THE BLOG

The Irrelevance of Iran's Presidential Election

05/30/2013 05:15 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2013

The main function of elections in democracies is to enable the exercise of the people's authority over the power of the state by establishing a government to implement policies which the public has voted for. Iran's government, however, is bound by a constitution which states that a "supreme leader" has ultimate power over all branches of state and government. Elections of such a government, in effect, legitimize a regime which deprives people of their right to determine the state in which they live.

In fact, what appears to be the "election" in Iran is only the shell of a political form; a remnant of the early years of the revolution and the first draft of the country's constitution in which the sole source of legitimacy for any government was to be the people's vote. But due to a power struggle between democratic and dictatorial interests, the constitution was rewritten to enshrine two competing sources of legitimacy: the people's vote and the Velayat-e Faqih (the rule of the jurist or supreme leader). At the time, the position of supreme leader was filled by the undisputed leadership of Ayatollah Rohollah Khomeini. Eventually, this constant tension between the two sources of legitimacy led Khomeini, at the end of his life, to tilt the balance of power further towards the supreme leader, thereby increasing his role in the constitution from a mainly observatory status to one of absolute power. The preservation of the regime became an ultimate and absolute duty, thus justifying virtually any act towards this end.

Soon after Khomeini's death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani orchestrated the appointment of Seyd Ali Khamenei to the position of supreme leader, despite the fact that Khamenei lacked even the minimum religious qualifications to fill such a position. It later emerged that Rafsanjani had forged a letter from Khomeini, with the French newspaper Le Monde publishing the findings of the two international experts who had exposed this. Rafsanjani's calculation seems to have been based on a view that Khamenei, his friend of 30 years, would be too inept, too timid and too insecure in the position to do anything against Rafsanjani's will. In effect, he wanted to place Khamenei as a figurehead, like the queen of the United Kingdom, while he would retain all power as president.

Initially, Rafsanjani's calculation seemed correct: During his presidency, Khamenei was largely invisible and never dared to interfere in the affairs of his government. However, although sycophants around Rafsanjani were trying to portray him as the "General of Reconstruction," eight years of devastating war with Iraq and inflation levels of more than 50 percent indicated a different reality. During this time, rising government corruption made him the wealthiest man in the country. And if this was not enough, his policy of systematically assassinating his opponents eventually earned him the nickname of "Godfather."

In 1997, Rafsanjani, Khamenei and a number of other high-ranking officials were convicted of ordering the assassinations of Kurdish leaders in Germany in 1992. The verdict of the Mykonos Trial isolated the regime and made it deeply insecure about its future. This made it impossible for Rafsanjani to amend the constitution to run for a third term, and at the same time provided political reformists within the regime the opportunity to obtain permission from the supreme leader for a little-known candidate named Mohammad Khatami to run for presidency in 1997. The tsunami of protest votes against the supreme leader's favored candidate, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, brought out millions of people who had boycotted elections since the 1981 coup against the country's first elected president. The regime was caught off guard, and Khatami entered into office.

This victory marginalized Rafsanjani on the political scene, and his role in other high offices, such as head of the Council of Experts, remained ceremonial. However, Khatami did not take this opportunity to push for greater structural reform. On the contrary, he remained submissive to the supreme leader and enabled Khamenei to begin using the absolute power which was granted to him in the constitution. With this, the initial and partial opening up of political space was closed again, and Khatami was transformed from someone once described as the "second Banisadr" or the "Gorbachev of Iran" into, in his own self-description, the "errand boy" of the supreme leader.

After Khatami's presidency ended, Rafanjani twice attempted to make a grand entrance back onto the political scene. Once was in 1997, when he ran for election as a member of parliament from Tehran, with the ambition of becoming head of the parliament. On this occasion, he was forced to retreat in the face of fierce opposition from reformists and accusations of vote rigging. His second attempt came in 2005, when he ran for president. This was again vehemently opposed by the embattled reformists, while behind the scenes Khamenei ensured that his own hardly-known candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, won the election.

In the 2009 presidential election, the regime needed to demonstrate that it had popular support. It therefore let two reformist candidates, Mir Hussein Musavi and Mehdi Karubi, run as candidates. Large sections of the public interpreted this move as a political opening, but the initial mass euphoria ended in shell shock when Ahmadinejad emerged victorious from the ballot box. However, this time the other candidates refused to accept the result of the election. Far more importantly, a change in the psyche of the people gave birth to the Green Movement, which brought millions onto the streets in defiance. This movement was curtailed through a massive, bloody crackdown. But it was also curtailed by the reformist elements of its own discourse, which severely limited the scope and demands of its leaders' actions.

Since then, the regime has arrested hundreds of its opponents, including many reformists, and put Musavi and Karubi under house arrest. At the same time, Khamenei has decided that in any future presidents should be totally subservient to him -- unlike Ahmadinejad, who rebelled during his second term -- and that he must cleanse the regime of reformists and Ahmadinejad's "seditious"faction. All of this has been happening within the context of back-breaking economic sanctions, ongoing nuclear issues, political isolation and Khamenei's domestic and international isolation.

Khamenei needed mass participation at the polling stations to strengthen his weakened position, but the reformists initially set conditions. They had already abandoned their demands to investigate the murder and torture of many Green Movement activists who had taken part in the street protests of 2009, thus consigning this to history. However, they still attempted to condition their participation on the freeing of their leaders from house arrest and the pardoning of political prisoners. But Khamenei needed reformists to participate in the election without condition, as agreeing to any would have damaged his strongman image and undone years of effort to get rid of reformism.

The reformists eventually abandoned all of their demands and tried to bring Khatami back to run for president. He soon came under attack from the supreme leader's supporters and decided that he was not up to the task, stating also that it would be wrong to participate in the election while Musavi and Karubi remained under house arrest. Later, he also argued that the number of people voting in the election would be irrelevant, as the supreme leader would decide how many votes should be assigned to whom. Nevertheless, some of his main supporters openly stated that the only time the reformists would participate in the election would be when Khatami ran for office.

Meanwhile, Rafsanjani was also contemplating running for the office. After a meeting with Khamenei, however, he said that the supreme leader had a very different reading of the situation than his own and that he did not trust him, adding that nothing could be done without Khamenei's consent. Everyone thus assumed that Rafsanjani would stand down, but at the last minute he rushed to the registry office to put down his name. Later, his supporters spread word that he had received a phone call from the supreme leader, but Khamenei's office denies this claim. Furthermore, the following day, Khamenei himself stated that candidates should not make promises which are beyond their authority to fulfill, implying that he continues to hold the real power and that he was discontent with Rafsanjani's nomination.

Soon after the nomination, however, a surge of reformist groups and personalities such as Khatami rushed to Rafsanjani's support, calling him the "savior of the nation" and disregarding the fact that the reformists had initially constructed their identity through opposing the person and policies which Rafsanjani glorified in his letter of nomination. Still, the rejection of Rafsanjani by the Council of Guardian proved their miscalculation.

How do we explain the reformists' rush of support for Rafsanjani?

In their haste to support the person who was the main architect of the ongoing disaster in Iran, the reformists have disregarded Rafsanjani's entire history: his role in the continuation of a war which could have ended victoriously after nine months but continued for another seven years before ending in defeat, with more than $1 million people killed or injured and $1 trillion of damage; the astronomical corruption which made Rafsanjani one of the richest men in the country and brought the Revolutionary Guards into the economy; his role in removing Khomeini's democratically oriented successor, Ayatollah Montazeri; or his amending of the constitution to transfer the mainly observatory role of vali-faqih (supreme leader) to an absolute power with no accountability; and the execution of thousands of prisoners and systematic assassination of hundreds of opponents both inside and outside the country, which led to the Mykonos Trial in Germany and his (and Khamenei's) conviction in 1997. This is not to mention the Tower Commission Report written at the order of Ronald Reagan as the result of Iran-Contra, in which it was revealed that Rafsanjani had asked Reagan's government to support Iraq in its war with Iran in order to prevent radicals in Iran from getting the upper hand.

The abandonment of their conditions for participating in the election, along with their support for a person such as Rafsanjani who still takes pride in his past, tells us that the prime goal of the reformists in political activity is power. For them, preserving the regime through which they get their identity and financial well-being is the ultimate goal, or, as Khomeini put it, the "ultimate duty" (ojebe vaajebaat). Judging from their actions, their main goal for reform is not, and never was, to change Iranians' political status from duty-bound minors to full citizens, or to establish a democratic regime worthy of such citizens, but rather to reform it enough to make it sustainable while taking the edge off of simmering discontent.

Here we can see why the Green Movement, which preceded the Arab Spring, failed to achieve its goals. It failed because it did not break away from reformist discourse, and allowed itself to be controlled by reformist leaders and intellectuals who used people in their political game. They succeeded in doing this mainly because they were able to convince their supporters to make few demands and have low expectations. They equated the demands for democracy and human rights that could not be accommodated by the structurally unreformable regime as radical, and accused those striving for freedom, independence and human rights as idealists who are detached from reality.

Within this discourse, reform became equated with nonviolent and rational action and revolution with irrational, violent acts. In this way, they succeeded in controlling political activity through twin mechanisms of fear and hope -- the fear of structural change, and hope in the reformability of the unreformable. Young people became full of fear of venturing out and full of a vain hope in the power of asking for and expecting little. Humiliation became a major ingredient in the discourse of reform, as only a humiliated person who is convinced by a language of "realism" and "pragmatism" and who has disowned "idealism" would be able to support a political system which treats her/him as a minor, and in which the vote of one single person can veto the votes of an entire nation.

We can therefore be certain that the reformists will resort to using any fallacy or deception in order to make people believe that they are trapped between a rock and a hard place, thereby preventing their supporters from leaving their camp to participate in the spectacle of the so-called election. After all, they are followers of Khomeini, who once openly stated that "it is possible that in the past I have said something, and today I say something else, and tomorrow I say something different. It does not make any sense to remain loyal to my word if I have said something before."

The long journey of Iranian people towards freedom and independence will only end when they bid farewell to the reformists who have every interest in preserving this regime which survives by moving the country from one crisis to another. Boycotting the election would be a first step.