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Iran: Ethnicity And Regional Interests Play Out In Vote

Mustafa Moin (file photo) Close attention to ethnic interests during the current presidential campaign paid off for at least one candidate during the 17 June first-round voting. Mustafa Moin, despite ending up in fifth place overall, topped the list in a province predominantly inhabited by a religious minority. Another candidate, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, won almost all the provinces where members of his ethnic minority predominate. But an examination of provincial voting patterns reveals that these factors ultimately did not play a decisive role in the outcome.

The majority of Iran's 69 million people practice Shi'a Islam, while some 9 percent of them are Sunni Muslims, including most of the country's Baluchis and Turkmens and some of its Kurds. According to the Iranian Constitution, Shi'a Islam is the state religion and other schools of Islam are fully respected. Indeed, a number of state officials are of Kurdish origin, although it is not clear if they are Sunnis. The constitution also notes that the official language is Persian. The use of regional and tribal languages in print and broadcast media and the teaching of the languages in schools is allowed.

Minorities sometimes complain of insufficient attention in state hiring practices and uneven government representation. They also have complaints that are more regionally oriented and focus on issues such as economic development and unemployment. Minorities occasionally complain about the poor quality of state radio and television programming in their languages.

Complaints about discrimination, however, are not the same as separatist demands. Most of the minorities see themselves as Iranians and they want to be treated as equal to the rest of their compatriots. Furthermore, unemployment is a fact all Iranians contend with, not just minorities.

The Sunni Vote

Minorities received much more attention in this year's election than they have in the past, and candidate Mustafa Moin made a special effort to get the Sunnis' support. He emphasized the slogan "Iran for all Iranians" in his campaign, and he stressed equal rights for all his compatriots. During his visits to the provinces, Moin noted that ethnic groups in Iran have not been treated properly either historically or currently. He said, according to "Mardom Salari" newspaper on 6 June, "All Iranian ethnic groups have the basic right to be present in the social, political, and economic spheres, as well as at all levels of responsibility, including high-ranking management positions, members of the government, or in charge of different regions."

A statement from Baluchi reformers referred to "mistreatment of Baluchis and historical discrimination practiced against this ethnic minority," "Eqbal" reported on 11 June. They said that Moin's views are mature, broad-minded, and noble. They noted that for a change state broadcasting describes the rights of women and Iranian ethnic and religious minorities, and "this is an unprecedented event whose rival can be found neither before nor after the revolution." The Baluchis said they back Moin.

Prominent Sunnis met with Moin in Tehran in early June, and he promised that the human rights ministry he plans will have a Sunni affairs department, "Eqbal" reported on 11 June. He also promised to have Sunni cabinet members. The Sunnis then declared their support for Moin, and subsequently, this was announced at the Sunnis' Friday prayers. In the Sistan va Baluchistan Province city of Zahedan in southeastern Iran, thousands of worshippers went to Moin's campaign headquarters to offer their support.

Some observers would argue that Iran's minorities are better off now than they were under the prerevolution monarchy, thereby implying that they should be grateful for whatever they get and should stop demanding their constitutional rights. They also assert that much has been done for minorities during the eight-year presidency of Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami.

Sunni political and cultural activist Molavi Abdolmajid Moradzehi-Khashi is less enamored of Khatami. He said Sunnis were active in the reform movement and voted overwhelmingly for Khatami, "Eqbal" reported on 11 June. They expected to play a bigger part in managing the country. "But, unfortunately, this expectation was not fulfilled and we have been deprived of our legal and civil rights, not just in the past eight years, but during the past 26 years." He described Sunni demands such as cabinet membership, governorship, or ambassadorships. He also mentioned membership in the Expediency Council, the Guardians Council, or the judiciary.

Other demands described by Moradzehi-Khashi are connected with their faith. "Other demands of Sunnis are their religious freedoms, without the arbitrary and personal interventions of certain centers and individuals. Just as other religious minorities, such as the Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, have their own places of worship in the country, especially in large cities, the Sunni community too has the legal and Islamic right to have their own mosques and temples in Tehran and other large cities."

Moin's attention to Sunnis and their endorsement of his candidacy paid off. He was the top vote getter in Sistan va Baluchistan Province; in fact, it was the only province he carried. Moin earned 479,125 votes, compared to his next closest competitor, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who earned 155,147 votes.

Moin also promised to help the ethnic Arabs of Khuzestan Province, most of whom are Shi'a. During a visit to Ahvaz, the provincial capital, he promised to support the demands of the Arab minority as described by the Islamic Horizon Party (Hezb-i Afaq-i Islami), "Eqbal" reported on 12 June. Their demands focus on the elimination of discriminatory images of minorities in textbooks, and the wider use of Arabic in publications. They also call for a census of the ethnic groups so state planning would more accurately reflect their needs. Job quotas for the ethnic Arabs in Khuzestan, as well as the appointments of Arabs to senior government positions, are other demands.

Moin did not win in Khuzestan, where Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi received the highest number of votes.

Backing A Local Boy

In other cases, people voted for somebody from the area, presumably in the hope that he will pay greater attention to local needs. The local son, it is hoped, will have greater familiarity with local needs and will direct a greater proportion of the state budget to that area.

Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf is from Mashhad, in the eastern part of the country. He was the top vote-getter in the eastern provinces of Khorasan Razavi and North Khorasan. He did not win any other provinces.

Another candidate, Vice President for Physical Training Mohsen Mehralizadeh, is an ethnic Azeri from western Iran. Mehralizadeh won in provinces that are home to many Azeris -- Ardabil, East Azerbaijan, and West Azerbaijan. Interestingly, the former governor of Ardabil, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, finished second to last there.

Understanding Voter Behavior

Ethnicity and local ties do not explain voter behavior completely. Karrubi won his home province of Luristan. But he won nine other provinces -- Boir Ahmad va Kohkiluyeh, Bushehr, Fars, Gulistan, Hamedan, Hormozgan, Ilam, Kermanshah, Khuzestan, and Kurdistan. He did campaign in the western part of the country, and his long presence on the political scene certainly made voters familiar with his name.

Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who is the mayor of Tehran and who also grew up there, won in the capital and he also won in the Central (Markazi) Province where the city lies. But he also won in seven other provinces -- Chahar Mahal va Bakhtiari, Isfahan, Qazvin, Qom, Semnan, South Khorasan, and Yazd.

In these and other cases, voters were reacting to active campaigning or were involved with organized networks, be they parties, mosques, or military institutions. There is another possible explanation for the final outcome. As some candidates, most vociferously Karrubi, have alleged, the Basij Resistance Force and the Guardians Council interfered on behalf of Ahmadinejad.

The interest in ethnicity continues in the days before the 24 June runoff. In a 22 June interview with state television, Ahmadinejad was asked about the role of the minorities in strengthening national solidarity. Ahmadinejad praised diversity and discussed the beauty of traditional costumes. In a state television interview the same evening, Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad's opponent in the second round, said the rights of all Iranians, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation, should be respected.

See also:

Iran: As Winners Head For Runoff, Losers Complain Of Fraud

For RFE/RL's full coverage of Iran's elections, see "Iran Votes 2005"