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The reform of Rouhani?

Tough task for Iranian presidential candidate who needs to get both reformists and conservatives to vote for him.
Last modified: 8 Jun 2013 11:42

Is Hassan Rouhani now a reformist? A moderate? He is, at least according to the head of his presidential campaign. On at least five floors in a tall building in Hafte Tir, covered with giant posters of Rouhani, they're working, trying to get the message out that the cleric, once considered a radical, is not so much anymore.

He was once considered a radical inside and outside Iran (he still probably is outside), because he was a revolutionary, helped overthrow a government, is a follower of Khomeini (the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution) and a man of the Qom seminaries.

None of these things have changed. But radical to reformist is a fine line to walk. Although it has worked in the past (see Mohammed Khatami), if one talks to reform-minded voters now, they're not so enthusiastic. Especially those who cast ballots for the opposition last election.

Many say they're not going to bother voting. And that's the problem – Rouhani's camp needs them.

It's well known that Khatami didn't just draw in the reformists – he won two landslide elections by snaring both conservatives and the more liberal. But it's a much more difficult act now.

Mohammed Reza Nematzadeh, Rouhani's campaign manager, acknowledges this when I asked him how the camp could ever lure back the reformist vote; he says the youth have been "battered" in the last few years, but that Rouhani was aiming to turn that around. They hope his message of more freedoms will bring them back to the ballot box.

In the second and third debates, Rouhani was highly critical of crackdowns on students and the press, of the state meddling in peoples lives. His mention of beloved traditional singer and composer Mohammed Reza Shajarian also set social media alight, and earned the praise of many young Iranians.

It may seem like a small thing, but Rouhani's campaign thinks they're getting somewhere. "Every day many young people come here to see how they can help, it shows we are catching up," Nematzadeh told me.

Rouhani might seem like a reformist, but he is a revolutionary. He has been part of the establishment since its inception in 1979. He was trusted enough to be the Supreme Leader's representative at the Supreme National Security Council and the country's chief nuclear negotiator.

Former President Mohammed Khatami says if Rouhani's not as high profile as some other people, it's because most of his work was secretive.

But of the eight candidates the Guardian Council qualified – Rouhani is the only cleric. And he's only one of two reformists; the other being Mohammed Reza Aref, and speculation has been swirling for weeks that he's being pushed to pull out in favour of Rouhani, so as not to split the reformist vote.

But that may not matter if he can't get conservatives. Outside Friday Prayers at Tehran University – exactly a week before the election, flyers and posters littered the streets like snow (for both Tehran city elections and the presidential one).

Chants, too, rose up as people gathered in the street.

Most seemed to be in favour of the principalists: Haddad Adel, Ali Akbar Velayati, Saeed Jalili and Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf. And although he's a cleric, and Friday Prayers at Tehran University is the traditional house of those loyal to the revolution, very few people voiced any support for Rouhani.

Not even a young man about to enter seminary school. He said Jalili was the man he would vote for, not the mullah, because he thinks that's what the Supreme Leader wants.

Another conservative religious man, who identified himself as a member of the Basij paramilitary, turned his nose up at the idea as well. He too favours Jalili.

And that's what Rouhani faces; he not only has to get reformists to vote for him, he has to get conservatives to do the same. And no matter how tall his posters are, or how many building they cover, if you believe what people say, including analysts like Sadeq Zibakalam, uniting the political aisle is a taller order to ask for.