Iran election exposes Islamic Republic’s façade and true face


The presidential election in Iran this Friday is being billed as yet another contest in which a spirited but ineffectual reformer is fighting it out with a hard-boiled theocrat. Meanwhile, an increasingly frustrated young electorate gets its hopes up only to see them dashed once more. That is not altogether wrong, FT analyst David Gardner writes:

Yet it is partially misleading to see the perennial internecine warfare of the Islamic Republic as simply a struggle between reformists and hardliners. Tough as these battles are, mobilising passions that are kept on a tight leash outside election-time, ideology generally plays second fiddle to vested interests. Behind the puritan hegemony of the theocrats lies a network of power and privilege.

Iran over the decades has become a less ideological and more normal country because it’s not ideology. It is the economy, says The New York Times Tehran bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink.

“And if you go to Tehran or to Mashhad or to the smaller city here in Iran, people will tell you I want life to improve for me, for my family. I want to send my children to school. I want to have a pension. They’re not that much different from the rest of the world,” he tells NPR.

Yet, he adds: “Veterans of the 1979 revolution, like Ayatollah Khamenei, are still in charge, reinforcing a rigid revolutionary ideology and doing their best to resist pressures for change. With no obvious younger generation of leaders, the country also faces a looming succession crisis.”

The campaign has gone from feisty to combative, notes USIP’s Iran Primer:

President Hassan Rouhani has dared to rebuke his rivals and even scolded hardline clerics and the powerful Revolutionary Guards. At campaign rallies and in television debates, he has presented the election as a stark choice between freedom and suppression. He chastised other candidates for hypocrisy. “We’ve entered this election to tell those practicing violence and extremism that your era is over,” he said on May 8. “The people of Iran shall once again announce that they don’t approve of those who only called for executions and jail throughout the last 38 years.”

The issues of inequality and corruption have dominated campaigning ahead of Friday’s presidential election, with candidates trading verbal blows in television debates on who is responsible, The FT adds:

Some reformers argue that widespread corruption threatens the long-term survival of the Islamic Republic, which ousted the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979 on promises of equality and social justice for the poor. Yet by some calculations a third of the country remains in “absolute poverty”.

“These luxurious buildings are merely tips of an iceberg, which is the astronomical wealth of those who have no records of any innovative business or industrial and manufacturing work,” says a reform-minded official. “Wealth accumulated over a short period is usually [the result] of special advantages for those linked to power centres or their front people involved in the trade of oil, sugar and construction materials.”


The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and the Basij (left), a volunteer militia under the Guards’ command, are taking steps to promote the candidacy of Rouhani’s main rival, hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, Reuters reports.

Raisi is the true face of the Islamic Republic, while Rouhani is a façade, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams, a board member of the of the National Endowment for Democracy. Rouhani has shown himself powerless to effect any change in the regime’s conduct and his only role is to mislead the West into thinking “moderates” are in charge, he writes for Politico:

We are far better off, as we were when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, when there are no illusions about Iran’s regime and the men who lead it.

If there is a fair election Rouhani will most likely win, and then we can expect a barrage of newspaper stories about how Iran is moderating, modernizing and changing—so we must not push it too hard, and should instead help Rouhani improve Iran’s economy. 

“A two-way race between Rouhani and Raisi will polarize society and mobilize the electorate,” Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Bloomberg:

The narrowing of the field to two main candidates, he said, also makes it less likely that voting will go to a second round — a situation that arises when no one exceeds 50 percent support in the first.

“It’s definitely more difficult for Rouhani now,” said Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “We cannot take the renewal of his mandate for granted.”

The hardliners fear that, in the absence of a resolute supreme leader, the system’s ideological values may be lost and its ability to respond to mass protest weaken, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Ray Takeyh:

Hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi

Mr Raisi’s longstanding ties to the security services have made him the hardliners preferred candidate for the post of supreme leader. The problem is his lack of executive experience. A spell as president, which demands mastery of a large bureaucracy and the economy, would address that. After all, Mr Khamenei followed this path to the supreme leadership.

Western media are bafflingly enamored of extolling the virtues of Iran’s “free” and “democratic” electoral process, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it is neither. But anyone holding naive notions of any and all Iranians having some unalienable right to submit their name for election, then have a fair and equal chance to earn votes through rigorous campaigning and the debate of ideas, would do well to abandon such lofty fantasies, writes Slater Bakhtavar, author of “Iran: The Green Movement”:

In theory, any Iranian citizen of at least 21 years old (and who is a good Muslim and professes belief in God – this is mandatory) can register for the presidential election. The democratic process, however, is largely arrested from there. After registrations are complete, the Guardian Council (one of the real stations of power in Iran) “reviews” the entrants and decides in its sole authority whom is to be permitted to run, and whom denied.

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