Iran polarized ahead of pseudo-election


After an unexpectedly close race between President Hassan Rouhani, the pragmatic incumbent, and hardline challenger Ebrahim Raisi (left), ordinary Iranians on the eve of the vote appeared united only in their weariness with a cheerless status quo, Reuters reports:

Many voters preoccupied by bread-and-butter issues said they would probably vote for Shi’ite cleric Raisi, who has promised handouts for the poor though without saying how this would be funded.

For younger, particularly urban Iranians, many of whom want more democracy and social freedoms almost 40 years after the Islamic Revolution, Rouhani is the sole choice, even if it is one they’re likely to make without real enthusiasm.

“Rouhani has skillfully…permitted Iranian youth to repeat what happened in 2013 on a larger scale – namely projecting their wishes onto a candidate who is not a reformist but (still) embraces reformist rhetoric,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington.

Raisi has positioned himself as anti-globalist, pro-poor populist, Thomas Erdbrink writes for The New York Times.


Mr. Raisi enjoys the support of many in Iran’s security forces, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps and the members of the paramilitary basij forces (right). He also appears to have the support of Ayatollah Khamenei, who like Mr. Raisi is a staunch guardian of the country’s anti-Western ideology….As the head of the Astan Quds Razavi, the religious foundation, Mr. Raisi potentially has access to billions of dollars.

It was as deputy prosecutor of Tehran that Mr. Raisi was implicated in one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of the Islamic Republic, Erdbrink adds. He and three others, including the current minister of justice, Mustafa Pourmohammadi, sat on a committee that sent thousands of political prisoners to their deaths.

Iran’s political and military elite still derive their religious legitimacy from the Qom-based clergy, which, with around two dozen grand ayatollahs and 80,000 students, has almost half of the country’s clerics, the FT’s Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports:

But the seminary, once backed by wealthy businessmen in the traditional bazaar, has become reliant on the state budget and subject to government interference. Clerics there are struggling to come to terms with a changing society and reluctant to embrace the new technology that might give them a wider audience. Increasingly, the seminarians at Qom fear that their sphere of influence is shrinking.

“The clergy’s influence has declined in recent decades because clerics have not responded to modern needs fast enough,” says Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi, a well-known teacher at the Qom seminary.

Cash payouts helped win rural voters over to the hard-line former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was barred by authorities from running in this election. Rouhani’s administration has sought to cut back such cash payments, instead trying to use the money to fund development projects, The Washington Post adds.

“The economy is not in good shape,” said Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They trust Rouhani because he succeeded in the nuclear negotiations …. (but) people want to hear about candidates’ capabilities to solve economic problems.”

Kianoush Ramezani

A 2016 survey found that 66 percent of Iranians thought that expanding civil liberties was important. Rouhani has a platform that includes expanding social and political freedoms, but his achievements in this area are mixed, according to Saeid Golkar, a lecturer at Northwestern University, and Dina Smeltz, a senior fellow for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs:

According to polling released last month by the Iranian Studies Polling Agency, 28 percent of the Iranian public describe themselves as reformists, versus only 15 percent who consider themselves hard-liners or “principalists.” Another 30 percent do not affiliate with either faction, and 25 percent decline to give a response or don’t know, which means a combined 55 percent of the voters could be swayed toward either the hard-line or moderate camp.

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.

Media outlets affiliated with the Guards have been criticizing Rouhani’s performance in power. Experts who study the force say they are also likely to use their street muscle to help get Raisi supporters to the polls, VOA reports.

“The IRGC will be running buses and mini-buses to make people vote. They will be mobilizing voters not only in the rural areas but also the shantytowns around the big cities,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has done extensive research on the Guards. “They want their supporters voting.”

Rulers’ ideas vs.public demands

“If the political system becomes more efficient [introduces reforms], there will be no legitimacy crisis,” says Soroush Mahallati, a senior reform-minded cleric. “But what we see today is a lack of correlation between the rulers’ ideas and public demands [for a more modern political structure] . . . which has resulted in people’s mistrust and disillusionment.”

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad mounted a brief bid to enter this year’s contest but was ultimately disqualified by the Guardian Council, notes Rouzbeh Parsi, a senior lecturer at the Department of History at Lund University.

“But as a master populist, he attracted many voters driven less by ideology than by a craving for a bigger share of the state’s resources – and a deep antipathy towards the elite that has been running the country for nearly four decades,” he writes.

Elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran have never been democratic under their electoral system and its Islamic constitution, writes human rights advocate Shabnam Assadollahi:

Miss. Maryam Ayubi, 31, was slowly stoned to death in 2001 (Amnesty International July 11, 2001 report); one of 38 unfortunate souls stoned during so called reform. Mr. Feyzollah Mekhubad, 77, had his face whipped and eyes gouged out in 1995 for making phone calls to relatives in Israel and the USA (Amnesty International Report May 1995, and Boroumand Memorial*). Who is to speak for them if only the voices of reformists are being heard? Can a regime with such atrocities be truly reformed?

*A partner of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Iranian society has a new definition of its rights by which it wants to be part of the bigger world, enjoy life and distance itself from tradition,” says Taghi Azad Armaki, a sociologist. “The social system is not in crisis. It is the political system which does not know how to adapt itself to fast [moving] social developments.”

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