Will the Arab Spring stretch to Iran after election day?

The chair of the discussion, former assistant editor and foreign editor of The Times Martin Fletcher started off by saying:

“Eight hundred and sixty-eight Iranians, mostly men – a few of them women – applied to run in next week’s election. Eight were selected by the Guardian Council . . . a body of people loyal to the Supreme Leader, and only those deemed ideologically sound were allowed to run. . . . So as an exercise in true democracy, as an expression of popular will, I think it’s clear that next week’s vote is pretty much a charade.”

Saeed Barzin, an Iran analyst with BBC Persian Service and the BBC Monitoring service since 2006 added:

“It is not fair in any sense of the word in terms of the access to media, political meetings, coverage of television et cetera. It is not fair.”

Kelly Golnoush Niknejad, founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning Tehran Bureau, said that censorship has been unprecedented:

“Even if they were to take off all the filters there’s really not much going on in terms of campaigning. Posters aren’t there, rallies aren’t there, the headquarters aren’t in the same way that they were in 2009. . . .The regime probably has more faith in the opposition than the opposition has in itself. Even the smallest openings, whether it’s the death of Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri . . . you can see any tiny opening creating a space.”

On whether he thought the election would be a significant one, Barzin said that it would probably not be free or fair and that there would be some cheating but it could still instigate change:

“They could make changes – you don’t have to be democratic country to change; you don’t have to have free elections to change; Iran has lived in the modern period for over a hundred years under dictatorships. . . . It has changed as a society . . . as a political entity . . . as an international element. So these elections are significant in the sense that they could bring change. I feel there is something in the wind.”

Fletcher questioned the panel on who they thought would be the eventual winner? Would it be Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator?

Golnoush Niknejad said:

“I think he’s the least popular . . . someone said that Jalili is more like a scarecrow; he’s probably brought out to scare people to come to the polls to vote against him.”

Roger Cohen, one of the last journalists to leave Iran after the 2009 elections and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, continued:

“The need to try and get a crowd out is a very important one, [but] I don’t know how they will engineer that . . . I think they have a real problem after 2009.”

Does it really matter who is president? Fletcher asked. To which Roberto Toscano, Italian Ambassador to Iran for five years (2003-2008) replied:

“The difference between national interest and regime interest is glaring. There are certain things that the country has to do, for instance getting economy on a more healthy ground . . . and secondly, international relations. Everybody knows in Iran that in order to become a normal country you have to reach a modus operandi with the United States. Anybody who can deliver that will become unbeatable.”

On whether the Iranian people want change and to be part of the Arab Spring Barzin said:

“The Iranian middle class is afraid of the Arab Spring, they don’t want cars burnt, they don’t want houses being smashed up, they don’t want violence, they’re afraid of it . . . the Iranian middle class want change but it has to make sure that it is not a violent one. It is not prepared to take that risk.”

Cohen continued:

“In few places on the face of the Earth is there a society that is so out of sync with the regime governing it. Iranians are highly educated, sophisticated people. Because there is an extreme dichotomy between the people and their government… and one day it will happen.”

Watch the full event here: