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Iran's Supreme Leader Unintentionally Triggers Online Interest In 'Free Elections'

By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shot himself in the foot last week when he called for an end to public demands for free elections.

Women at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, March 2, 2012.

"They shouldn't constantly say elections must be free. It's obvious that elections should be free," Khamenei said on January 8. "Since the beginning of the revolution until now, we've had [more than] 30 elections, which one has not been free?"

The Iranian leader, who has the last word on all matters in the Islamic republic, said raising such issues plays into the hands of Iran's "enemies" and discourages people from participating in the upcoming June 14 presidential vote.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei: "They shouldn't constantly say elections must be free. It's obvious that elections should be free"

Khamenei appears to have been reacting to comments made in recent weeks by figures such as former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who said the presidential election should be free, fair, and competitive.

His warning was aimed at silencing those calls and putting an end to demands for free elections.

Yet, ironically, Khamenei's call appeared to lead to increased online interest in discussions about free elections, conditions for free and fair voting, and whether free elections can be held in the Islamic republic.

A Google graph shows a spike in the number of searches for the term "free elections" in Persian on January 8 and subsequent days, when other officials followed Khamenei's lead and warned against casting doubt on the fairness of elections in Iran.

A journalist in Iran who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity said sarcastically that the opposition should thank Khamenei for bringing such attention to the need for free elections.

The increased interest has been felt offline, as well. Iranian researcher Nima Rashedan said the calls for free elections have led to concern among hard-liners who believe various opposition factions are uniting around a common slogan.

"Some of the websites that are close to security circles have said that never before in the past 30 years have different Iranian opposition groups used a single term -- that is 'free elections' -- and that, according to them, this is a cause of serious concern," she said.

Following Khamenei's warning, prominent political prisoner Mostafa Tajzadeh, who was deputy interior minister under Khatami, said the warnings about free elections shouldn't lead to fear and the demands for a free and fair vote should be fully supported.

In a letter from Evin prison that was published on opposition websites, Tajzadeh said that if he were free, he would launch a huge campaign in support of free elections.

Tajzadeh was jailed following the disputed 2009 presidential vote that the opposition said was massively rigged.

Copyright (c) 2013 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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