Middle East

Is Hassan Rowhani an election hope for Iran's reformists?

Hassan Rowhani waves to the crowds at a campaign rally in Tehran on 8 June 2013
Image caption Hassan Rowhani is a senior cleric who says he wants to steer Iran towards moderation

Excluded from participating in Friday's presidential elections, and with their leaders under house arrest, supporters of Iran's reformist Green Movement might be forgiven for boycotting the elections.

But they may yet come out to vote in strength.

Many now argue that the withdrawal of the only reformist in the race, Mohammad Reza Aref, in favour of the only moderate, Hassan Rowhani, has set the scene for a comeback.

A middle-of-the road cleric, Mr Rowhani is fast becoming the candidate the movement was not allowed to put up. He is pulling large crowds wherever he goes, speaking the language of reform, promising to free political prisoners, guarantee civil rights and promising to return "dignity to the nation".

At the noisy rallies, the strength of feeling among young Iranians for change is palpable. Many hold up pictures of the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi - pillars of the Islamic revolution - calling for their release from house arrest in Tehran.

Green dilemma

Hassan Rowhani - normally measured and soft spoken - appears to have been energised too by the genuine hope many have invested in him to bring change.

Image caption Momentum has been building for Hassan Rowhani's campaign in recent weeks

"Repeat after me if you agree; we don't want those who have brought Iran to its knees to rule us again," he shouted to the rapturous chorus of approval from the crowd.

Supporters of the Green Movement in Iran are in a bind. Should they vote in Friday's presidential elections even though their candidates have been excluded from participating or fallen away? If so, can Mr Rowhani be trusted to represent them?

Or should they stay at home and boycott the polls in protest at the continued detention of their leaders? But boycotting the elections could be giving in to the hardliners and abandoning the struggle for a moderate and democratic Iran.

Supporters of the Green Movement are debating these questions on social networking sites with a great deal of energy. After the crackdown in recent years, this is one place where they can still just about exchange views, exploiting the cracks in internet censorship.

The Green Movement is the name given to a loose and assorted collection of people who rose up spontaneously in 2009, angry at what they believed to be the rigging of the results of elections.

Representing a very large part of the population, they included reformists, Islamic moderates, secularists and other opponents of the hardliners in power.

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Tehran, braving a violent police crackdown against demonstrations that were declared illegal. They were the biggest anti-government protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Participants adopted the green colour of the election campaign of Mr Mousavi, who in their eyes had been the true winner.

But the regime prevailed, unleashing its police, revolutionary guards, and Basij militia. Up and down the country, dozens were killed in street clashes; many more were arrested including activists, senior reformist politicians, journalists and lawyers.

Few have forgotten the Stalinist show trials where senior figures in the movement were brought to confess to involvement in alleged foreign-instigated plots to destabilise the country.

Many are still in prison in Iran. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of supporters, were forced out of their jobs, others fled the country across the mountains to seek asylum in Turkey and elsewhere.

But the sense of having been wronged persists as strongly as ever among many in Iran who do not consider themselves part of the Green Movement. And they are desperate for some promise of change.

Engineered victory?

Hassan Rowhani is a senior cleric who says he wants to steer the country towards moderation. He is urging Iranians to vote, saying that the hardliners "don't want you to vote, they want to win the ballot unchallenged".

He has been doing well in televised debates, raising taboo subjects, such as the nuclear stand-off with world powers, biting international sanctions, the dire state of the economy and Iran's extreme isolation in the international community.

Islamic conservatives in power in Iran today are watching with growing concern.

The reformists led by former President Mohammad Khatami have now backed Mr Rowhani as their candidate and are urging their supporters to vote for him. So has former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who represents other moderate Islamists.

He has urged his supporters to vote for Mr Rowhani, who he says can steer the country towards moderation. Their endorsements mean that the opposition in Iran has been united in support of Mr Rowhani.

The hope is that if the Green Movement throws its full weight behind Hassan Rowhani, the sheer numbers would make it difficult for the regime to steal the show. Only a huge turnout could possibly cause such an upset.

Between now and Friday, the supporters of the Green Movement, as well as the other reformists, moderate Islamists and all those who oppose the status quo will have to consider joining forces at voting queues. They also have to consider whether at the end of the day, their votes will actually be counted.

However, there are many who believe the hardliners will never allow anyone other than their own man to become the president - even if that means engineering a victory and risking mass street protests again - like in 2009.