Middle East Features
Mehdi Karroubi: Underdog but not to be underestimated (Feature)
By Farshid Motahari May 14, 2009, 9:52 GMT
Isfahan, Iran - Four years ago, it was the underdog Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who came out of the blue and imposed a crushing defeat on presidential favourite Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.
In the June 12 presidential election, incumbent Ahmadinejad's main opponent among his three challengers is Mir-Hossein Moussavi, but some insiders wonder whether things might not again turn out differently than widely predicted.
'We witnessed a huge surprise four years ago with Ahmadinejad, why shouldn't we have another surprise this time and underestimate another underdog,' an Iranian journalist said.
The underdog this time round is Mehdi Karroubi, whose supporters call the 'sheikh of reforms.'
The 71-year-old cleric is actually the best-organized among the main candidates. He has his own party, Etemad Mellí (National Trust), his own newspaper and has always followed a clear political stance.
Neither Ahmadinejad, Moussavi nor the third candidate, conservative Mohsen Rezaei, belong to any political party and their positions are therefore not always clear for the voters.
What is more, Karroubi was born on September 26, 1937 in the western province of Lorestana and the Lor people are known in Iran for frank and undiplomatic rhetoric without paying much attention to the consequences.
Since announcing his candidacy in October, Karroubi has used his Lor image, loosening verbal attacks mixed with a touch of sarcasm against Ahmadinejad, very much to the delight of those opposing the president.
'As a politician you cannot play a different [political] instrument every day. If you do, the result will eventually be Ahmadinejad,' Karroubi told cheering students at the technical university of Isfahan, central Iran.
'A person who considers United Nations Security Council resolutions a piece of torn paper might also consider the people's votes as such,' Karroubi said, referring to the three UN sanctions resolutions over the nuclear dispute which Ahmadinejad deems worthless.
Karroubi stands for what former president Mohammad Khatami tried to implement in his eight years in office from 1997 to 2005: An Islamic democracy whose democratic aspects do not harm Islamic principles and whose Islamic ones don't violate people's rights.
'We should not allow our Islamic republic being turned [by Ahmadinejad] into an Islamic rulership,' Karroubi said, accusing the president of 'abolition of the republic part.'
Observers believe that the turnout - and not necessarily the candidates - will decide the outcome of the election.
While a high turnout would strengthen the opposition, a low turnout would definitely benefit Ahmadinejad as his supporters will go to the polls anyway.
Many observers consider Karroubi's 'change' election slogan an intentional association with the campaign strategy of US president Barack Obama.
Karroubi himself never made a secret about his willingness to resume talks with the new US president, despite harsh criticism by hardliners who are against improving ties with what they call the 'Great Satan.'
'Unlike his predecessor (George W Bush) who has put us into the axis of evil and insulted the Iranian nation with baseless accusations, Mr. Obama has at least a different rhetoric which is worth considering,' Karroubi said.
Also, he stressed that it was Ahmadinejad, after all, who sent letters to Bush and Obama and 'embarrassed himself' after they went without reply.
Despite his sympathy for the new US administration and willingness to improve ties with the West, Karroubi is still a loyal member of the Islamic establishment and therefore hardly able, if elected, to implement drastic changes.
'As far as foreign policy is concerned, the candidates should not forget the main problems Iran is currently facing, they should seek feasible solutions rather than just use nice rhetoric,' said a Western diplomat in Tehran, referring to the controversial nuclear programme and hostile approach towards Israel.
Karroubi neither wants suspension of nuclear enrichment - as demanded by the UN - nor is he ready to acknowledge Israel as a sovereign state and drop support for anti-Israeli militias such as Lebanon's Hezbollah or Palestine's Hamas.
All the cleric has done so far was to call for diplomacy in the nuclear dispute - what Ahmadinejd never rejected either - and call the president's anti-Israeli tirades and questioning the Holocaust irrelevant and harmful to Iran's international image.
Another problem might be Karroubi's focus on politics rather than the economy which has been the main concern for of the majority of Iranians and overshadowed all other issues.
'I like his funny attacks against Ahmadinejad but the fact is that people with empty stomachs can hardly laugh at them,' said Shahin, a civil engineering student at Isfahan University.