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Op-Ed

Iran's Elections: A Show Designed to Delay Democracy

Walid Phares, June 21, 2009

Iranian protestors hold placards and pictures depicting injured protesters in Tehran on June 21. (Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran's presidential elections are over and — as predicted by the unapologetic regime's experts and the real opposition groups in exile — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the "pure son" of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Pasdaran, won, and won big. For the connoisseurs in Khomeinist politics, the win was a given from the beginning. No result would be permitted that would contradict the principles upon which the "Islamic Republic" was founded.

There should not be a shred of doubt about the complete control that the supreme ruler, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had on the process and the result. As detailed by many specialists on the regime's tentacles, the selection process of a new president for the Republic has multiple security mechanisms that ensure the "elected" leader is in line with the Khomeinist ideology, platform, and long-term goals.

First, no candidate opposing the "Islamist ideology" can be granted the authorization to run. The institutions regulating the elections are solidly in the hands of the ayatollahs. Hence, there is no pluralist process to begin with. Voters must select from those candidates chosen for them by the regime. Democracy dies in the first stage of the process, since citizens can choose from only one basket and candidates can discuss only what is permissible by the authorities. In short, Iran’s presidential elections are a charade, a show of colors and sounds, nothing more. But international public opinion, particularly in the West, has seen images of "different" candidates, some labeled more moderate than others, and have seen large numbers of voters rushing to the polls in Iran. Even if these candidates had been involved in a fair election, their differences were, at best, varied shades of the same color.

Here is why: In a well-orchestrated process that is subjected to the ruling Mullahs' scrutiny, the Guardian Council — the supreme Islamist politburo that sanctions all critical decisions in the country — selects four candidates to run for this election: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohsen Rezai, and Mehdi Karoubi. The first is the current president, a previous member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (I.R.G.C.). The second was Iran’s prime minister during the war years of the 1980s under Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the leader who advocated the nuclear weapons program. The third is a former chief of the Pasdaran, wanted by the Interpol for alleged involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Argentina. The fourth, a former speaker of the Parliament, was one of Khomeini’s activists who supported the fatwa to execute British novelist Salman Rushdie.

Thus the four candidates were all part of the regime, all faithful sons running against each other to snatch the top office of the executive branch. Khamenei's top elite throw these bones to the public every presidential cycle to have them essentially choose the best CEO for the Islamic Republic but would never allow a candidate to argue against this "Khomeinist Imamate." So the question is, why would a solid regime with a powerful repressive Pasdaran endowed with millions of petrodollars even allow this charade? There are two reasons.

Playing to the Domestic Audience

With the rise of political pluralism in the rest of the Middle East, pressure is growing in Iran from young people, women, labor unions, intellectuals and many other citizens to move towards democracy. Watching women being freely elected in Afghanistan, the rise of more than a hundred political parties in a multi-ethnic Iraq, and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon defeat the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in elections—these progressions have led to an epiphany among regular folk living under the oppressive rule of the Mullahs. Even Kuwait and Pakistan are producing slowly mutating democracies, and Iranians see this. The longing for debates, the simple freedom to carry signs, scream the names of candidates out loud, and watch televised debates cannot be so easily contained, and the ruling elite of Tehran have realized this.

"If you don't give some room to breathe, they will explode," advised the regime’s architects about their country's citizens. In addition, the question of ethnic minorities is already exploding: Arabs in Khusistan, Baluch in the East, Azeris in the Northwest and Kurds in the West are all in ebullition over obtaining autonomy. The regime organized this presidential "election" to divert national attention from the real ethnic uprising taking place in many regions of the "Republic." The regime claims that everyone is given a chance to be part of an election, while the real domestic opposition, whose leaders and cadres are assassinated, pursued, exiled, tortured and jailed, have no one to represent their interests. A few tunes are played in an effort to preempt a fully realized democracy.

Performing for an International Audience

But the "show" had an international audience as well. Iran's regime has been accused by many in the West, including the former Bush administration, of being "oppressive." Even though the Obama administration has dropped the word from its lexicon and calls Tehran's totalitarian ayatollahs "The Islamic Republic of Iran," the regime still needs to embellish its tarnished image. As the current U.S. administration and some European governments gear up for a sit-down with the Iranian rulers to eventually cut a deal with them, it would be beneficial to Iran if Western liberal democracies perceive an emerging democracy in Iran. Covering Iran's "election" of a president will allow certain leaders in the West to move more comfortably in the direction of Khamanei’s Islamist Republic. Hence, this theater is effective in palliating democratic appetites both inside Iran and abroad.

However, a more ominous goal is deviously embedded in the charade. As the international community presses Iran's regime on the nuclear crisis, electing a new president, or reelecting the current president, delivers a boost in international context. By the time oppositional countries prepare to strike back at the regime’s plan for installing a nuclear military system, another shield will have been added to the Khomeinist layers of defense: the claim that Iran has a democratically elected president. With global media manipulated on this key point, the political reality becomes different: future Iranian propagandists and their operatives in the West will argue that democracies cannot disarm other democracies. One of the most dramatic consequences of framing this presidential election will be felt much later, when the time comes to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran.

An Unexpected Uprising

Unlike previous elections, this last one has resulted in violent demonstrations, rioting and civil unrest in Tehran and elsewhere in the country. For the first time, Western audiences watched Iranian police and Pasdaran crack down on demonstrators upset with the regime's electoral fraud. Mousavi supporters rejected the results and filed an appeal against the election’s outcome, and observers wondered why thousands of his partisans took to the streets chanting against the regime as a whole. In fact, this was an illusion: The massive demonstrations against Ahmadinejad were (and are) conducted by real opposition masses. Students, young people, men and women have been emulating the Tiananmen Square uprising, as well as Eastern Europe’s awakening against the Soviets, in going beyond the electoral dispute. The people clashing with the regime’s militia are not solely Mousavi supporters. Most of them are anti-Khomeinist protesters who are seizing the opportunity to show the world how disenfranchised they are. These are the real underdogs.

Consequently, the regime, which was hoping to produce an election and get away with its results, is now clamping down. As in other authoritarian regimes, the Khomeinists used the "counter-masses," members of the ruling party and its organizations, to gather a super-demonstration in support of Ahmadinejad. The supreme rulers, in an act to show they are in control of their people, rushed to rally Ahmadinejad supporters in greater numbers than their opposition. Unless international solidarity builds quickly around the democracy movements on the streets, the Pasdarans will regain the streets again.

The Khomeinists have once again stretched their power in an effort to tame their people, fool the international public and outmaneuver Western chanceries, but this can only delay an irreversible forthcoming change. Time will tell when.

Dr. Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a visiting scholar with the European Foundation for Democracy. He is the author of " The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy."

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