At Rouhani Rally, Daring Slogans and Reminders of Iran’s Political Ghosts


The scene at the Rouhani campaign rally in Tehran on Tuesday has been replicated in other cities in recent days. In what appeared to be a warning that they not get out of hand, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Wednesday that anyone who disrupted the elections would get a “slap in the face.”

Mr. Rouhani’s supporters did not care much for the narrow playing field in which their candidate must operate, maneuvering between rigid ideological rules and hard-liners thirsty for the political blood of any candidate deemed to be “Western.”

First, they referred constantly to the ghosts of the recent political past — leaders who have been under house arrest since 2011 but who still haunt Iran’s establishment.

Locked up without a trial, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Moussavi, along with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and the former speaker of Iran’s Parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, are officially labeled “the leaders of the sedition.”

Both men were 2009 presidential candidates who fell out of grace with Iran’s more conservative leaders after the disputed victory of the widely criticized incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karroubi called the result a fraud and were blamed for the outpouring of antigovernment protests that followed, often referred to as the Green Revolution.

Mr. Moussavi, 75, and his wife, 71, live in a house less than a mile from the presidential palace. Mr. Kerroubi, 79, lives in an apartment in a different part of town. They are permitted out only for medical reasons and receive no visitors except immediate family.

“The house arrest must be broken!” the crowds chanted at the rally for Mr. Rouhani, who, when first elected four years ago, indicated that he would seek their release. It is a goal that apparently remains politically impossible because of hard-line conservative objections.

House music was pumping through the Shahid Shiroudi Stadium, a sports complex in downtown Tehran. In addition to green, the color of the opposition, many wore purple, the color Mr. Rouhani had chosen for his campaign.

“I was green, but your baton made me purple!” they yelled, referring to a violent police crackdown on the 2009 uprising.

Smartphones were all around, with people looking either toward the stage with speakers, or at their screens, where they were posting videos of the event to Instagram and the social messaging app Telegram.

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Thomas Erdbrink/The New York Times

As they huddled up by the thousands, during one of the few times when Iranians can legally organize in large numbers, there was no shortage of daring slogans. Hard-liners, with their tendency to put security before everything, were the target.

“No judge, no commander! Law-abiding government!” they shouted. “No to segregation of men and women!” and, “Shame on you IRIB,” an attack on the hard-line-dominated state television broadcaster, the most powerful propaganda organization in the country.

Some people had made posters. Three young women held up handwritten placards calling for the freedom to travel. In Iran, wives need permission from their husbands for that privilege.

Another held up a poster directed at Mr. Rouhani. “Please have a clear stance, what is your position on the political prisoners?” it read. And a reminder, “Article 23 of the constitution guarantees the freedom of thought.”

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Thomas Erdbrink/The New York Times

Many said they wished for much more than Mr. Rouhani could promise them, but they insisted they would vote for him nonetheless.

“I want to prevent a return to the days where authoritarians ruled,” the time of Mr. Ahmadinejad, said Omid Zare, a 26-year-old college graduate, who, like many of his age, is unemployed. The two terms of Mr. Ahmadinejad were marred by controversy, and the police were constantly present on all main squares of Tehran. “We need a better future,” Mr. Zare said.

When Mr. Rouhani finally arrived, there were victory signs, but also shouts of support for Mohammad Khatami, a more liberal former president whose portrait is not allowed to be printed or shown on television in Iran.

Mr. Rouhani’s campaign video showed Mr. Khatami sitting with Mr. Rouhani, which led to more cheers. “Long live Khatami!” people screamed.

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Thomas Erdbrink/The New York Times

Mr. Rouhani skillfully avoided making remarks about the opposition leaders under house arrest, something that could technically get him disqualified by a council overseeing the elections.

Instead, he alluded to the issue, saying that “the whole country had been held under house arrest” before he became president in 2013. “We want freedom of press, freedom of association and freedom of thought,” he said, much to the pleasure of everyone in the stadium. “Whatever you do, go out and vote.”

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Thomas Erdbrink/The New York Times

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