Can Iran’s Minorities Help Oust Ahmadinejad?

Can Irans Minorities Help Oust Ahmadinejad?

The presidential candidate was greeted last Monday at the airport
by a jubilant throng, chanting “Azerbaijan is awake, and is supporting its
son!” That slogan, shouted in the Azeri language, might sound a little
discordant, given that Mir-Hossein Moussavi is running for President not of
Azerbaijan, but of Iran. But the enthusiasm of his home-state crowd in East
Azerbaijan may help explain — at least in part — why Moussavi is
currently the strongest challenger to incumbent President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election.

The rights and concerns of Iran’s ethnic minorities are enjoying a prominence in this year’s race far greater than during any previous election in the Islamic Republic. Both Moussavi and the other reformist candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, have traveled far and wide in Iran to court Lors, Kurds, Arabs, Turkomans, Azeris,
Baluchis and other non-Persian minorities who together make up almost half of the
population. Under Ahmadinejad’s government, there has been greater repression of political and media activity among the minorities, a fact the state justifies by citing U.S. government efforts to undermine the Islamic Republic by funding opposition activities among minorities in the border regions. Despite the country’s patchwork of intertwined ethnicities, religions and languages, Iranians from all backgrounds harbor a strong sense of national identity. Still, the central government has historically been wary of the minorities who mostly inhabit Iran’s
peripheral provinces.

At a campaign event in Tehran last week, Moussavi blasted what he
called the current government’s “securitization of minorities,” and said if
elected, he would allow greater official use of minority languages. He also
nodded to calls by the country’s Sunni Muslims to build a mosque in Tehran.

In Tabriz on Monday, addressing a cheering crowd of about 30,000 in his
native Azeri, Moussavi trumpeted, “Azerbaijan has always stood up against dictators. Azerbaijan’s champions have changed the destiny of Iran.” He
cited the names of important Azeri figures in Iran’s democratic tradition.

Azeris are the most integrated and influential among Iran’s
minorities. While it is rare for a Kurd or an Arab to occupy a high
office in the Islamic Republic, many of the leading figures in today’s regime
are Azeri, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

As his name indicates, the country’s most powerful man is from
Khameneh, a breezy town northwest of Tabriz, dotted with sycamore trees, gushing streams and approximately 5,000 residents. Portraits at a local museum highlight
the small town’s disproportionately large share of Iranian VIPs, starting
with Khamenei, going back about a century, and ending with reformist
candidate Moussavi.
In fact, Moussavi is not only from the same
town as Khameini, but according to locals is actually related to the Supreme Leader.
Moussavi’s relative Majid Motameni, 82, a gentle old man with sparkly
eyes, when asked about Moussavi’s rumored family ties to the Supreme Leader, told TIME that Moussavi is the grandson of Khamenei’s paternal aunt.

Khamenei himself was actually born in Mashhad in the northeast, where
his father had been studying at a seminary. Another local relative said
that when SAVAK, the Shah’s intelligence service, had been chasing the
revolutionary cleric, Khamenei had hidden at his aunt’s place in Khameneh
for one night. Even as they reminisced about the town’s most powerful son, its people prepared to welcome the candidate of reform who hopes to succeed the
conservative Ahmadinejad. The town square was covered with neon-yellow
get-out-the-vote banners proclaiming “Every citizen a campaign headquarter.”

Esmail Pourshaban-Khameneh, 60, a motorbike mechanic, has set
up an actual Moussavi campaign headquarters and closed down his garage
for a month in order to mobilize support for the reformist. Pourshaban supports the candidate, “not because he’s from here, but because we remember his service during the war [against Iraq in the 1980s, when then-prime minister Moussavi is credited with helping overcome crippling shortages]. Back then we
were in a dire economic situation, yet no one felt that food was too expensive.”

Despite Iran’s unprecedented oil income over the last four years, many
Iranians are struggling financially amid high rates of inflation and unemployment that plague most families. Thus the candidate’s economic focus at his Tabriz rally. “Iran is a rich country,” Moussavi said. “Poverty is not our destiny. It is the government’s mismanagement that has led to this.”

In response, supporters chanted, “Death to the government of potatoes,” referring to Ahmadinejad’s distribution of some 400,000 tons of free potatoes in villages and town across the country last month. The potatoes were snapped up in a blink, but many accused the government of trying to buy votes.

Moussavi’s campaign swing through East Azerbaijan has been a sweet
homecoming. Almost everyone asked on the streets said they would vote
for him because of his past record as a wartime prime minister — and, of
course, because of his Azeri background. But to best Ahmadinejad,
Moussavi will need not only on the votes of the urban elite and ethnic
minorities, but also the backing of many of those villagers all over Iran who were grateful for those potatoes.