Chris DeVito Headshot

Iran's Elections: Authoritarian Window Dressing

Posted: Updated:

In less than two weeks Iranians will go to the polls to elect a successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The field is crowded; eight men are currently contending for the presidency. The candidates represent different factions within the regime and various interests within Iran's body politic. Experts expect that voter turn out, while likely to be depressed from the 80%+ four years ago, will be impressive by the standards of most participatory democracies.

At least this is the image that the Iranian regime wants to project to the world. Nothing in my initial description is factually inaccurate, but it is this simple narrative that gently elides the real issue: Iran is not a democracy, its elections have little to no bearing on the critical issues the country faces, and its leadership and corrupt political system deserve none of the credit that comes with the conduct of a free vote.

Iran's clerics aren't the only autocrats that have attempted to claim undeserved democratic legitimacy. Saddam Hussein, Hafez and Bashar Assad, Muammar Qaddafi, all manufactured elections, or referenda, that rubber-stamped their rule. Even Kim Jong-un's Hermit Kingdom is officially named the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The manner in which "democracy" was and is practiced in these cruel dictatorships is transparently false, so much so that any legitimacy they seek to gain from the exercise has never gone very far.

This is not the case with Iran. That is because the system that was put in place following the 1979 revolution is more sophisticated, and pernicious, in the way it projects its democratic pretensions than other dictatorships. This has been accomplished by establishing a slew of seemingly democratic institutions, a nominally independent judiciary, locally elected officials, a parliament, and most prominently, an elected presidency.

It's this latter institution that has allowed Iran to project an image of democratic legitimacy to the world. That said, the regime's ability to do so has faced significant challenges -- the 2009 election and subsequent popular uprising is case and point. But despite clear electoral manipulation by the clerics during the most recent presidential contest, widespread use of force against peaceful protesters in the days and weeks after, and the continued incarceration of two former presidential candidates, the regime manages to use the quadrennial charade to play up its legitimacy at home and abroad. The scariest thing is that it seems to work. It shouldn't.

Anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to Iran knows that the presidency is at best subservient to an unelected clerical oligarchy, and at worst directly controlled by a religious dictator: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. This troubling reality imposes itself in ways that should allow any intelligent observer to discern the fundamentally un-democratic nature of the Iranian system. Take for example the fact that the eight men running for president in Iran are the eight men that an unelected panel of regime insiders deemed suitable. More than 600 other aspirants were disqualified from the race without explanation. Sounds legitimate, right?

If this wasn't enough, the character of the men who have been approved sends a clear message about the regime itself. As has been reported extensively, at least two of the candidates, Mohsen Rezai and Ali Akbar Veleyati, are wanted for murder in connection to the infamous 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina. One of the candidates, Saeed Jalili is the principle negotiator for Iran's heavily sanctioned and illicit nuclear program. Most of the candidates are known human rights violators.

Jalili, a front-runner in the race who is close to Ayatollah Khamenei, is a disturbing, and instructive candidate through which to analyze the implications of the race. The truth is that even if he was capable of charting a course independent of the Supreme Leader -- which I should emphasize he is not -- the path would be one that brooked no compromise with the west, eschewed any sort of rapprochement, and continued down the road to nuclear arms. That is to say he would be, and is, a steward of the status quo within the Iranian regime. This is a status quo that has left Iran diplomatically isolated, has resulted in increasingly harsh crackdowns on domestic dissent, and allows for the use of brute force as a way of ensuring the regime's continued authority.

The fact that this authority is waning is clear, and the regime's fears of diminished turnout come election day are valid. Everyday Iranians are aware that they are simply props in an electoral drama that seeks to legitimize the regime. As more and more decide not to play the part, we should agree to do the same. Let's stop pretending that these elections mean anything, and instead deny the regime the legitimizing aura that they seek to draw from them.