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Iranian elections: For voters, a perpetual choice between Islamist factions

Iranians head to the polls this week, they will once again be faced with voting
for the lesser of two evils, writes
Saeed Rahnema.

By: /
16 May, 2017
Iranian youths sit under a large picture of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (L), and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a park in Tehran, Iran, January 17, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi
Saeed Rahnema
By: Saeed Rahnema
Retired professor of political science and public policy, and the founding director of the School of Public Policy and Administration at York University.

On May 19, for the twelfth time since the 1979 Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iranians will once again go to the polls to vote for the lesser of two evils.

According to the Islamic Republic’s Constitution, only men who believe in the “absolute sovereignty of the jurist (Ayatollah)” can be nominated for the office of the president. The Guardianship Council, a 12-member body of clerics and Islamic lawyers appointed by the Supreme Leader, decides who is eligible to have their name put on the ballot. Of those ratified, one is the regime’s favourite candidate, and the establishment’s “machine” — mosques, religious foundations, Islamic Guards, and Basij militia — are mobilized under the direction of the Office of the Supreme Leader to ensure his victory. 

Over the past nearly four decades, the Islamic regime has successfully eliminated all secular left and liberal opposition groups and reduced electoral political participation to its own two factions: the hardliners, who now call themselves Usul-gerayan, (“principlists”), and the pragmatists, or so-called Eslah-talaban (“reformers”).

Both factions, with their own internal divisions, are to differing degrees an integral part of a clerical-military-business oligarchy which evolved through the post-revolutionary years. They are part of a new dominant class formed by the families and friends of clerics and the Islamic guards, who through “privatization” programs came to own industries, mines, agro-businesses, prime real estate and banks. While both factions agree on the regime’s basic tenets, its formal legal structures and neo-liberal policies, they differ on the degrees and modes of implementation of their Islamist perspectives. The mighty Islamic Guards Corps (IRGC) is on the side of the hardliners. 

Despite this unique undemocratic arrangement, and the fact that the office of the president does not have much power compared to the supra-state run by the Supreme Leader, Iranians still take elections seriously, many fearing worsening situations if they don’t turn out to strategically vote against the regime’s candidate of choice.

They have in several cases been successful in voting out the regime’s favourite candidate; for example in 1997 and 2001, when they elected reformist Mohammad Khatami. It was after these humiliating experiences that the regime resorted to engineering the elections in full force in order to get Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, their then-favourite candidate, elected in 2005 and 2009. In the 2009 elections, two prominent reformer candidates (both under house arrest since then) ran against him. When the regime realized that Ahmadinejad had no chance of winning, it orchestrated an electoral coup, which led to the mass uprising known as the Green Movement and the brutal suppression that ensued.

In the upcoming elections, the reformers’ main candidate is Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent president, who has now fallen out of favour with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Although Rouhani failed to fulfill his promises and disappointed large segments of the population, his success in reaching the nuclear deal and reducing tensions with Western powers — a policy favoured by the vast majority of Iranians — has put him in a solid position. The recent misguided policy of the Trump administration to question the deal, however, has weakened Rouhani. In addition to Rouhani, two other reformers have been ratified to run. These two are members of Rouhani’s cabinet and are running merely to back him up. 

On the flip side, of the three principlists ratified to run, the most controversial candidate is Ayatollah Ebrahim Raissi, the custodian of the shrine of the 8th Shi’i Imam, the largest and richest religious endowment. Raissi, also known as the “Massacre Ayatollah,” was a member of a quadrumvirate appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1988 for the summary trials and executions of over 5,000 political prisoners. This might be read as a sign of the principlists’ desperation to bring out their big gun; someone who is expected to be one of the nominees for replacing Khamenei following his death.

The second candidate has been nominated by an organization linked to the remnants of the first Shi’i terrorist group Fedaian Islam, with significant support from rich bazaar merchants. 

The third candidate, the present mayor of Tehran — a former head of police and a commander of the IRGC who boasted about personally beating the Green Movement demonstrators — unexpectedly withdrew on May 14 in favour of Raissi. 

A surprise move was the decision of Ahmadinejad to run, despite clear orders by the Supreme Leader not to do so. By registering for the elections, Ahmadinejad — now botoxed, in a suit, and wrapping himself in the flag of past Persian glories rather than Islam — wanted to send a message to his supporters that he is not politically dead. Neither he nor his former vice-president were ratified. Interestingly, however, Raissi has chosen several top controversial officials from the Ahmadinejad period as his top aides for the elections. This would mean if Raissi won, many of the Ahmadinejad gang would return to cabinet.

These Iranian presidential elections are being watched by foreign and regional powers, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right wing prefer a hardliner candidate to show that Iran is an “existential threat” to Israel, as they did using Ahmadinejad’s nonsensical pronouncements about the Holocaust and Israel. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival in the region, hopes that a hardliner would further deteriorate Iran-U.S. relations and put the two countries on a collision course.

The countries of the European Union, which were very influential in signing the nuclear deal, favour Rouhani. This seems to be the case for Canada as well. The Trump administration, however, will likely follow the U.S. president’s confrontational policy towards Iran, regardless of the outcome of the upcoming elections. As for the Russians, interestingly, the disclosure of a meeting between Vladimir Putin’s special envoy with hardliner candidate Raissi raises concern of Russia meddling in favour of the hardliners. 

It is hard to anticipate the precise outcomes of the 2017 elections. However, barring another electoral coup or military incidents with the U.S. (there have been several recent naval provocations and confrontations between the IRGC and the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf), it is safe to assume that, while many might boycott the elections, the Iranians will once again vote against the principlists and hardliner candidate(s) and Rouhani will get a second term.

The main battleground between the two factions will be the selection of a successor following the eventual death of Supreme Leader Khamenei — here, the outlook for the reformers is decidedly less positive, given their most prominent candidate, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a founder of the regime and former president, had a mysterious heart attack just few months ago.

An earlier version of this article was published by The Globe and Mail.

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