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Iranians Flood to Polls in Pivotal Presidential Election

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Iran goes to the polls today following an acrimonious election campaign that has polarized the country between the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and three opposition candidates. A record turnout is expected for this presidential election, and the enormous mobilization generated by some of the candidates has been described as unseen since the early days of the Iranian revolution. We speak with Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Iran goes to the polls today following an acrimonious election campaign that has polarized the country between the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and three opposition candidates. A record turnout is expected for this presidential election, and the enormous mobilization generated by some of the candidates has been described as unseen since the early days of the Iranian revolution.

The race is largely between President Ahmadinejad and reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The other two candidates are Reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi and conservative former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaie.

The candidate who gets more than 50 percent of the vote becomes president. Results are expected on Saturday, and experts predict a tight race and a possible victory for Mousavi, who is extremely popular among young voters.

Tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in recent weeks, campaigning for their candidate of choice and sometimes clashing with supporters of rival candidates.

    MOUSAVI SUPPORTER: I definitely vote to Mr. Mir Hossein Mousavi, because he’s going to come and change this horrible situation, this horrible condition, because we are in a situation that we are going to lose everything.

    AHMADINEJAD SUPPORTER: [translated] He has done so much. He has brought us to the attention of the region. He has brought us to the attention of the world. Nobody knew Iran. When Obama makes a bid to Iran, when he respects Iran, that’s something Ahmadinejad is responsible for. That’s why we will vote for him.

    MOUSAVI SUPPORTER: [translated] In these elections, I want to vote for someone who’s here to defend the rights of the people, who’s here to plant himself with the youth of our nation. Our country is very young. We will vote for someone who is like us and can understand us, someone who can give us the freedom we seek. Be certain that based on the intelligence of the youth, Mousavi will win the vote.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to find out more about the major four candidates and to get a sense of why so many Iranians, particularly young people, have been mobilized to participate in this election, we’re joined now by Trita Parsi from Washington, DC, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States.

Trita Parsi, welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you go through the leading candidates, beginning with the President of Iran, and talk about who they are?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think, by now, a lot of people know who Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is. He’s someone that is pretty hard-line, who has shown himself to be quite uncompromising both on domestic policies as well as on some of the international issues that Iran is faced with.

Mousavi, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is someone that the outside world knows very little about, because for the last twenty years he’s been out of the public eye. He was a prime minister during the 1980s, during the Iraq-Iran war. And he’s been credited for having been a very efficient manager of the war economy and, as a result, someone that the reformists have been eager to bring back into politics. And this time around, they have succeeded in doing so. Back in the 1980s, he tended to have a very leftist worldview, and some people in the United States have been concerned about that, not knowing whether he would be more open to negotiations with the United States than Ahmadinejad would be.

Then you have Mehdi Karroubi, the former speaker of the Parliament, who’s probably the most reform-minded candidate of all the different candidates. He is not someone that is terribly charismatic, but he has had a very long life in politics and is a rather known quantity for the Iranian public. He did receive a significant amount of votes in the last elections in 2005, and many people argued that he actually got more votes than Ahmadinejad in that round, but that because of cheating, Ahmadinejad was in the runoff instead of Karroubi.

Finally, you have General Mohsen Rezaie, a former head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who is known to be a conservative. But on foreign policy matters, he’s proven himself to be rather pragmatic. And throughout the Bush administration years, he actually came out with a few proposals, hoping to see a better relationship between the United States and Iran. What’s interesting with his candidacy is that he is a conservative, yet he is equally opposed to Ahmadinejad, turning Ahmadinejad almost into an Iranian George Bush, a person that has managed to turn even conservatives against him.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Ahmadinejad has taken the unusual step for Iranian politics of personally attacking some of the leaders, questioning some of his opponents, questioning whether some of them had not enriched themselves previously. And what about Mousavi’s wife, as well, who’s the chancellor of the university?

TRITA PARSI: Exactly. And I think, in many ways, it has backfired on him. He has accused several of the very, very top people in the Iranian elite of corruption and having enriched themselves. And reality is that he’s probably right, at least to some extent. And a lot of people that already support Ahmadinejad view his courage, in that sense, of being able to go on national TV and make these accusations. So, with them, it has fared pretty well.

But what he’s also done is that he has mobilized people against him in a fashion that he may not have thought that he would, particularly when he came to his personal attacks against the wife of Mir Hossein Mousavi in one of the televised debates, in which he accused her of having cheated her way into a Ph.D. program. I think what happened after that is that a lot of people who did not vote in 2005 and who were probably not planning to vote in this election decided that they will actually go out and vote. So, in that sense, Ahmadinejad mobilizes enemies in a way that he did not foresee.

AMY GOODMAN: And the young people?

TRITA PARSI: And the — which is primarily the young people, the young people who sat out the elections last time around, because they didn’t feel that they had a real choice. And many of them felt the same way up until just a few weeks ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, many Iranian Americans are also voting today from nearly forty polling locations across the United States. Last Saturday night, I saw you, Trita Parsi, along with a number of Iranian Americans, at the National Iranian American Council meeting in New York, and I asked folks there for their thoughts on the Iranian election.

    AMY GOODMAN: Who are you supporting?

    MOUSAVI SUPPORTER 1: Hossein Mousavi. I think [inaudible] is a chance for him to just, you know, to make some changes. You know, we need some change. With four years with Ahmadinejad, he has some point, but I think he’s just going too much for stuff that really doesn’t make sense.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what’s Mousavi’s background?

    MOUSAVI SUPPORTER 2: Mousavi was prime minister before, Iranian, and he was teaching in the university art history and art. And I think his wife is an artist. So they are very liberal. I received an email from Makhmalbaf, which is a film director, and he said he had a conversation with Mousavi, and Mousavi told Makhmalbaf, “I disagree with your film, with your idea, but I can tolerate that.”

    MOUSAVI SUPPORTER 3: Well, one could argue that it’s not a democratic process. But actually, up until very recently, I would say about a couple of weeks ago, I was actually one of those people who was not going to vote at all. I think this is the argument that has been put forth by a lot of people, and I respect their — are my friends and family, saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t vote, because you’re only giving credence to a system or a process that we all know is flawed, undemocratic.” But I think we need to, as a nation, get away from this zero or a hundred percent, you know, this dichotomy of either it’s completely perfect or it’s completely flawed.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re for Mousavi. Why?

    MOUSAVI SUPPORTER 3: Yeah, because I think he will probably make an attempt to make incremental — or institute incremental changes in the right direction.

    MOUSAVI SUPPORTER 4: So there might be slight differences with regard to foreign policy, but those things are set by a different set of, you know, people and organizations and institutes within Iran. The president does not — is not the — that’s not what the president does. The foreign policy is not part of his, you know, agenda. Domestic policy is, though, the economics. And I think that’s what you’re going to see difference — different, as well as the — with regard to the moral police, social freedom. That’s why Mousavi, I think, is going to be different from Ahmadinejad. So, civil liberties, NGOs being allowed to be active. Those are the differences, I think.

    MOUSAVI SUPPORTER 3: Look at the Middle East, the larger Middle East. Iran is probably the only country that has an anti-American, anti-West regime, but an extremely educated and pro-Western population. Juxtapose that with the rest of the countries in the region, where the regimes are extremely pro-Western, pro-American, but the population, by and large, are anti-American and anti-West.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the voices of folks at a National Iranian American Council meeting in New York last week. Trita Parsi, we want to thank you for being with us.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: President of the NIAC and author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States. We will certainly report on the outcome of these elections on Monday. As well, we will be talking about other issues.

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