The competition in the Iranian presidential election is heating up, or so it seemed until recently on Iranian government-sponsored television. Unlike the previous election, the challengers to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are well-known heavyweights who include former Prime Minister Mir-Mossein Moussavi, former Majlis (Parliament) speaker Mehdi Karroubi, and Secretary of the Expediency Council Mohsen Rezaie; the candidates had been getting regular coverage on their opposing policies, with each making his case for the presidency.
Starting today, May 22, and until June 10, six presidential debates will be broadcast on Iran's state television, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). The Iranian state broadcast authority will equally distribute pre-election television and radio airtime among the four leading presidential hopefuls. Nevertheless, two of the challengers, Mousavi and Karroubi have accused state television of "repeated and open breaches of neutrality" and biased coverage favoring Ahmadinejad. I couldn't agree more.
I've been watching four Iranian satellite networks, IRIB 2 (broadcasting in Farsi and English), IRINN (broadcasting in Farsi and Arabic), Press TV (broadcasting in English), and Al Alam (broadcasting in Arabic) where the Iranian President's recent announcement of the successful test-launch of an advanced surface-to-surface solid-fuel missile, the Sajjil-2, that could reach Israel and other potential targets across the Middle East has eclipsed news coverage of his three main rivals. Western and Middle Eastern media have taken the bait as well by rebroadcasting the missile launch, exaggerating the threat, and playing up its success.
Headlines all over the world read: Iran Tests New Missile that Could Reach Israel!
Millions of Iranian voters have already watched this scene before on television; a blue rocket rising against a sunny desert backdrop, surrounded by the red, white and green flags of the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad is beaming with victory. Déjà vu all over again!
What's new? Iran has long had missiles that could reach Israel and the Persian Gulf states where the U.S. maintains several bases. And yes, Ahmadinejad has boasted that the new Sajjil-2 incorporates "advanced technology" that makes it more accurate than Iran's arsenal of Shahab-series missiles, but this is hardly a major advancement that will affect the balance of power in the region. The timing of the launch has more to do with Ahmadinejad's declining popularity due to his poor performance with the economy and Iran's isolation.
To win the presidency in Iran, a leading candidate must receive 50% of the vote; otherwise, a runoff election will be held between the top two vote-getters. Polls have been all over the place, with a news agency close to Ahmadinejad called Fars reporting in a recent poll that 54.5% of respondents favor the incumbent, while other polls show him hovering at around 34%.
Meanwhile, challengers to Ahmadinejad have been criticizing his foreign policy. Former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi accused the incumbent of cultivating relations with ideologically kindred countries in Latin America instead of forging ties with the nearby nations of the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East.
"We have neglected civilizations in which Iran has played a role and moved toward Latin America," he said on Iran's Press TV. "We have forgotten cities we lost in wars between Iran and Russia and cling to countries such as Venezuela and Uruguay."
A few days ago, Iran's spiritual leader warned voters against supporting pro-Western candidates in June's presidential elections. As usual, his speech was broadcast on all government controlled television stations.
"Those who submit to the enemies and bring shame on the nation should not come to power by the people's vote," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said during a speech in the western town of Bijar.
Many Iranian political observers have interpreted these comments to be an endorsement of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's approach to foreign policy over those of his challengers. Will the Iranian populace re-elect Ahmadinejad as President, and if so, will it be because he succeeded in razzling and dazzling them with his missiles, nuclear ambition, and defiance of the West? Or will it be because the Supreme Leader designated him the "chosen one"?
In any event, I've recently put my own money on Ahmadinejad (five bucks worth).
Jamal Dajani produces the Mosaic Intelligence Report on Link TV.