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Iran: Elections Under Threat

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Elections Under Threat portrays the everyday people of Iran as well as the candidates running for Parliament, as they debate and discuss the relevance of these elections, their economic conditions and the international pressures on their nation. The documentary offers a unique glimpse into the political dynamics of the struggles for participation and democracy in a nation facing increasing economic and military threats from the United States. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now from Bolivia to Iran. Senator Hillary Clinton stood by her threat this weekend to “totally obliterate” Tehran if Iran were to attack Israel in the next ten years. We take a look at how such threats play out within Iran and limit the space for internal dissent.

Iranians went to the polls April 25th to vote in the second round of parliamentary elections. The results were a victory for conservative candidates allied with President Ahmadinejad. They called for unity between the President and the Parliament at a time of threats from the United States.

The President’s opponents emphasized the need to strengthen Iran’s democratic institutions and improve the country’s economy. Although the opposition groups won a minority of the seats, their fight is far from over. This round of parliamentary elections had the lowest voter turnout in Iran’s history.

Kouross Esmaeli and Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films went to Iran to follow the campaign before the elections and filed this report from Tehran. It was produced for Al Jazeera English.

    IRANIAN VETERAN: [translated] I’ve been eating only bread for six days, nothing but bread for six days! I’m a wounded veteran. Who will answer me — God or you? We will come to the ballot box. We have answered America. We have answered England. We have answered Israel. We are thumbing our noses at the capitalists. But work for us! We’ve had it up to here. Don’t turn your back on the nation. The nation is behind you, but don’t do this!

    KOUROSS ESMAELI: This is a side of Iranian politics that is rarely seen. Hamid Rezaei [phon.], a conservative parliamentary candidate speaking in a mosque in southern Tehran, is challenged by his own base of support.

    IRANIAN MAN: [translated] The representatives’ primary role is to protect the people, and they have not done this. God willing, if you go, you will do it.

    HAMID REZAEI: [translated] If it were the case that nothing has been done, until now, until now, look at it this way: civil wars, terrorist attacks, bombings, eight years of war, attempts at regime change, economic sanctions, political pressures, outside agitators.

    KOUROSS ESMAELI: In the 2008 parliamentary elections, over 4,000 candidates are on the ballot for 290 seats. All sides see this as a referendum on the direction President Ahmadinejad and his allies have taken the country. As political tensions come close to the surface, economic and political demands are countered by talk of war and the need for unity in the face of the ever-present threat from the West. It is a tension that has been at the heart of Iranian politics for the past thirty years.

    While principlists call for unity behind the President, the reformists campaign for a return of parliamentary independence and a different approach to the economy. Soheila Jelodarzadeh is a popular reformist member of Parliament from the Islamic Labor Party in Tehran. In the last elections, she won by a landslide. But now she must fight an increasing political disillusionment among her base of support. At a campaign event, Labor Party candidates raffle off toasters and food processors and speak to their constituents.

    SOHEILA JELODARZADEH: [translated] We’re not going to let them change the labor laws to give bosses the right to fire. The economy has to be fixed. What’s causing problems for industry is not labor laws, it’s an unplanned and unbalanced economy.

    LABOR SUPPORTER: [translated] Are you really doing work in the Parliament? I think the government is doing whatever it wants without parliamentary oversight.

    SOHEILA JELODARZADEH: [translated] That’s because we’re in the minority. How many of us are there, after all?

    LABOR SUPPORTER: [translated] You can filibuster.

    SOHEILA JELODARZADEH: [translated] If thirty people come out, what difference would that make? But in these elections, people have to vote to create a majority that will protect their interests.

    KOUROSS ESMAELI: For the reformists, Parliament is the institution that allows popular participation in politics, and limiting Parliament’s power means limiting democracy. They complain that the Parliament has been weakened, as political power becomes increasingly concentrated.

    At the same time that Parliament’s power has been limited, the ability to participate in these elections has also been limited. This year, over 2,000 candidates were disqualified and barred from running. Many reformist candidates were disqualified, making it impossible for them to regain a majority they lost in 2004. The campaign season has also been shortened, and the use of public spaces for campaign events has been severely restricted.

    SOHEILA JELODARZADEH: [translated] The election law is now becoming more restrictive and inadequate. We can’t put our banners in the streets, so the task is more difficult. We have to go door-to-door to meet people.

    We’re going to go ride on the subway. We’ve organized a bunch of people to come to the station to greet us.

    KOUROSS ESMAELI: The reformists launched their campaign by talking with voters on Tehran’s subway. We were the only television camera covering it. Changes in the campaign laws, under lack of media exposure, have forced the reformists to speak directly to their base, where they encounter some harsh criticism and disillusionment.

    SUBWAY RIDER: [translated] Nothing will change until people can speak their minds.

    SOHEILA JELODARZADEH: [translated] If you read the back of the pamphlet, it says collective problems can’t be resolved individually. We should be united.

    SUBWAY RIDER: [translated] Whether this group or that group wins makes no difference to me.

    SOHEILA JELODARZADEH: [translated] You’re wrong to say that it makes no difference. Come vote. Change the atmosphere in society. They’ve really beaten people down.

    RON SIMMONS: We should have bombed somebody in Iran. Then we’d bring them to the table, just like President Nixon did to the Vietnamese.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.

    SEAN HANNITY: We ultimately are headed towards a military confrontation.

    SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN: We’ve got to use our force, and to me that would include taking military action.

    VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we’re sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike.

    UNIDENTIFIED: I think that there’s been a case made that we need to hit them and that we ought to hit them as soon as possible.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: That old Beach Boys song “Bomb Iran”? Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb — anyway —

    KOUROSS ESMAELI: For Iranians, war with America is more than just a threat. They are surrounded by foreign troops on three sides, and along the border with Iraq, a kind of low-intensity war is being waged in which Iranian and American and British forces take each other hostage, engage in espionage and constant armed brinksmanship.

    Reformist governments that came to power in the late ’90s eased control on media and opened up to the West, even aiding the United States in its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But when these overtures were rebuffed and Iran was named as a member of the Axis of Evil, the reformists were humiliated. And when the US invaded Iraq, the reformists were swept from power. Principlists, like Mohammad Ali Ramin, argue that previous reformist governments played into the hands of Iran’s enemies by allowing too much division and disunity.

    MOHAMMAD ALI RAMIN: [translated] They created such a division that in June 1999, when a few students held a demonstration, it created a huge crisis in the nation. Our enemies saw such an opportune moment that they looked to create dissent around the country.

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: [translated] Why don’t you talk about today’s problems? Talk about the guys who have college degrees and are unemployed.

    MOHAMMAD ALI RAMIN: [translated] You want to fix the economy now, right? You want to trade and have business with the countries around you. But will they ever let you?

    KOUROSS ESMAELI: As Election Day draws near, campaign workers hit the streets of Tehran passing out fliers for their candidates. They meet mixed reactions.

    IRANIAN WOMAN: [translated] Voting is a national duty. I think everyone should decide on their and their nation’s future by voting.

    IRANIAN MAN: [translated] We love our country. I fought at the front for four years, but they have really weakened the workers. I voted in the past elections. Things are so bad this election that I am not going to vote. It’s possible that at the last minute I’ll go vote, but they have to work for the people.

    KOUROSS ESMAELI: The national student movement has been the most vocal and consistent critic of the current government. They say that elections have become a farce and that participating in them only legitimates an undemocratic system. Mehdi al-Abshahi [phon.] is the political secretary of Iran’s largest student organization.

    MEHDI AL-ABSHAHI: [translated] I think the Parliament has lost its meaning. It has become a mere decoration in Iran’s political system.

    KOUROSS ESMAELI: The campaigns end, and Tehran is quiet for the last twenty-four hours before the election. At 8:00 a.m., the first vote is cast by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who calls for massive turnout to demonstrate national unity. But the turnout for Iran’s eighth parliamentary elections is 46 percent, higher than the latest US midterm elections, but the lowest level of participation in the thirty years of the Islamic Republic.

    The reformists captured fifty of the 204 candidates who won in the first round. They have complained of election irregularities. And in any event, the early disqualifications of their candidates made it impossible for them to win a majority. Although they will again form the majority, splits within the principlists combined with reformist gains suggest that President Ahmadinejad will face a more independent Parliament. And even though eighty-six seats are a stake in the runoff elections set for April 25th, in the end there may be no clear winner. Still, the campaign revealed that public pressure to restore Parliament’s lost powers is growing, and the fundamental tension that drives Iranian politics remains in place, between demands for more democratic participation and calls for unity against a foreign threat.

    RAMIN KARIMIAN: I believe if America wasn’t in the Middle East, now Iran would be one of the greatest democracies in the region. There is a need and there is a demand for democratization, both from below and even, I believe, the government itself, the state itself. The main obstacle or the main barrier which prevent this process of democratization is the foreign threat.

AMY GOODMAN: That report by Kouross Esmaeli and Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films. They went to Iran to follow the campaign before the elections. That report from Tehran.

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