Elections highlight ‘Struggle for the Soul of Iran’


Iran has excluded Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic and a cleric with ties to reformist politicians, from contesting elections to the country’s powerful Assembly of Experts, AFP reports. The decision was taken by the Guardian Council, a conservative-dominated committee that decides who can run for public office. The decision highlights the ascendancy of hardliners determined to frustrate any liberalization resulting from the regime’s tentative opening to the West, analysts suggest.

“It feels as if a whirlwind uprooted trees,” Sadegh Zibakalam, a reform-minded university professor of politics, said about disqualifications which “have been worse than what we assumed”. He called on people not to boycott the election and to vote for more moderate candidates rather than let hardliners benefit further, The Financial Times reports:

Analysts doubt this argument will convince reformist supporters in big cities but smaller constituencies have a good chance of high turnout due to local and tribal competition.

“The Islamic Republic has made a cost-benefit analysis that it is better off preventing some politicians from entering into the political establishment at the beginning than making peace with them at the end,” said a reform-minded political analyst. “At this stage, the [conservative] political leaders have decided the reformist genie should not be let out of the bottle because you might not be able to put it back which means the elections will be engineered in such a way that there will be no public excitement and no possibility of post-election tension.”

A new book on Iran details how “frustrated university students, community organizers, scarred soldiers, lawyers, outspoken feminists, condemned juveniles and secular-minded clergy [are] struggling to undo the Ayatollah Khomeini’s legacy: the charter of a supreme religious leader and zero tolerance for opposition,” one observer notes:

The Islamic Republic, it turns out, is shaped much like the regime it deposed. Still, reformists made important, yet fragile, strides toward creating an engaged civil society — local institutions were born, elections held and independent media flourished. Before long, the hardline establishment initiated a brutal crackdown.

“Iran does not have a culture of passive citizenship, despite the best efforts of its rulers … to produce one,” Laura Secor writes in Children of Paradise: the Struggle for the Soul of Iran. “What it does have … is a restless determination to challenge injustice and to seize control of its destiny.”

Other observers note that far from moderating its course, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s publication of a Holocaust denial video (above) on International Holocaust Remembrance Day highlights the Iranian regime’s ideology, which is seeded in radial jihadist thinking.

Iranian elections are never conducted on a level playing field because the dynamic tension between conservative and moderate/reformist forces is ever present, Lowy Institute analyst Rodger Shanahan observes:

In this case the hurdle that all candidates must pass is vetting by the Council of Guardians. The Council is dominated by conservatives given that its 12 members consist of six appointed by the Supreme Leader and six recommended by the Head of the Judiciary (but formally appointed by parliament), although the Judiciary Head is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader. The parliamentary elections list has already seen the conservative forces limit the potential electoral spin-off that could accrue to Rouhani’s allies as a result of the beginning of the end of Iran’s economic isolation.

Sanctions have been lifted on Iran, and a moment of change has arrived. President Obama has called this “a unique opportunity, a window, to try to resolve important issues.” The brilliant ex-diplomat Nicholas Burns has said we are at a “potential turning point in the modern history of the Middle East.” And of course they are right. The diplomacy of the Middle East will now change, for better or for worse, forever, analyst Anne Applebaum writes for The Washington Post:

But be very wary of anyone who claims anything more, and certainly be careful of anyone who claims anything more for Iran itself. President Hassan Rouhani is not Mikhail Gorbachev, and this is not a perestroika moment. Iran is not “opening up” or becoming “more Western” or somehow more liberal, argues Applebaum, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

The same warning applies to the Western businessmen lining up at the borders to enter Iran. No doubt there will be many Iranians willing to help them get rich, if it’s mutually beneficial. No doubt some will make money, though it might be hard to hold on to it in a country whose courts are politicized and whose judges are selected in an arbitrary and opaque process. But either way, there isn’t much point in wishfully hoping that foreign investment will “open up” Iran, either: In the current circumstances, foreign investment is far more likely to enrich the existing elite. If so, the result will be greater repression, more effective disinformation and, of course, more money for the export of the ideology of the Iranian revolution to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

How to promote human rights in Iran

Iran will change; its citizens’ quest for a more participatory and tolerant political system cannot be denied forever, argues Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Although it is impossible to predict with any precision the timing or nature of that change, the yearning for a more inclusive order is all too present. To facilitate that process, the United States should undertake the following steps:

  • The United States should highlight the work of various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Iran is still endowed with many NGOs, as byproducts of the political renaissance of the 1990s, which are dealing with issues such as judicial reform and improvement of prison conditions for dissidents. The lawyer guilds, writers associations, and various women’s rights groups are examples of NGOs that are still struggling with their tasks. The U.S. government can highlight their work in its official publications, such as its human rights reports, and encourage its international counterparts to do the same.
  • The United States should support freedom of expression in Iran. One manner of helping these organizations lies in the realm of Internet freedom and public diplomacy. The United States has made tentative forays into reopening Internet service to Iran in the face of the regime’s efforts to choke it off, but more can and should be done. Washington should look into providing readily accessible means of communication to Iranian organizations, including software to help overcome Internet blockage and technologies to penetrate the Iranian government’s obstructions of satellite transmissions. The more its members can be enabled to speak freely, the more the Iranian public and the world will be able to hear their messages, and the better they can assert their views. The Iranian regime is deeply concerned about losing control over information technology and equally concerned that such measures will provide an avenue for highlighting its arbitrary practices.
  • High-ranking U.S. officials should speak more openly and persistently about human rights conditions in Iran. S. officials have done an effective job of stressing Iran’s nuclear violations and its unwillingness to conform to its proliferation commitments. However, the Islamic Republic’s contrived political processes, its jailing of dissidents, and its discriminatory practices are rarely subjects of discussion by President Barack Obama or the relevant cabinet secretaries. Such declarations would send a message to Iranian officials and the public alike that Washington takes the welfare of Iran’s citizenry into consideration as it plans its strategies.
  • The United States should pressure Iran into meeting international standards. Practices such as preventing defense lawyers from consulting their clients or detaining political prisoners without formally charging them are among the issues that the regime needs to address. In the meantime, U.S. officials who meet with their Iranian counterparts for nuclear discussions as part of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) should also insist that the Islamic Republic release political prisoners and put a moratorium on all executions. A campaign of public advocacy by U.S. and UN officials can go a long way toward ameliorating prisoners’ treatment, as was the case with political prisoners in South Africa and the Soviet Union whose welfare prompted much international outcry.



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