In Iran vote, reformists struggle with few options

Bottled up tightly as presidential election looms

Some mourners at the funeral procession of dissident Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri used the march to revive  opposition chants from 2009, according to video clips.
Some mourners at the funeral procession of dissident Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri used the march to revive opposition chants from 2009, according to video clips. (Hamid Reza Nikoumaram/Fars News Agency via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Despite four years of nonstop pressure, arrests, and intimidation, Iran’s dissidents still find ways to show their resilience.

Protest messages still ricochet around social media despite Iran’s cyber cops’ attempts to control the Web. Angry graffiti pops up before being quickly painted over by authorities. Mourners at the funeral of a dissident cleric flashed V-for-victory gestures and chanted against the state.

But just a look at the sidewalks around Tehran’s Mellat Park shows how far Iran’s opposition has fallen as the country prepares for Friday’s presidential election.

Four years ago, girls on rollerblades sped around the park delivering fliers for the reform camp’s candidate-hero Mir Hossein Mousavi. Emerald-colored head scarves and wrist bands representing Mousavi’s Green Movement were in such demand that bloggers would list shops with available fabric.


This time, there are just a few subdued election placards for candidates considered fully in sync with Iran’s ruling clerics. Security forces and paramilitary volunteers are never far away.

Mousavi and another opposition leader, Mahdi Karroubi, are under house arrest and hundreds more activists, bloggers, and journalists have faced detention as part of relentless crackdowns since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in 2009 brought accusations of vote rigging and something Iran has not seen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution: huge crowds in the streets chanting against the leadership.

Iran’s forces for reform are not so much crushed as bottled up tightly. Now the election that marks the end of Ahmadinejad’s eight-year era also brings another moment of political transition: Whether the loose affiliation of reformists, liberals, and Western-leaning activists can somehow remain relevant in a time when the guardians of the Islamic establishment are consolidating their defenses.

‘‘There is no shortage of people in Iran who would like to see a different way of being governed and a different world view from the leadership,’’ said Theodore Karasik, a security and political affairs analyst at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. ‘‘Trouble for them is that they [are] now fragmented and disorganized. This is exactly what Iranian authorities want to see.’’


The entire ballot process has been derided by Western governments and rights groups as a farce after Iran’s election overseers — all loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — blacklisted former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the ballot despite his lofty status as one of the architects of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

For Iran’s rulers, the relatively moderate Rafsanjani represents an unsettling force who could breathe some life into the battered opposition.

Any momentum toward a backlash over Rafsanjani’s barring quickly dissipated. He grumbled over the rebuff and Iranian reformist websites buzzed with complaints. But there have been no major street protests, suggesting — once again — there are only remote chances for a revival of the 2009 mass demonstrations. His backers have retreated to election boycott calls or drifted to other candidates who have no apparent intention to shake up the system.

The only significant public show of dissent before the election came in a coincidence of timing. Some mourners at the funeral procession of dissident Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri, who died last Sunday in the central city of Isfahan, used the march to revive the opposition chants from 2009 such as ‘‘death to the dictator,’’ according to video clips posted on the Internet. But the outburst did not seem to inspire other rallies.


‘‘There is significant opposition in Iran to a lot of things, international relations, crackdowns on the Internet, but it’s dispersed over all classes of society and without a real focus,’’ said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. ‘‘There is opposition, but I doubt you can call it a movement.’’

Opposition voters now face the choice of whether to boycott the polls or turn to whatever they see as the least objectionable candidate. So far, the top figures of the reform movement, such as former president Mohammad Khatami, have not indicated to their supporters which avenue to take — meaning a unified strategy may emerge only at the last minute, if at all.

A likely major indicator in the final vote will be how many eligible voters stayed away, in comparison to a reported 85 percent turnout in 2009. It worries officials enough that Khamenei used one of the country’s most somber occasions — the memorial ceremony marking the death of Islamic Revolution founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — to say that a low turnout will only help Iran’s ‘‘enemies’’ such as the United States and Israel.

Most of the eight hopefuls cleared to run are bathed in pro-establishment credentials.

Some reformists have migrated toward former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani as a sort of default, since he is closely aligned with Rafsanjani. Khatami’s former vice president, Mohammad Reza Aref, has made a strong bid to draw reformist voters, speaking with the most passion about freedoms Wednesday during the second television debate among the eight candidates.