06/12/2013, 00.00
IRAN
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Iranian society under tight control ahead of upcoming presidential election

by Dani Mozadegh
For months, the authorities have banned and muzzled the media, jailed journalists, warned those who might threaten security. Two men appear to be the frontrunners, Saeed Jalili, who is backed by Ayatollah Khamenei; and Hassan Rouhani, who enjoys reformist support. The former wants to continue the standoff with the West over Iran's nuclear programme. The second wants to talk to ease pressures on the economy, where inflation is running at an annual rate of 31 per cent.

Tehran (AsiaNews) - In two days, Iranians will vote for a new president, without much hope, prostrated by economic hardships caused by the embargo. The atmosphere is very different from that of four years ago. In 2009, debates were heated and when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory was announced, demonstrators poured into the streets of the capital accusing him of fraud, sparking what came to be known as the Green Wave, the biggest challenge to the regime since Khomeini's death.

Intense repression followed. Several people were killed in the streets or in prison; many were arrested, including journalists and activists, and given long sentences. Mousavi and Karroubi, two of the Green Wave movement's leaders, were placed under house arrest.

As a security precaution against any repeat, any possible unrest or "sedition" was nipped in the bud ahead of time. In fact, months before the poll, Iran's Intelligence Ministry took into custody 17 journalists.

In February, three leading social and political publications-the weekly Aseman and the monthlies Tajrobeh and Mehrnameh, all belonging to the reformist camp-were banned.

In April, Deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance for Press and Information Mohammad-Jafar Mohammadzadeh called on the country's media to exercise "self-control" ahead of the June election. Anyone who did not "would be dealt with severely."

On 18 May, journalist Foad Sadeghi was arrested. Eitor-in-chief of Baztab Emruz, a reformist website, he has published revelations about vote rigging that favoured Ahmadinejad in 2009. At the same time, the press close to the outgoing president has been hit in recent weeks as well.

With most media staying away from controversy and avoiding opinions or criticism, the lion share of election coverage has fallen on state media, which have presented several candidate debates. But even they believe that the exercise was largely futile.

Out of hundreds of candidates who applied to run, only eight were chosen. Some of them quit recently, including rightwinger Ali Akbar Velayati, a close adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Rumours persist that the supreme leaders prefers Saeed Jalili, Iran's current chief nuclear negotiator, who has opted for a confrontational approach vis-à-vis the international community in order to continue the country's nuclear programme, which many suspect to be military in nature.

Jalili, 48, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) in which he lost a leg, is famous for his integrity, modest lifestyle, but also bland personality. He has been favoured by state media coverage.

The only reformist candidate, after Mohammad Reza Aref pulled out, is Hassan Rouhani (pictured), 65, a Shia cleric, and a former nuclear negotiator under reformist President Khatami.

A law graduate from Tehran University of Tehran, he also earned a doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian University.

During the campaign, he has called for greater press freedom and less social control, and has already announced that he wants Iran to take a less confrontational with the West.

Already under Khatami, he had said that Iran should be free to proceed with its peaceful nuclear program but that UN agencies should be able to monitor it.

His more conciliatory attitude towards the West could be his winning card.

Because of the embargo, the country's economy has been crippled. However, for Rouhani, Iran's 31 per cent inflation is not due to the international sanctions but to Ahmadinejad's mismanagement of the country's inefficient oil industry.

In recent days, Rouhani received the support of former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.

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