The presidential candidate was greeted last Monday at the airport by a jubilant throng, chanting "Azerbaijan is awake, and is supporting its son!" That slogan, shouted in the Azeri language, might sound a little discordant, given that Mir-Hossein Moussavi is running for President not of Azerbaijan, but of Iran. But the enthusiasm of his home-state crowd in East Azerbaijan may help explain at least in part why Moussavi is currently the strongest challenger to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election.
The rights and concerns of Iran's ethnic minorities are enjoying a prominence in this year's race far greater than during any previous election in the Islamic Republic. Both Moussavi and the other reformist candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, have traveled far and wide in Iran to court Lors, Kurds, Arabs, Turkomans, Azeris, Baluchis and other non-Persian minorities who together make up almost half of the population. Under Ahmadinejad's government, there has been greater repression of political and media activity among the minorities, a fact the state justifies by citing U.S. government efforts to undermine the Islamic Republic by funding opposition activities among minorities in the border regions. Despite the country's patchwork of intertwined ethnicities, religions and languages, Iranians from all backgrounds harbor a strong sense of national identity. Still, the central government has historically been wary of the minorities who mostly inhabit Iran's peripheral provinces. (See pictures of Ahmadinejad visiting New York)
At a campaign event in Tehran last week, Moussavi blasted what he called the current government's "securitization of minorities," and said if elected, he would allow greater official use of minority languages. He also nodded to calls by the country's Sunni Muslims to build a mosque in Tehran. (Read "Will the Economy Be President Ahmadinejad's Downfall?")
In Tabriz on Monday, addressing a cheering crowd of about 30,000 in his native Azeri, Moussavi trumpeted, "Azerbaijan has always stood up against dictators. Azerbaijan's champions have changed the destiny of Iran." He cited the names of important Azeri figures in Iran's democratic tradition.
Azeris are the most integrated and influential among Iran's minorities. While it is rare for a Kurd or an Arab to occupy a high office in the Islamic Republic, many of the leading figures in today's regime are Azeri, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Read about women trying to run for president in Iran's election)
As his name indicates, the country's most powerful man is from Khameneh, a breezy town northwest of Tabriz, dotted with sycamore trees, gushing streams and approximately 5,000 residents. Portraits at a local museum highlight the small town's disproportionately large share of Iranian VIPs, starting with Khamenei, going back about a century, and ending with reformist candidate Moussavi.In fact, Moussavi is not only from the same town as Khameini, but according to locals is actually related to the Supreme Leader. Moussavi's relative Majid Motameni, 82, a gentle old man with sparkly eyes, when asked about Moussavi's rumored family ties to the Supreme Leader, told TIME that Moussavi is the grandson of Khamenei's paternal aunt.
Khamenei himself was actually born in Mashhad in the northeast, where his father had been studying at a seminary. Another local relative said that when SAVAK, the Shah's intelligence service, had been chasing the revolutionary cleric, Khamenei had hidden at his aunt's place in Khameneh for one night. Even as they reminisced about the town's most powerful son, its people prepared to welcome the candidate of reform who hopes to succeed the conservative Ahmadinejad. The town square was covered with neon-yellow get-out-the-vote banners proclaiming "Every citizen a campaign headquarter."
Esmail Pourshaban-Khameneh, 60, a motorbike mechanic, has set up an actual Moussavi campaign headquarters and closed down his garage for a month in order to mobilize support for the reformist. Pourshaban supports the candidate, "not because he's from here, but because we remember his service during the war [against Iraq in the 1980s, when then-prime minister Moussavi is credited with helping overcome crippling shortages]. Back then we were in a dire economic situation, yet no one felt that food was too expensive."
Despite Iran's unprecedented oil income over the last four years, many Iranians are struggling financially amid high rates of inflation and unemployment that plague most families. Thus the candidate's economic focus at his Tabriz rally. "Iran is a rich country," Moussavi said. "Poverty is not our destiny. It is the government's mismanagement that has led to this."
In response, supporters chanted, "Death to the government of potatoes," referring to Ahmadinejad's distribution of some 400,000 tons of free potatoes in villages and town across the country last month. The potatoes were snapped up in a blink, but many accused the government of trying to buy votes.
Moussavi's campaign swing through East Azerbaijan has been a sweet homecoming. Almost everyone asked on the streets said they would vote for him because of his past record as a wartime prime minister and, of course, because of his Azeri background. But to best Ahmadinejad, Moussavi will need not only on the votes of the urban elite and ethnic minorities, but also the backing of many of those villagers all over Iran who were grateful for those potatoes.