Now that Iran has gone to the ballot to elect a president, U.S. policymakers should turn their attention to a more important transition in the offing, argues Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 77-year-old supreme leader, is in poor health, and he could die at any time. When he does, a new generation of the Islamic republic’s elite will have to decide upon his successor — a process almost certain to be highly contentious, he writes for The Washington Post:
Iranian elections are part of an impressive mechanism of social control. Unlike the shah’s regime, the Islamic republic’s elite knows exactly how revolutions start and what keeps them going. Building on first-hand experience, as well as the experience of 21st-century totalitarian regimes, the government in Tehran has designed a sophisticated system for destroying traditional social bonds, isolating citizens from each other and raising the cost of any public action that might undermine the regime.
Elections in Iran are far from fair and free and may indeed serve some of these functions for the regime, adds Mohammad Ali Kadivar, a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. However, buoyed by online and offline participation, pro-democracy Iranians have used elections to sabotage hard-liners’ electoral chances, boost the prospects of moderate candidates and push centrists toward more reformist positions.
And yet, if the past is any indication, Rouhani’s decisive victory does not mean the end of conservative power, argues Abbas Milani, Research Fellow and Co-Director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, and Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University:
[Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, relying on the Revolutionary Guards, has a disproportionate share of power. In any case, Iran’s future trajectory will be determined not only by Rouhani and the conservative camp, but also by regional developments and the policy adopted by US President Donald Trump’s administration.
It’s true that the Iranian system offers limited choice and the president has limited power, notes Laura Secor, the author of “Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran,” paying tribute to the patient resilience of Iran’s reformers.
The regime has policed its boundaries and eliminated true challenges to the entrenched interests of its security apparatus and clerical elite. But that is precisely why Iranian voter behavior deserves attention, she writes for The New York Times:
Because the vehicles that carry the popular will to the highest echelons of the Iranian regime are imperfect, the electorate and the politicians seeking its favor have learned, over the course of decades, to play a long game, wedging the system open with the force of their numbers and refusing to acquiesce silently in their exclusion. The patience and persistence of Iranian civic culture is the longer story of Iran’s revolution, and one of the longest stories in the Middle East, having outlived many uprisings and protest movements.