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Syrian crisis overshadows Iranian election campaign

Video by Pascale Bourgaux , Khalil BECHIR , Alexander TURNBULL

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-06-13

Supporters of frontrunner Saeed Jalili confront the Syrian conflict on the 2013 Iranian election campaign trail as Iran prepares to vote in the July 14 presidential election. FRANCE 24 reports.

With just hours to go before polls open in the 2013 Iranian presidential election, the campaign headquarters of frontrunner Saeed Jalili is crammed with volunteers frenetically preparing for their candidate’s final campaign rally at a Tehran stadium.

The volunteers – mostly young men – sort through flyers and posters featuring images of Jalili and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As the unelected and undisputed leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Khamenei may not officially endorse any of the six carefully vetted presidential candidates.

But as almost everyone here knows, Khamenei is very close to Jalili, who serves as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, which sets Iran’s foreign policy.

What’s not so well-established though is the role of the Basiji – the secretive, ad hoc vigilante groups set up by the powerful Revolutionary Guards – in the 2013 campaign.

Four years ago, the Basiji were employed to crush post-electoral protests following the contested 2009 polls, with the militia throwing its muscle behind President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. This year, two of the presidential candidates – Jalili, and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf – are former member of the Revolutionary Guards, sparking doubts over which candidate will win the Guards' vote.

Outside Jalili’s campaign headquarters, a fleet of motorbikes are parked on the street as the motivated and disciplined young men rush around attaching campaign flyers on mudguards and handlebars.

The Basiji wear no markings or uniforms and do not have an organized military structure, but the young men look suspiciously like the squadrons of thuggish youths unleashed on the opposition Green Movement demonstrators back in 2009.

Inside the campaign office, a volunteer, who refuses to provide his name, brushes aside the question of Basiji involvement in the Jalili campaign. “We are all Bassiji and this campaign is our religious duty," says the heavyset youth, dressed in a black tracksuit.

‘I won’t think twice’ about going to Syria

As the squadron of bikes roar through Tehran’s streets to Jalili’s final campaign rally venue, they are joined by more bikers bearing religious flags – including those of the Iranian Hezbollah, which claims links to the Lebanese group of the same name.

At the stadium, as Jalili addresses the flag-waving crowd, his supporters air their views on the increasingly sectarian Syrian civil war that has pitted their Shiite brethren  –  supporters of President Bashar al-Assad  – against the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels.

“For the moment, I don't want to go to Syria, but to defend the law, we won't stop at anything," said a young supporter wearing a keffiyeh, or checked scarf.

“If the Islamic republic of Iran ends up by sending fighters, and if the Supreme Guide [Khamenei] approves it, I won't think twice before going myself," says a young woman, waving an Iranian flag in the female section of the campaign rally.

The Iranian government has been aiding the Assad regime – providing weapons as well as military experts and trainers in Syria. But Jalili’s advisors and spokesmen continue to downplay their impact on the ground.

"Syria does not need foreign forces to solve this internal crisis,” says Ali Bagheri, an advisor to Jalili on the Supreme National Security Council. “Iran supports a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis".

But despite the official position, if the Syrian crisis were to further deepen, the message at this rally is loud and clear: thousands of volunteers are awaiting instructions, ready to fight alongside their Shiite brothers in Syria.

Date created : 2013-06-13

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