Iran’s presidential election on Friday this week was set to be a major test for the reform movement that has emerged in the country over the last decade.
As Mardom Salari, a leading reformist paper, put it last month, “The elections are the most important since the beginning of the Islamic republic in 1979.
“Iranians have the choice of handing victory to former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, voting for a candidate to pursue reforms, or allowing conservative radicals to take power in all branches of government.”
Departing president Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997 and re-elected in 2001. But he is prevented by law from standing for a third time.
Khatami’s previous victories came on the back of a growing desire among Iranians for liberalising social policy, curtailing the power of the clergy and implementing greater democracy.
They pitched reforming political leaders against the conservatives who control the judiciary and the unelected pinnacles of Iran’s political system — the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei his appointees.
The result has been repeated power struggles over the last eight years in which conservatives have managed to undermine Khatami and the reformers.
But they have not halted the underlying social transformation in Iran, which has created a society far removed from the image projected by both the conservative clergy and the neo-conservatives in Washington.
About 70 percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 30. Universal education has lifted the literacy rate to 94 percent for both men and women, the highest in Iranian history.
There has been a huge growth in the number of university students and the majority of students are now drawn from poorer families. Women now make up a majority of students.
At the same time unemployment has grown, alongside a greater concentration of wealth in the hands of businessmen.
These changes have thrown up a layer of young people whose aspirations have been frustrated. They have been a key force behind the movement for reform.
Khatami’s failure to push through change fast enough to meet their expectations has increased the tensions within Iran. Voter turnout was 80 percent when he was first elected in 1997 — four years later it had dropped to 67 percent.
Participation in last year’s parliamentary elections dropped to 51 percent, the lowest in Iran’s history. All wings of Iran’s ruling class feared a low turnout this Friday. That is one reason why Ayatollah Khamenei intervened to allow the popular reformist candidate Mostafa Moin to stand.
Every presidential candidate has frantically toured the country.
Leading conservatives continue to close down pro-reform websites and persecute journalists. But they also feel forced to engage with the 100,000 Iranians who post online blogs.
This political turmoil does not fit into the neat pattern projected by most of the Western media of feudal theocrats ranged against a pro-US democracy movement.
The official leaders of the reform movement represent those in the Iranian elite, including the clergy, who want to open up to the world economy through entry to the World Trade Organisation, privatisation and neo-liberal policies.
The conservatives draw support not just from the religious sections of society, but also from those who would further lose out from such changes.
And while well financed groups in the US try to divert the reform movement along lines acceptable to George Bush, the dominant feeling at its base is for radical social change.
So there is overwhelming hostility to Western hypocrisy over Iran’s nuclear power programme and to veiled threats of a military attack by Israel.
Bush and his allies want to hold out the threat of action against Iran. That is why they have every interest in minimising, misrepresenting and distorting the vibrant new movements.