Vote or Boycott? Iran's Online Debate

Rafsanjani Gestures During a Meeting
Iranian presidential candidate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani meets with businessmen Wednesday at Marmar Palace in Tehran. The former president is the frontrunner in Friday's election. (Behrouz Mehri -- AFP)
By Jefferson Morley Staff Writer
Thursday, June 16, 2005; 8:15 AM

The Iranian media's coverage of the Iranian presidential campaign belies the country's image as a monolithic theocratic dictatorship. The online media, in particular, voice the popular dissatisfaction with the country's ruling clerics that has pervaded the run-up to Friday's balloting.

"The media is much more open than eight years ago," note the editors of the mainstream Iran News.

"Of course, that is not to suggest journalists do not pay a heavy price in Iran, only to point to the reality that the truth gets written and reported more freely."

The truth, as found in the online media, is that Iran's liberal forces are divided while the ruling conservative clerics feel besieged.

The Iran News editors note that the country's presidential aspirants have "been so critical of the system of government and the overall political, economic, social and cultural trends during the last 27 years that they sound more like the expatriate Iranian opposition in the West than a loyal Islamic Republic 'insider.' This is quite a change."

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the canny businessman who served as president from 1989 to 1997, has returned to position himself as a "moderate conservative" who can stand up to -- and cut deals with -- the United States. He presents himself as the pragmatic alternative to four fundamentalist candidates and the three reformists on the ballots.

The fundamentalist press seems worried about being swept away in an electoral tide. The leading conservative daily, Resalat (in Persian) noted on Wednesday that none of the four conservative candidates has enough support to win the election in the first round. The paper recommends that three candidates should drop out of the race "to prevent the handing of the helm of the country to someone else."

(Iran News reported Wednesday that one conservative candidate was pulling out, though it wasn't clear that election authorities would allow him to do so.)

In the online media, the central question is whether any of the reformist candidates could really make a difference if they won.

Tehran's independent news site, Netiran, grilled reformist contender Mustafa Moin about whether he would really be able to change the repressive ways of the Islamic Republic security forces. Moin responded by saying he had "taken positions against the arrests of writers, journalists, web bloggers, etc."

But the weakness of the reformers is underscored by a report in the London-based Iranmania that the government had refused medical leave to Akbar Ganji, a journalist who has been in jail since 2001. Ganji, who has been ill, was sentenced to six years in jail for articles he wrote linking senior regime officials, including Rafsanjani, to the murders of several intellectuals and writers.

An analyst for the independent site Roozonline predicts that Moin, if elected, will meet the same fate as outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, whose persistent but low-key attempts to reform the Iranian political system were ineffectual.

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