In Multipolarity

New Cold War.org, March 1, 2016

Two articles from Al-Monitor are enclosed: ‘How much change do Iranians really want?’, and ‘Women win big in Iran’s parliamentary elections’.

How much change do Iranians really want?

By Hooman Majd, Al-Monitor, ‘Iran Pulse’, Feb 29, 2016

Iranians want a lot of things. What they don’t want is to be told that their vote doesn’t count or that it doesn’t matter.

Voters cast ballots in Iran on Feb 26, 2016 (Atta Kenare, AFP)

Voters cast ballots in Iran on Feb 26, 2016 (Atta Kenare, AFP)

Wash, rinse, repeat. If you’re a politician in Iran running for election or re-election, your best bet is to have the endorsement of Khatami. Mohammad Khatami, that is. In another era, Khatami was twice elected president, but today he is banned from leaving the country and his name and face are banned from the domestic media. No matter, his hands suffice these days: Election posters for the Reform and moderate list of candidates running for parliament last week showed only them, recognizable from the ring on his finger. People knew what that meant. Simultaneously, a reminder that he was backing the candidates and a “bilakh” (the finger) by the Reformists to those who insist he is so dangerous that his very features must remain hidden from the public.

Iranians are good at giving the finger: They collectively raised it almost three years ago, too. The same Khatami, only days before the 2013 presidential election — enough time for a message to register, but not enough time for hard-liners to counter it — endorsed the lesser-known Hassan Rouhani and urged the electorate to make their voices heard. They followed, if only to give the finger to those, inside and outside Iran, who claim Iranian elections don’t matter. This time, he endorsed a long list of candidates — whose names would have to be handwritten on ballots by voters — via video on the popular messaging app Telegram. To be safe, the video was also uploaded to YouTube, which is censored in Iran but available to those who want to access it via VPN. Wash, rinse, repeat.

There was always something unclean (haram) about certain members of parliament. Members who Iranians and outsiders alike call hard-liners, some who even threatened Rouhani’s Cabinet members — not with censure for making a nuclear deal with the West, but with death, buried in concrete, as one member of parliament, perhaps channeling Tony Soprano, suggested, and not in jest. As of this writing and where the vote count stands, parliament appears to have been washed and rinsed of that particular stain. Representing Tehran province, which has 30 seats in the parliament, the hard-liners have all but disappeared. There will be quite a few left in the body, of course, but they are somewhat defanged, if not fully declawed. And as with any bad stain, repeated washing and rinsing will eventually fade even the most stubborn. That is what voters seem to want, judging by how they also approached voting for the other state body — the Assembly of Experts.

Despite the somewhat Orwellian nomenclature, the assembly is realistically powerful and important on only one occasion: the death of a supreme leader. The assembly is then tasked with choosing a new leader — something that has happened only once in the 37-year history of the Islamic Republic. Its other task, actual supervision of that leader, is only a formality at best. Much was written in the past few weeks about how this vote was going to be important because the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 76 years old and the next assembly, which convenes for eight-year terms, would likely elect his successor. I doubt that that was the reason most Iranians came out in force to eject the most hard-line members of the body, for ayatollahs are not known to die young and, besides, young Iranians who make up the majority of voters (as well as the majority of the population) tend not to be keen observers of the clerical scene.

They do, however, know the most famous of the assembly well; particularly the “crocodile” Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, much despised by Reformists and not just for his suggestion that voters’ opinions don’t count in an Islamic system, but also for his mentoring of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his rejection of almost any idea that could conceivably be thought of as enlightened. Their opinions counted this time, much to his presumed chagrin and delight of not just Khatami, whom he accused of sedition in the wake of the protests in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections, but also of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the “shark” who easily won re-election and who is a strong supporter if not of liberals then of pragmatic Iranians who recognize that the most hard line of hard-liners have brought nothing but unenviable repute — and attendant consequences that include unwanted isolation — to their country. When the final tally is official, there will be many conservatives in the Assembly of Experts, including the other well-known hard-liner, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, but the collective finger given by voters to the likes of Mesbah Yazdi will not be easily forgotten by them. Wash, rinse and repeat.

Armchair Iran experts, mostly sitting in the United States or in Europe, will dissect the election results ad nauseam over the next few days. Already there are those — some who either claimed the elections didn’t matter or that conservatives would continue to dominate — who insist that Iran hasn’t changed or that, more importantly for us in the West, its foreign policy won’t change. But it’s hard to argue that Iran hasn’t changed since the last round of washing. In 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama, despite what the Republican candidates this year will tell you, would hardly have been successful in making a nuclear deal if it hadn’t. And in 2016, Iranians stood in long lines, sat down and handwrote the names of candidates on ballots because they believed that it would make a difference in their lives.

There are many things that haven’t changed in Iran, as some observers will rightly point out. And not just because so many Reformists were disqualified from running for office this time, resulting in a strategic decision by the leadership to back anyone not in the hardest of hard-line camp rather than call for a boycott of the vote, an act that would simply deliver victory to those on the radical right. There also remains, for now, a stultifying security atmosphere in Iran, a judiciary often at odds with the administrative branch, and social and political freedoms many voters hoped for in 2013 that have not yet materialized.

If some Western observers hope that Reformists (still not a majority in the government) — even those too liberal to even qualify to run for election, those under house arrest or those languishing in prison — are looking to normalize relations with Israel, drop support of Hezbollah or the Palestinians, and join the Western bloc in demanding that Bashar al-Assad must go from Syria, then they are delusional. If they believe that Iranians on the whole wish for those things, they are perhaps also delusional. Yes, Iranians want change. They want a betterment of their lives, they want peace with their neighbors, they want radical extremists such as the Islamic State to be defeated, they want to be part of the world community, they want to be respected, they want technology (especially a fast Internet), they want jobs and they want their kids to be more successful than they are. What they don’t want is to be told that their vote doesn’t count, or that it doesn’t matter.

Hooman Majd is an Iranian-American author and journalist. He is also a contributor to NBC News.

Women win big in Iran’s parliamentary elections

By Narges Bajoghli, Al-Monitor, ‘Iran Pulse’, Feb 29, 2016

The number of women in Iran’s next parliament is set to double compared to the incumbent parliament.

Supporter of winning Iran parliamentary candidate Parvaneh Salahshouri holds electoral leaflets during a campaign event in Tehran on Feb 18, 2016 (Raheb Homavandi, Reuters)

Supporter of winning Iran parliamentary candidate Parvaneh Salahshouri holds electoral leaflets during a campaign event in Tehran on Feb 18, 2016 (Raheb Homavandi, Reuters)

The Islamic Republic’s 10th parliamentary elections have yielded a significant victory not only for Reformists but also for women pushing for change in Iranian society. While the final nationwide results are not expected until March 1; early numbers show twice the number of female members as in the previous parliament. Though ballots from many districts are still uncounted, it is clear that the number of women will reach at least 22. Thus far, 15 women have won seats in Parliament, and 14 of them are Reformists. These include all eight women on the Reformist-moderate “List of Hope” in Tehran, where the results are set to be finalized on Feb. 29.

“This election is significant because it represents the first time women’s rights activists from across the political spectrum inside and outside Iran came together to push for more women to run and fill seats in the [parliament],” Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a parliament member who famously stood up to hard-liners, said in an interview with Al-Monitor. Living in exile in Boston today after resigning in protest in 2004, Haghighatjoo, herself among the youngest lawmakers when she was elected in 2000. She said, “The young generation in Iran is the biggest segment of society, and it is important to have women sitting in parliament to bring their issues to the fore.”

The youngest new parliament member is a 30-year old Reformist from Tehran. Seyedeh Fatemeh Hosseini, a PhD candidate in finance at the University of Tehran, ran on a platform of advancing the voices of her generation and advocating their issues to decision-makers. Crucially, in a campaign speech to students at her alma mater, Amir Kabir University, Hosseini spoke about the securitized atmosphere on university campuses since the suppression of the 2009 Green Movement, saying, “Students want a safe university space, not a securitized one. I fully believe what President [Hassan] Rouhani says: ‘The best place to criticize power is in the university.’”

Along with others on the “List of Hope,” Hosseini campaigned for economic progress and to further foreign investment following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. To address women’s rights, she plans to focus on employment opportunities for her generation, saying, “Today, 45% of young women between the ages of 20-24 are unemployed. This shows the inequality of opportunity for employment that exists for young women, and this must be changed.” World Bank data suggests that unemployment among young Iranian men is less than half that of young women.

The push to change the gender makeup of parliament began last November, when various women’s rights groups initiated campaigns to increase the number of female parliament members to 100. These social media campaigns by a plethora of women’s groups aimed to elect women who advance gender equality to 30% of Parliament’s 290 seats. As a result, a record number of women registered as candidates for parliament: 1,234 out of the total of 12,123 hopefuls. Out of the over 6,200 registered candidates who were approved by the Guardian Council, 586 were women. In the Assembly of Experts elections, which were held in parallel with the parliamentary vote, 16 women registered to run. However, all of them were disqualified by the Guardian Council.

Tayyebeh Siavoshi, one of the eight women elected from the Reformist-moderate “List of Hope” in Tehran, credited these campaigns for her candidacy. “I wasn’t even considering a run until these campaigns started,” she said prior to the vote. “When I saw women’s rights activists encouraging women to register, I decided to do my part and I registered like thousands of others. It was only after so many people were unjustly disqualified from the elections that I decided to continue the candidacy.” Siavoshi, who has worked in the Foreign Ministry and led efforts to get women involved in international organizations, has been a civil society activist for years, focusing on women and children’s rights.

Another new Reformist parliament member from Tehran, Parvaneh Salahshouri, expressed great hope for the incoming parliament in a video interview circulated on social media. She said that the elections represent a good step toward working for women’s issues in the country. “In the previous parliament, there were nine women MPs out of a total of 290 lawmakers. In this election alone, the ‘List of Hope’ from Tehran had eight [female] candidates.” Asked whether the new women parliamentarians will make a difference for women’s rights in the country, Salahshouri responded, “Of course! The conservative women in parliament think completely differently from us. They are against women. Their language and policies are all pro-men.” She went on to say that she and her new female colleagues will work to change the divorce laws in the country, as well as turn the parliament’s attention to violence against women.

Haghighatjoo finds it significant that the women who have won election come from a variety of academic backgrounds. This, she believes, will mean that these women can serve on a variety of committees in parliament – specifically the Planning and Budget Committee, which has never had a woman member. Haghighatjoo told Al-Monitor, “In order to get [legislation] related to women, youth, and children passed, we need to make sure they are included in the country’s annual budget, and this year, I believe we have a chance to get women appointed to that committee.”

Haghighatjoo had some advice for the largest cohort of Reformist women elected to parliament since the days she herself led Reformists in the Iranian legislature: “I think they should start working together now and not wait to be sworn in in May. They need to strategize how they can support each other and women’s rights in parliament. They need to build alliances with other MPs and work to see how they can ensure funding for women’s issues in next year’s budget.”

Narges Bajoghli is an advanced anthropology PhD candidate at New York University, focusing on pro-regime cultural producers in Iran.

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