Democracy, Iranian style


Say what you will about the danger of Iranian theocracy, but at least this much is true: the Islamic Republic is capable of the liveliest electioneering available in the Muslim world. The New York Times has a nice overview of the craziness, but If you’re pressed for time, here are the highlights.

Last week, the top contenders — incumbent president, Holocaust denier, and scourge of Zionists worldwide Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the reformist former primer minister and husband of the most interesting political wife in the Middle East Mir-Hossein Moussavi — engaged in an American-style presidential debate, an Iranian first (Full English video here, a quick play-by-play courtsey of Time here). The two traded all manner of barbs, with Moussavi assailing the incumbent for his incessant commentary on the Holocaust and the supposedly imminent demise of the United States.

But the moment that caught the public’s attention when was Ahmadinejad started attacking Moussavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, the first woman to campaign with her husband for higher office in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic. Rahnavard has become a fascinating character in the campaign, and a vigorous critic of the president, who accused her during the debate of faking her way into college. The reaction hasn’t been pretty. Rahnavard is threatening a lawsuit and the attack may have hurt Ahmadinejad in the polls. (CNN has a nice video report on Rhanavard’s role in the campaign).

But the most absurd election moment might be Ahmadinejad’s claim, made four years ago but recently gone viral thanks to the Internet, that a halo enveloped him when he spoke at the U.N. in 2005.

From the Times:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is being mocked in the run-up to this week’s Iranian presidential elections for a videoclip in which he boasts of how world leaders watched him for almost half an hour without blinking as he spoke in a halo of light to the United Nations.

The speech in question was in September 2005 when the Iranian President used his first address to the UN General Assembly in New York to indulge in a bit of his favourite sport, bashing America.

Afterwards, according to a videoclip that has gone viral in the e-mail inboxes of Tehran, he told a top cleric, Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli, that a "light" had enveloped him and that the crowd stared at him unblinkingly during the entire speech.

“A member of the (Iranian) delegation told me, ’I saw a light that surrounded you,”’ Mr Ahmadinejad said on the tape.

“I sensed it myself too … I felt the atmosphere changed. All leaders in audience didn’t blink for 27, 28 minutes. I’m not exaggerating when I’m saying they didn’t blink. Everybody had been astonished … they had opened their eyes and ears to see what is the message from the Islamic Republic.”

The episode is vaguely reminiscent of the president’s assertion at Columbia that there are no gays in the Islamic Republic. The remark prompted laughter from the audience, and the Iranian public seems to be reacting similarly, with a former government official mocking Ahmadinejad on television last week. We’ll have to wait until Friday though to find out who has the last laugh.

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