, veteran journalist on the Middle East, his trilogy of books on Iraq and Iran considered some of the most definitive in the history of wars in the Persian Gulf. His latest book is called The Iranian Labyrinth.

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