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Iran: Will Violence Punctuate Presidential Election?

Large-scale electoral violence is not a defining trait of Iranian elections, but violent incidents do occur, and they have chiefly targeted reformers. The culprits are usually rowdy men who disrupt electoral gatherings. Sometimes they beat attendees -- and the speaker, if they are sufficiently determined -- in incidents that spread fear and cause injuries rather than deaths. And, despite threats from officials to take action, the perpetrators often go unpunished, strengthening an impression that the political thugs enjoy discreet support from elements within the political establishment.

There is to be no formal campaigning for the 17 June presidential polls until 27 May, when hopefuls approved by the Guardians Council -- the electoral supervisory body -- can officially campaign as candidates. But some possible candidates have already been speaking to crowds around the country, and incidents have occurred at some of those gatherings. The two main incidents have affected Mehdi Karrubi, a leading reformist hopeful. On 7 May, a group of some 100 people disrupted his speech at a mosque in Zanjan, in northwestern Iran, and sought to attack Karrubi himself, "Sharq" reported on 8 May. Witnesses said the group arrived "in two buses" and sat in the front row "near Karrubi's position." When Karrubi spoke about a promise he made earlier to pay adult Iranians a minimum monthly stipend if he is elected president, "they rose together" and shouted that he was lying, before attacking the podium, "Sharq" added. Karrubi was led out with the help of aides and attendants, the daily reported.

On 6 May, as Karrubi addressed a crowd in Qom, south of Tehran, 20 to 30 people reportedly "acting in an organized way," pushed their way to the front and began shouting and chanting, the daily "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 7 May. Karrubi let them onto the podium "so they could speak, if they had something to say." A verbal exchange ensued, though the meeting later continued. As Karrubi left the rally, "they chanted provocative slogans...and kicked and hit the bus carrying Karrubi's supporters," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. There have been other similar incidents.

On 11 May, Ebrahim Yazdi, the head of a liberal group often targeted for harassment, had to abandon a meeting with members of the public at a press fair in Tehran after an unspecified disruption by "some of his opponents," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day.

On 22 April, presidential hopeful Akbar Alami reportedly abandoned his speech at the Muhaqqiq Ardebili University in northwestern Iran when some audience members began to fight, though an aide later denied the report, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 25 April, citing ILNA.

On 18 April, students protested outside the provincial governor's office in the western town of Shahr-i Kurd because a student was earlier beaten "by non-students," at a gathering addressed by conservative candidate Ali Larijani, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 20 April, citing ILNA. Unknown assailants struck the student when he queried Larijani about his record as the former head of state television and radio, the daily stated.

On 7 March, students interrupted a speech at Isfahan University by the reformist candidate Mustafa Moin, objecting to some of his earlier decisions as higher education minister, IRNA reported that day. Some of these incidents are protests by Iranians not used to finding themselves so physically close to those they see and hear about and who claim to speak on their behalf. Appearances by such people provide the public with a chance to give them a piece of their mind. Others incidents, like the one that happened with Karrubi, are planned acts of intimidation.

Mindful of the past, reformers are concerned about a repetition of threatening tactics when campaigning starts. Mohammad Reza Khatami of the reformist Participation Party warned on 13 May that "the agents of authoritarianism" have "plans for the disruption of Moin and Karrubi's programs, and this...has occurred in several places," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 14 May. Rasul Montajabnia, a Karrubi ally, told ILNA on 14 May that disruptions of Karrubi's meetings illustrate a "feeling of fear" among "authoritarians." Former legislator Fazel Amir-Jahani told the Fars news agency on 10 May that "Karrubi's victory in the elections means an end to the activities of rogue groups, which is why these groups are already concerned and trying to disrupt" his gatherings. "They know Karrubi will prevent underground groups...[from] coming to power," he said.

Aside from violence, Mohammad Reza Khatami was concerned on 13 May about the future "conduct" of the Guardians Council, whose strict vetting of hopefuls barred thousands, including allies of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, from running in the 2004 parliamentary polls. Reformers might argue that the vetting process is the first line of conservative defense in elections: those the Guardians Council cannot reasonably bar may then have to be reminded -- with some pushing and shoving if need be -- that they are not welcome in the corridors of power.

Conservatives generally fail to mention electoral violence as a problem, if they acknowledge its existence at all, unlike Khatami-appointed Interior Minister Abdulvahed Musavi-Lari. He said in Tehran on 13 May that "people who disrupt electoral meetings will be dealt with as rioters," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 14 May. "We shall deal with these people," and "those who do not tolerate other people's ideas," he said. The police, he said, have "primary responsibility" for assuring electoral security. He clearly hopes that the police, who sometimes hesitate to act forcefully with people thought to have friends in high places, will implement the letter of the law.

Police chief Ali Abdullahi said on 24 April that "we shall have no problems assuring the security of elections," ILNA reported that day. The judiciary, which some consider a conservative-dominated body, has not specifically mentioned violence as one of the "electoral offenses" it has vowed to combat. It seems more concerned with vote counting, a task performed by the Interior Ministry. Deputy judiciary chief Amir Abbas Sohrab-Beig said in Tehran on 13 May that the judiciary has opened offices nationwide to "swiftly" deal with unspecified offenses and "safeguard...the accuracy and health" of votes, ILNA reported the same day. On 17 May, he said that the judiciary is "impartial," and obligated to "guard the people's vote," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 18 May.

When campaigning starts, the scope of violence may depend on who will run for the presidency and whether or not voters will be galvanized -- as they were in 1997 -- into going out and supporting their candidate. If they do, and if some conservatives feel threatened by the prospect of a reformist president who might become an institutional headache for four years, then the rowdy men may return to play their part.