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Iran's Presidential Candidate Karroubi Faces Challenge From Reformers and Conservatives


By Forough Shayan, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)


Dubbed the "Reform Sheikh", former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi comes to this year's presidential election with a mix of clerical and liberal credentials that should make him almost the ideal candidate.


Yet in reality Karroubi's prospects look dim. Not only has he burned his bridges with the conservative establishment, he is also regarded with suspicion by the reformers, who in any case are promoting their own man, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. But he insists he is not going to drop out of the election race.


Mehdi Karrubi



Karroubi started out as a mainstay of the Islamic Revolution, serving as a member of parliament and close confidante of the then Supreme Leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He headed the Relief Committee, a humanitarian organisation set up by Khomeini, and the Martyr Foundation, which cared for the families of those killed in Iran's eight-year war with Iraq. Finally, he was also Khomeini's representative in the Hajj Organisation, responsible for arranging the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.


In 1988 he founded and led the Association of Combatant Clerics, a political group that favoured retaining state control of the economy. This position was evident during Karroubi's first term as speaker in 1989-92, when he opposed the then president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's attempts to push through market reforms.


By the time Karroubi did another spell as chairman of parliament in 2000-04, under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, both he and the Combatant Clerics were regarded as moderates who favoured reforms.


When the 2005 presidential election came round, Karroubi positioned himself as a moderate cleric against the little-known conservative candidate, Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


He finished third, and swiftly accused the conservative camp of deploying quasi-state resources like the Revolutionary Guards and the Basiji volunteer force to drum up votes.


After this, Karroubi stepped down from the Expediency Council, an advisory body which mediates between parliament and the Council of Guardians, he left the Association of Combatant Clerics, and set up a new party called Etemad-e Melli (National Confidence), which supports civil rights and engagement with the West.


After losing the election, he had plans to launch his own television station, but was unable to do so as the constitution restricts radio and TV to state ownership, so he turned instead to publishing a newspaper, also called Etemad-e Melli.


He also pledged to stand in the 2009 election, so it was no surprise when he was the first candidate to put his name forward.


Unlike many reformers, who appeal to the educated urban classes, Karroubi's potential electorate is more similar to that of his rival Ahmadinejad - people in small towns and rural areas. In the last four years, his party has made a determined effort to set up branches across the country. Like the incumbent, Karroubi is prone to making populist promises, suggesting that if he wins, he will issue shares in the oil industry to members of the public.


He clearly sees himself as the main reformist candidate and Ahmadinejad as his most important opponent, and did not seem at all pleased when former president Khatami's name was floated earlier in 2009. It was no coincidence that his Etemad-e Melli newspaper refrained from covering Khatami as a potential candidate, making it a front page story only when the former president withdrew his name.


While Karroubi insists he will not step aside for any other candidate, he has suggested an alliance with the mainstream reformist groups, but this has not been well received.


Karroubi's supporters call him "Shaykh-e Eslahat" - the "reform sheikh", but it is not a name other reformist groups would apply to him. Many of the reformers do not appear especially enamoured of him, and in any case they have coalesced around another candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who served as prime minister in the Eighties.


Mousavi is remembered as a prime minister who ran the government competently during the tough times of the Iran-Iraq war, qualities which many believe are exactly what is needed now.


He has the backing of two major reformist groups, the Mosharekat (Participation) Front and the Sazman-e Mojahedin-e Enqelab-e Islami (Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organisation). Even Karroubi's ex-colleagues in the Association of Combatant Clerics have come out in support of Mousavi.


Meanwhile, Karroubi's candidacy, his past record, and the extent to which he is really a reformer are being hotly debated in Iran's vibrant blogosphere.


"In my view, Karroubi is not a reformer," writes leading blogger Bahman Ghafouri, a journalist with reformist sympathies. "He is one of the leaders of the leftist clergymen of the Eighties who were thrown out of power in the Nineties and now want to get back into power."


On the positive side, Bahman said, "He follows up on the fate of political prisoners and fights to get them released, [although] this is because of his personality rather than his political views.


When Mousavi won the backing of major reform groups, Karroubi fell silent for a while, leading to speculation that he might after all pull out of the election race, but now he is campaigning vigorously again. He has even won backing from a number of influential politicians like Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who was vice-president under Khatami, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the former Tehran mayor who helped bring Khatami to power in 1997, and Ataollah Mohajerani, who served as culture minister when the reformers were in power.


Thus, it is now apparent that Karroubi intends to stay in the race until the bitter end.


Since he is 72, this is his last chance to run for the presidency before he hits the age limit of 75 set for candidates.


Karroubi still asserts that he missed out on his chance to be part of the final run-off in the 2005 election, in which Rafsanjani was defeated by Ahmadinejad, because he had a two-hour nap at a crucial point when the terms of the tie-breaker were being decided. This time round, he has pledged not to sleep a wink until the votes have been counted.


Forough Shayan is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tehran


This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.


About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting ( the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.

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