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Taboo-breaking election tests how much dissent Iran can handle

From the lecterns of mass rally stages, and during live television debates, Iran’s presidential candidates have crossed multiple regime red lines in their bids to cast opponents as dangerously unfit for office.

Even by the rough-and-tumble tradition of Iranian politics, the run-up to the May 19 election has been especially combative, engulfing presidential contenders with starkly opposing worldviews in charges of lying, corruption, and misrule, and underscoring the deep polarization of Iranian society.

Energized by the electoral fisticuffs, thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets each night, with activists from both sides – either seeking change, or fearing it – expressing their views in noisy traffic jams.

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“I am leaving nothing to chance,” says Sina, a master’s student in civil engineering from Tehran, who skipped voting in the last election but won’t miss this one. A hard-line victory, he says, will worsen Iran’s ties abroad, “collapse the economy, and undermine freedoms.”

Iran’s tightly controlled political space always expands before an election, but never before with such vicious personal attacks, uncensored exchanges that have cast a shadow over the reputation of the Islamic Republic.

Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani accuses his hard-line opponent, cleric Ebrahim Raisi, of knowing only “death and imprisonment” – an oblique reference to Mr. Raisi’s role in ordering the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, an event usually taboo to talk about in Iran – and charges that victory for Raisi will stymie budding freedoms and return Iran to a dark period of isolation.

Raisi, in turn, accuses Mr. Rouhani – who championed the 2015 nuclear deal with Western powers as providing a path to prosperity – of “deceiving” Iranians with unfulfilled promises, “starving people” by neglecting the poor, and betraying Iran’s revolutionary credentials by selling out to the West. Raisi’s supporters chant, “Death to the liar!” at campaign rallies.

The blunt violation of taboos dramatizes the knife-edge balance demanded of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as he seeks to simultaneously allow and contain dissent, ensuring enough democratic expression to validate the regime with a majority-accepted choice for president, while stopping short of undermining it.

Polls indicate a close race, with Rouhani ahead, but with his early lead slipping.

CALL FOR A HIGH TURNOUT

Mr. Khamenei has called for a mass voter turnout on election day, despite the risks that higher turnout often yields more support for reform-minded candidates. Ever since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, a high turnout has been equated with regime legitimacy, whatever the outcome.

But at the same time, Khamenei warned that anyone who did not accept the result would receive a “slap in the face.” On Wednesday he praised Iranians for creating “peace and security” before the vote, but said it was “likely that some individuals” might try to break the law.

In a veiled jibe at Rouhani, he also said the fierce rhetoric of the campaign “did not suit the dignity of the Iranian nation.” And, in a reference to the months of street protests that followed the disputed vote in 2009, which were suppressed with a heavy-handed crackdown, he added that Iran had “learned from the experiences of the past” that “unlawfulness can be so harmful.”

But the perennial tension between the republican and theocratic pillars of the Islamic Republic means there are limits as to how much influence Khamenei can exert. That is one reason, analysts say, for the signs of high-level anxiety over the vote.

“The dynamics of Iranian politics make it very, very difficult for the leader to come out and publicly take a side in this or any election,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii.

“That ambiguity creates opportunities for voters to make a statement about the direction they want the Islamic Republic to go, even if that is not the direction the leader or the establishment would like it to go,” Ms. Farhi says.

STILL, THERE IS APATHY

In that vein, Rouhani has cast himself as an anti-establishment candidate – or at least, as the anti-hard-line candidate – in his bid to woo undecided voters and convince the 40 percent of Iran’s 55 million eligible voters who often don’t show up to make the effort.

“Most agree that if people go and vote, Rouhani would win,” says Farhi. “And that’s one of the ways he’s trying to motivate people to vote, [by raising] the possibility that Iran will be re-securitized, whether that’s true or not.”

Still, there is no shortage of apathy.

“It’s just a show, nothing is going to change,” says Tehran toy shop owner Amirali. “I’m just a businessman, I don’t care about these games.”

Yet those in the game say the choice is stark. Rouhani says a second four-year term would enable Iranians to “continue down the path of freedom of speech,” and to “continue engaging in honorable interaction with the world.”

By contrast, he warned last month, a hard-line victory would “begin confrontation with the world and bring back the ominous shadow of war.”

“We’ve entered this election to tell those who practice violence and extremism that your era is over,” Rouhani said at one rally last week.

“The people will say no to those who over the course of 38 years only executed and jailed, those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut, [who] banned the pen and banned the picture,” Rouhani said at another rally. “Please don’t even breathe the word freedom, for it shames freedom."

RAISI REJECTS 'SCAREMONGERING'

The president was referring to Raisi’s position as a judge on a four-member panel in the late 1980s, which came to be known as the “death committee.” It carried out two fatwas, or religious injunctions, by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that targeted for execution several thousand jailed members of the opposition Mojahedin-e Khalq, and “apostates.”

This week, Raisi rejected the “scaremongering,” and defended his past actions as a young prosecutor: “My record is removing the ominous shadow of terrorism over the country. Have you forgotten it?” Raisi told a Tehran rally.

On the campaign trail itself, there has been no holding back. Three lengthy, live televised debates between the six approved candidates – winnowed down by the Guardian Council from 1,636 who registered to run – turned into a spectacle of mud-slinging and character assassination.

While each tried to portray themselves as populists with a common touch, they accused each other of being corrupt elitists who have forsaken revolutionary ideals.

“After this election mudslinging, and worse … the reaction of the people is, ‘Well, all of them are thieves, why should I vote for these people?’” says a veteran Iranian analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named.

“In the back of their minds, people always had this pessimism about people in power, that they are dishonest, after their own personal interests,” says the analyst. “But suddenly [hearing that] coming out of the mouths of the highest people in power on TV? This was unexpected.”

APPLAUSE LINES

That resonated with voter Zahra, a 30-year-old sales rep for a food company who wears a loose headscarf.

“Crossing red lines is good, it helps people know their candidates better,” she says. “Even indifferent people now feel it’s necessary to vote, not to let things get worse, at least.”

In his campaign, Rouhani has spoken against morality police squads arresting young people on the streets. This week he lashed out at state-run TV for what he called selective analysis of the debates that unsubtly favored his opponent. He said the era when state broadcasters “could dominate the people’s mind is over.”

And in his final campaign rally, on May 17, Rouhani told the Revolutionary Guard and Basij ideological militia to get out of politics, and on voting day to “stay in their own place for their own work.” Both forces were used to quell the unrest in 2009.

Loud cheers erupt whenever Rouhani mentions his popular “brother,” former President Mohammad Khatami, whose images and words have been banned from the media because of his support for the 2009 Green Movement.

Mr. Khatami’s last-minute backing in 2013 was instrumental to Rouhani’s narrow victory, and Khatami called on supporters to vote for him again, “for freedom of thought … rule of law [and] human rights.”

EXPECTING THE UNEXPECTED

Officials have taken steps to ensure that this freewheeling campaign doesn’t translate into post-election unrest over the result. Plainclothes security forces reportedly have been deployed, and human rights groups say a number of pro-Rouhani and reformist journalists and activists have been arrested in the past six months.

Last month, a dozen administrators of Telegram – a social media messaging app popular in Iran, and used for mobilizing activists – reportedly were arrested. A Telegram voice communicator was also blocked by the judiciary, because it was deemed to be “against national security.”

One night this week, the veteran analyst saw riot police deployed at an intersection where protesters often gather in Tehran.

“I look around, I don’t feel that anything is going to happen, I don’t see signs of something brewing,” says the analyst. But the police deployment – and warnings from Khamenei that he would “confront” any challenge to the results – “is an indication of how nervous people in security are about the situation,” he says. “They are expecting the unexpected.”

A special correspondent in Tehran contributed to this report.

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