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Iran's Azerbaijanis and the presidential election, CU Issue 35, June 01, 2009

Iran’s presidential election is less than two weeks away, and gambling against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would be a risky bet. He has the advantage of incumbency; the ability to mobilise state resources, including the media, in his favour; and the quiet support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. His opponents have a number of drawbacks. Mohzen Rezai has good conservative credentials as a former head of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, but is unlikely to steal away enough of the conservative votes to unseat President Ahmadinejad. The two moderate candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, suffer from the traditional reformist woes of voter apathy and a split vote. Indeed, it was to preserve reformist unity that ex-President Mohammad Khatami dropped out in March, giving his support to Mr. Mousavi.

The election is arguably Mr Ahmadinejad’s to lose. The great unknown at the moment is voter turnout – reformists have claimed that a high turnout would swamp the current President’s supporters. This is perhaps optimistic, but the appetite for change in Iran (the campaign slogan of Mr. Karroubi, who was allegedly inspired by the Holy Koran rather than Barack Obama (PressTV, April 27)) is undoubted, and may overcome the electorate’s usual lethargy. In particular, President Ahmadinejad’s handling of the economy may encourage voters to turn out against him, and his challengers have been quick to criticise his wasteful spending of the country’s oil windfall and his inability to rein in inflation and unemployment. His constant rhetorical attacks on the West and Israel irritate many ordinary Iranians, who care more about a steady job than they do about the Holocaust.

Mr. Mousavi is probably the President’s strongest challenger. He served as prime minister during the war with Iraq in the 1980s, when his efforts to end shortages and inequalities won him praise across the political spectrum. He has also pledged to end Iran’s unpopular ‘moral police’ and to open talks with the West, whilst retaining the country’s nuclear program (Press TV, April 9). He is also an ethnic Azerbaijani, which raises the question of how Iran’s biggest minority (making up ca. 25 to 30 million of the country's population of ca. 70 million) will affect the outcome of the presidential election.

Mr. Mousavi’s support amongst Iran’s Azerbaijanis is solid, although it is not entirely driven by ethnicity. Azerbaijanis are generally well-integrated into Iranian life, and as a result of a century-long policy of persianization and assimilation the ethnic identity has been weakened, especially amongst those living in the cities of mixed populations (such as the capital city Tehran). As is often remarked, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is also an ethnic Azerbaijani – from the same town as Mr. Mousavi, no less. But this fact does not give Mr. Mousavi any advantage in the electoral race.

Although the threat of secessionism amongst Iranian Azerbaijanis is often overplayed, there is a very real sense of marginalisation within the country’s Azerbaijani population. Massive public protests in the Azerbaijani towns of Iran in recent years indicate the growing desire of the Azerbaijani minority for more cultural rights. In particular, the issue of ban on teaching Azerbaijani language in schools is explosive, with some accusing the central authorities of suppressing the Azerbaijani tongue. More broadly, many Azerbaijanis resent the common stereotypes of themselves amongst the Persian majority, one of which was aired in a recent Internet video.

The footage, filmed apparently on a mobile phone, showed the ex-President Khatami making a disparaging joke about Azerbaijani Turks. The video has prompted uproar, and a number of protests by Azerbaijanis have broken out across Iran (RFE/RL, May 24). Mr. Khatami claimed that the video was a fake, released in order to discredit Mr. Mousavi - whom the ex-President is supporting -before the election. This is possible, given the willingness of the authorities to manipulate the vote through other means, such as temporarily blocking Facebook (BBC News, May 24).

Whether Mr. Khatami’s remarks will dent Mr. Mousavi’s campaign is uncertain. Clearly Mr. Mousavi should not be punished for the sins of his supporter, but he may be required to make a firm public statement opposing the comments. In any case, his support amongst Azerbaijanis is probably strong enough to withstand a blow like this. He has repeatedly decried the Ahmadinejad administration’s approach to minority rights, and has promised to allow the teaching of minority languages in schools. Taking a pro-active stance on this flashpoint issue will probably cement his hold over Iran’s Azerbaijanis.

But Mr. Mousavi cannot win by concentrating on his power base alone. Although significant in number, Iran’s Azerbaijani population is not big enough to win an election. Turnout amongst Azerbaijanis is another problem. In the 2005 election, when only 43.5% of the electorate in the three predominantly Azerbaijani provinces went to the polls, even though another ethnic Azerbaijani, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, was running. To be fair, Mr. Mousavi is a much more recognisable figure and has a solid string of accomplishments to his name, but Iranian Azerbaijan is not an election-winner by itself. However, if no single candidate wins 50% of the vote, then a second round run-off takes place. Therefore the main role of the Azerbaijani provinces will be to boost Mr. Mousavi’s share of the vote in the first round, so that he enters the run-off against the other likely top candidate, President Ahmadinejad.

If he makes it into the second round, Mr. Mousavi will be forced to broaden his support base. President Ahmadinejad continues to draw his electoral strength from the rural poor: Mr. Mousavi may attempt to co-opt this strategy, but it will not be easy. His other option in the second round is to expand his appeal to Iran’s other minorities, concentrating on winning their votes whilst conceding control over rural voters. He appears to be pursuing this strategy already (NDI.org, May 21). Minorities have certainly been more prominent in this election than previously. Mr. Karroubi, the other reformist, did well amongst them in the 2005 election and Mr. Mousavi may be able to absorb his support amongst them in the second round. His strong showing amongst women and urban liberals may then be enough to tip the balance.

This is of course speculation, and there are two main obstacles for Mr. Mousavi to overcome. Firstly, campaigning on an ethnic platform is a double-edged sword. The recent bomb blast in a mosque in Iran’s south-east, in the country’s Baluchi-populated area, may suggest two things to Persian swing voters (BBC News, May 28). It may be interpreted as a sign that Iran’s minorities are restless and marginalised, and need to be brought into the fold by a candidate with strong ethnic credentials. But the security threat in Baluchistan and the language protests in Iranian Azerbaijan may also be perceived by Persian voters as a sign of a need for a strong central control in order to prevent the country’s fragmentation.

Secondly, the clerical and military authorities may simply block Mr. Mousavi from becoming President. Azerbaijani solidarity is not enough for Supreme Leader Khamenei to favour the reformist; there is little doubt that most of the establishment, including the Supreme Leader, would prefer President Ahmadinejad to win. A blatant vote rigging, particularly if it comes down to the second round, could have serious repercussions. It would certainly increase resentment amongst Iran’s Azerbaijanis. If the next administration is as indifferent to the cultural demands of its largest minority as the current one, expect to see plenty more protests.

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