On eve of presidential vote, Iranian officials keep wary eye on US

The unexpectedly strong showing by a moderate cleric has generated last-minute buzz about Iran's vote tomorrow. But officials are more concerned about US attempts at 'sedition.'

Vahid Salemi/AP
In front of a portrait of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supporters of the presidential candidate Ali Akbar Velayati, a conservative former foreign minister, hold up balloons in a campaign rally, two days prior to the election, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday. Khamenei has called for a high turnout tomorrow to show popular support for the Islamic Republic, and he may get that critical boost in participation with the apparent surge for Cleric Hassan Rohani.

Election fever finally struck Iran in the last 72 hours before tomorrow's vote to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, amid dark warnings about potential "hand of the enemy" efforts to disrupt the vote.

Cleric Hassan Rohani, a former nuclear negotiator and the single candidate of a centrist-reformist coalition, is gaining ground against a slate of five conservative candidates, all of them closer to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei has called for a high turnout to show popular support for the Islamic Republic, and he may get that critical boost in participation with the apparent surge for Mr. Rohani. The last fraud-tainted 2009 presidential vote sparked weeks of violent unrest that left scores dead and sparked a crisis of legitimacy that still resonates today.

“You will not believe the election buzz in Tehran today” over Rohani, an Iranian journalist told the Tehran Bureau website. “Everyone was so without hope and talking about not ever voting again, and this morning things have changed 180 degrees. It’s like someone put something in the water last night and this morning people are just different.” 

Iranian officials have warned for months that “the enemy” is seeking to use the election period to disrupt their future, subvert the result, and tarnish their nation.

“The enemies think that there is a silent minority in the country who are opposed to the Islamic Republic,” Khamenei said last week. “They have forgotten the annual rallies [on the 1979 Islamic revolution anniversary]: over the past 34 years, massive numbers of people have always taken to the streets in order to defend the Islamic Republic and shout ‘death to America.’”

US: This is a 'selection'

Indeed, American officials have not held back their disdain for a process they dismiss as a “selection” of a candidate loyal to Khamenei, picked undemocratically from a carefully controlled crop of contenders. 

“Four years ago, the Iranian people spoke out for human rights, basic dignity, and greater opportunity,” the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said in testimony before the Senate a month ago. “The regime responded by shooting demonstrators in the streets and frightening families in their homes. And today, Iran’s Guardian Council – unelected and unaccountable – is sorting through presidential contenders, eliminating hundreds of candidates.” 

Amb. Sherman, who is the lead US official in nuclear talks between the Iran and six world powers – which are stalled with little progress, after nearly 1.5 years – said, “I find the regime odious.”

Sherman insisted that the US was not taking sides in the election, and that US policy was not regime change in Iran. She said she could discuss some measures the US was taking in the run-up to the election only in classified sessions with lawmakers.

“But, in public, we are not only using our virtual embassy to share information, but we are helping to make sure that technology can’t be jammed so that people have access to cell phones and computers so they know what’s going on, so that they can use the tools that might be valuable to give them a possibility of a future and of a free and fair election,” said Sherman.

“We don’t expect one, but we want to help the Iranian people to be able to speak with the voice that they should have,” Sherman added.

Iran: US fosters 'sedition'

Khamenei seemed to respond on June 4, when he said in a speech, “In America and other capitalist countries, if a candidate is not a member of the existing two or three parties and if he is not supported by the mafia of wealth and power and by the Zionist network [pro-Israel lobby], he has no opportunities for campaigning.” 

Khamenei said that “foreign enemies close their eyes to these realities and broadcast false propaganda,” and he vowed that high participation in Iran’s vote would produce a “decisive and crushing response to all these machinations.”

Iranian security chiefs have stated for months that they are ready for any event sparked by US action, and will not permit a repeat of the 2009 unrest.

Yadollah Javani, head of the political bureau of the Revolutionary Guard, has described the words “free and fair election” as US code for sedition. And this time, no sedition will be allowed to take root, says one Guard commander after another. 

“In these dangerous conditions, the [Guard] and basij [volunteer militia] have been given serious responsibilities to confront the enemies’ conspiracies against the Islamic revolution,” said Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Sepehr this week, according to a translation from IranTracker.org.

“One of the least costly methods of fighting the revolution’s enemies…is the election’s grand political valor,” said Brig. Gen. Hamid Sarkheyli. “The aware, resistant, and brave Iranian nation will blind the greedy eyes of the enemies of the holy system of the Islamic Republic” by voting.

Pointed gun 

US officials have not held back in their criticism as they did in 2009, when the Obama administration initially kept largely quiet about the vote and its violent aftermath to avoid jeopardizing a tentative US overture from Washington for some kind of detente with Iran. 

This time the geopolitical playing field is very different. That 2009 overture came to nothing, and the US and Iran have since then piled more reasons for mutual anger on a generation of mutual hostility. 

Iran blames the US and Israel for the assassination of five nuclear scientists in Tehran, computer worms like Stuxnet that have infected Iran’s nuclear program, espionage, and a host of unexplained explosions at military sites. 

Those actions – along with a US-engineered series of global sanctions against Iran that have helped cripple its economy – were akin to pointing a “gun” to Iran’s head, Khamenei said last February, as he ruled out direct US-Iran negotiations.

Meanwhile, the US blames Iran for backing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in his effort to violently crush a rebellion. The resulting conflict has cost 93,000 lives in more than two years. Washington also blames Iran for a string of small-scale attacks, incidents and plots in India, Georgia, Thailand, Kenya and even Washington.

Regardless of the turnout or the declared result in tomorrow's vote, Iranians have been left in no doubt about the key role of “the enemy."

Khamenei warned Iranians not to vote for candidates who promised to improve ties with the US. "They hope that the election will be lifeless or followed by [sedition]…but the enemies have made a mistake in their calculations because they do not know our nation," he said.

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