Long before the outbursts of Donald Trump on the debate stage in Ohio Tuesday night, the televised faceoff between Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi on June 3, 2009, captured the fascination and horror of an entire country.
Staged on the twentieth anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death and just days before the election, the only direct encounter between Ahmadinejad and his main rival was a showcase of un-presidential behavior, the source of a million chants and jeers. The sitting president wasted no time in engaging in crass commentary and relentless lies, at one point bizarrely attacking the academic credentials of Mousavi’s wife. Already widely reviled at home and abroad, Ahmadinejad’s constant interruptions and contempt for the most basic truths confirmed for many that he was something less than an aspiring tin-pot, he was bitarbiyat, rude, literally without education, an unforgiveable quality for a leader in the Iranian context.
For Mousavi, hampered by a lack of access to state-run media and allowed only two months to campaign, the contrast in demeanor proved critical to his rise in the polls. Research shows that debates have almost no impact on voter behavior in the US. Not so in Iran. Live debates have an outsized presence and influence in Iranian politics as they are one of the only occasions in which political leaders face unscripted and uncensored questioning before the public. Lacking political parties that can command the loyalty of fixed constituencies, Iran’s electorate remains fluid, prone to turning presidential elections into mass movements as public sentiment coalesces around a particular personality, typically in the final days of campaigning. The crucial swing bloc of voters in Iran are the reluctant voters, infrequent participants who could care less about preserving the revolution. Debates give these voters permission to overcome their reluctance.
The evening marked a turning point in not only the campaign to remove Ahmadinejad but in the long and turbulent history of modern Iran. For the first time, Iranians appeared ready to turn out incumbent power peacefully. The defeat of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have been a milestone in the political development of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a test of the system’s capacity and tolerance for change, one that it would, a little more than a week after the debate, fail.
What follows is my account of that electric night, a live-blog shared from Tehran with friends and family back home in the United States, included in a forthcoming collection of essays on the Green Movement and its impact on the struggle for democracy in Iran.
June 3, 2009
Begam? Begoo! Begam? Begoo! Faghat doorooq nagoo!
Should I say? Say it! Should I say? Say it!…Just don’t lie!
Iranians have been treated to an experience without precedent in the 30 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran: six back-to-back live and unscripted debates between all four of the candidates for the presidency of the Islamic Republic.
Each candidate is slated to pair off once with each of his three opponents, and while the rules state that the debates are to be between the two men present in the studio that particular night, the truth has been that one candidate of the four has been put up for collective judgement: the incumbent, Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Tonight was the big night, the match-up between the two giants of the election, Ahmadinejad and “Engineer” Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading reformist candidate and close ally of former president Mohammad Khatami.
It was only the second of the slated six debates, but Tehran was buzzing with anticipation. Invited to a high school ceremony honoring the twentieth anniversary of the Founder’s passing, I could feel the tension rising as the program ran long. People wanted to get out and get home to catch the beginning of the action. Khomeini was forever, but on this night, even he could wait.
I passed by kids on my way out of the auditorium, little guys too young to really know what was going on but old enough to get that this was a Big Deal. They were half-screaming, half-speaking to each other in that way that only kids know how, stumbling over the big words: “Oooh, oooh, are you going to see the mon, mono, monozere (debate)? It’s tonight you know!”
The Debate Begins
Ahmadinejad showed up in his usual get-up, “the people’s wear” consisting of gray jacket and white shirt, no tie of course. The current president has a twitchy nose tic and smiles a lot. It’s not the kind of smile that signals “I like you.” He tells you that he does (“My dear friend Mr. Mousavi, I like you…”) but it’s really faint praise on the way to damnation (“…that’s why I feel so sorry for you, and I really didn’t want to say this, but you’ve come here with your facts all wrong.”).
If Ahmadinejad came off as a street fighter ready to cut you with both a knife and a smirk, the man sitting across the table from him cut a decidedly more tepid figure. One of the first things you notice about Mir Hossein Mousavi is the color white: He sports a white beard and hair, swooped to the side in a youthful style. He has exceptionally white hands. The only spot of color on his face or in his figure are in his eyebrows, two dark hyphens racing across his brow. The lack of color is even more exceptional given that all of Tehran is currently awash in green, the official color of Mousavi’s candidacy.
In the span of just a few weeks and acting almost completely at the grassroots level, his campaign has mounted a Green Revolution. There isn’t a green headscarf, necktie, or bolt of cloth to be found in the city.
A former prime minister and first-generation revolutionary, Mousavi’s demeanor resembles a metal spring, wound and packed tight into its casing. There is little motion and drama in his character — this is a man not blessed with the gifts of charisma. At times awkward in his delivery, he has a propensity to pepper his sentences with the word chiz, the Farsi equivalent of “um” or even “that thing” (a YouTube clip lampooning this verbal habit is already up).
Nonetheless, Mousavi’s cool presentation worked well set against the out-of-control heat of his opponent. You get the sense that this guy knows what he’s talking about. Mousavi is, to put it bluntly, Obama without the charisma.
Which is not to say that he is a pushover. An ethnic Azeri, Mousavi is apt to get hot quickly, the coil springing out of its casing in a fury, only to retract and cool back down again. This would happen later in the night, when Ahmadinejad made the unfortunate decision to go after Mousavi’s wife.
Anyone who has seen Ahmadinejad in interviews with American or European reporters can’t help but be impressed by his uncanny ability to turn a discussion inside out. Interviewers frequently find themselves the interviewee (“Sir, you saw that Iran is on the correct path but we see that the world is arrayed against you…” “What world? What countries are you talking about? The entire world or an arrogant few?”).
Typically this boorish behavior is interpreted as some sort of ancient “Persian way,” a supposedly Iranian propensity for dissembling and verbal maneuvering developed over centuries of survival. In tonight’s context, against another Iranian well versed, one presumes, in Persian forensics, there was little opportunity for Ahmadinejad to get away with his old tricks.
The candidates spoke had four turns of roughly 10 minutes each, loosely monitored by a non-descript and reticent timekeeper sitting between the two men. Ahmadinejad regularly ran over his time and by the end had none left for him to respond to Mousavi’s closing statement. This seemed not to matter to the sitting president, and he began to haphazardly lob comments and accusations at Mousavi off camera and worse of all, off microphone.
It came off like someone running in and out of the room to deliver bad news in a panic. Mousavi, with eyes closed and hand raised, firmly blocked Ahmadinejad’s verbal outbursts like Darth Vader stopping Han Solo’s well-aimed shot in Cloud City: “Excuse me. Excuse me, you’ve had your chance to speak…” To its credit, the state-run network held the line and did not grant the president any sort of disposition. This did not prevent Ahmadinejad from lamely getting in a final zinger, George Costanza-style, as they cut to closing credits…in effect substantiating Mousavi’s claim that this is a man who does not follow the rules or care for the law. That this latter point is getting serious play — rayat e qanun, obeying the law — is an important development in the political discourse of Iran.
As I hinted earlier, the most dramatic part of the evening came when Ahmadinejad mysteriously held up a stack of papers with a black and white passport-size photo of a woman clearly visible on the front. Ominously, he asked Mousavi, “I can speak tonight about a woman, someone you know, someone who has been at your side often these past days. I have information about her. Begam? Begam? Should I say? Should I say?”
Mousavi, clearly unnerved by this bizarre and unexpected turn, told the president to go right ahead, and on his next turn Ahmadinejad dived right into what may have been the turning point in the election. The file that the president had in his possession was that of Mousavi’s wife, a remarkable figure in her own right and the first wife to ever play a prominent role in an Iranian election (she is already being called the “Iranian Michelle”). Highly educated, with two advanced degrees to her name, viewers were now subjected to the sight of a sitting president telling them that her degrees were phony and obtained by cheating. Ahmadinejad never mentioned her name or her relationship to Mousavi, but there was no mistaking about whom he was speaking, with plausible deniability, in a passive-aggressive, unprecedented display of malice.
This episode, shocking in the moment, would be worked out in the streets in the days to come, the subject of a million chants and jeers.
On the Attack
Warmed up by the initial exchange, Ahmadinejad pressed the attack, now focusing his fire against targets unseen and off stage. Iran had prevailed against its enemies, he loudly declared, and under his leadership the Iranians had defeated the Americans in the decades-old cold war between the two countries. He alone had succeeded where his predecessors, former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, had failed, compelling the Americans to abandon a regime-change policy, forcing the president of the United States to say in public the full and proper name of the country, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The willingness, even recklessness, of Ahmadinejad to burn every bridge tying him to Iran’s insular leadership was breathtaking. He combined his foreign policy assault with a sustained attack on the corruption of Rafsanjani, presumed to be Mousavi’s patron, going so far as to single out the former president’s sons and daughter for their graft. The wisdom of such a gambit was questionable. Apart from Ahmadinejad’s most ardent supporters, who are many, the provenance of Rafsanjani’s corruption is likely to have little play with the broader public, who view the wealth of the current head as being old news and beside the point.
If Ahmadinejad sought the mantle of an Iranian Reagan, Mousavi was keen to cast him as a Nixon, more interested in “paravande sazi” or building files against political enemies than solving the problems of the country. He flatly told Ahmadinejad that he did not obey the law and stepped all over these laws whenever they worked against his personal interests. Mousavi went so far as accusing his opponent of heading down the path of dictatorship. This was incredible — on live television! — Mousavi said what many Iranians feel but had not until that point dared to say out loud: this man behaves like a despot. Mousavi conjured up “Tricky Dick,” calling Ahmadinejad a liar to his face, a motif that would be repeated by the other candidates during subsequent debates and by the growing numbers of demonstrators out on the streets. This man lies, one of the greatest sins that a Muslim can commit…
Anyone who has watched these debates between the four candidates is unlikely to accept the premise that there is no meaningful politics in Iran, that its politicians and candidates for office are all the same. The fixation in the United States on the barriers to participation — including the pre-screening and elimination of candidates for the presidency or parliament by the Guardian Council — does little to explain why so many were watching these debates, as the objection overlooks the very real differences between the four men running for president of Iran.
It is quite evident that Iranians no longer accept the premise that they should protest by not participating in the electoral process. Not voting is now seen as the same as voting. For the wrong guy. Four years of runaway inflation, increased trade embargoes, an already devastated international reputation made worse, and nothing of substance to show for it are all evidence enough that “change” is needed, one that supersedes the politics of the past (indeed, Mehdi Karrobi, the only cleric running, has adopted Obama’s “Change” as a campaign slogan — not to be outdone, Ahmadinejad has posters up with “Ma mitavanim” or “We Can”).
Increasingly, the old political categories are eroding. What does it mean when one of the supposedly conservative candidates, a man responsible for forming the Revolutionary Guard, recently articulated a well-reasoned case for Iran to move away from a centralized public authority to a federal system similar to the one found in the United States? When “principalists” start sounding like Thomas Jefferson you know that something strange is afoot at the Circle K.
For the higher-ups here in Iran, elections are seen as a means of ritual validation. To their way of thinking, everyone who turns up to vote, votes yes to the Revolution and the idea of the Islamic Republic. Who the candidates are and who ultimately wins matter less. What’s important is that domestic and especially international audiences see that Iranians turned out.
Of course, the kids that I see day and night filling the streets, wearing green and chanting Mousavi’s name, are not obliged to feel the same way. Whether or not Iran’s youth, some 70 percent of the population, believe in the system remains unclear, but it’s certain that this time around they’re willing to use whatever political resource at their disposal to make their lives just a little bit better, which in this case is their right to a single vote against Ahmadinejad and for Mousavi.
They’ll go to vote with the democracy they’ve been given, and, while it’s not perfect, in the absence of viable alternatives and faced with the impossibility of suffering through another four years of Ahmadinejad, they’ll take it. They certainly intend to have fun along the way.
If Iranians do this, if they are successful in throwing out Ahmadinejad after four years, it will be an unprecedented event in the history of Iran. It will also put Iran one better than the United States, which when given the chance over four years ago to end a disastrous presidency, failed to do so.
Excerpted from the forthcoming volume, Fire Beneath the Ash: Dispatches from the Green Movement and the Struggle for Democracy in Iran, 2009–2019.
Shervin Malekzadeh is a Visiting Researcher in Middle East and Islamic Studies at Colgate University.