Democracy Lab

The Fix Is In

Why the coming election in Iran will be the fakest one yet.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei didn't mince his words during end-of-Ramadan prayers last August. "Elections have always been a challenging issue for our country," he told worshippers gathered at Tehran University. "We should be careful this challenge does not hurt the country's security. The various authorities should be vigilant."

Khamenei spoke for a reason. On March 2, Iranians are once again going to the polls to elect their parliament, the majles. That's a delicate matter at a moment when many of the country's citizens are increasingly questioning the legitimacy of the religious despots who run it. The supreme leader is fully aware of this, and his words capture the importance that fundamentalist Shiite clergymen ascribe to ensuring voting goes the way they want it to. Given the growing pressures that Iranian rulers now face, they will be going to extraordinary lengths to prevent any untoward displays of dissatisfaction. The upcoming vote, indeed, is shaping up to be even less free and fair than ones in the past.

These parliamentary elections come at a turbulent time. Domestic mismanagement and international sanctions have reduced the economy to a shambles. Many Iranians blame the ideologically inflexible Shiite theocrats for their nation's internal woes and global isolation. Iranian youth, who make up over 50 percent of the population, are rejecting clerically-dictated behavioral codes. Even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, having sensed the shifting winds of popular sentiment, has begun opposing the mandates and mores of his clerical overlords. The political discontent that crystallized around the reformist Green Path of Hope (or Green Movement) during June 2009's rigged presidential election, only to be violently suppressed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij paramilitaries, continues to simmer.

Yet, despite the mounting frustration of Iran's citizens, events during the run-up to the parliamentary elections suggest that regime change through domestically-inspired, popularly determined politics is less likely than ever before. Faced with the most serious political, social, and economic challenges to their rule in three decades, the ayatollahs are manipulating the representational process not just to thwart reform but to ensure that all avenues for change are shut down.

To be sure, elections in Iran have never exactly been a free-for-all. The 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah produced a system that awkwardly tried to reconcile mechanisms for popular representation with what is essentially a clerical dictatorship. Throughout the history of the Islamic Republic, elections have sometimes given the populace chances to vent their dissatisfaction with their rulers, prompting the clergy to push back. The post-revolutionary constitution gives the Guardian Council (whose twelve members are appointed by the Supreme Leader and the majles itself) "responsibility for supervising the elections." In practice, that means that the Council vets candidates to ensure that none of the parliamentarians who are elected will have the temerity to propose laws unfavorable to the clerical regime. The Council has been chaired since 1988 by the octogenarian Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who publicly denounces those seeking change as "heretics who should not be permitted to participate in politics," even calling for "execution of opponents ... as enemies of God."

Disqualification of candidates by the Guardian Council has become increasingly frequent in elections. Four years ago, only 4946 of the 7168 registered candidates were allowed to contest the parliamentary election. Those struck from the ballots included one-third of the outgoing majles' membership -- an astonishing figure. The Guardian Council provides a constitutionally sanctioned means for the ayatollahs to consolidate their political power by determining the eligibility of elected officials. The correspondingly pro-clergy legislature can then thwart democratic aspirations.

This time around, the Guardian Council has once again begun systematically throwing out the candidacies of reformist and opposition figures. So far 35 percent of those seeking parliamentary seats have been rejected -- the highest number ever. Those disbarred include retired ambassadors and provincial governors, even honorably discharged police and military commanders. Names of at least several dozen current parliamentarians will also be barred from making it onto the ballot. Grounds for disqualification include allegations that candidates do not believe in Islam or do not accept the theory of clerical rule.

Khamenei, Jannati, and other fundamentalist clergymen openly worry that the elections will be hijacked by a "triangle of seditionists, deviationists, and counter-revolutionaries." The ayatollahs also speak of "neutralizing" this opposition. The alleged villains include members of the Green Movement, which seeks to reform the political system through the ballot box; Ahmadinejad's supporters, who wish to transform it from within; and young people, who want to see the whole thing abolished. Even long service to the Islamic Republic no longer safeguards those clergymen and politicians who seek to alter the absolutist system of clerical rule.

Indeed, this time around the regime's hardliners are systematically using a variety of methods to silence opponents.

Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani participated in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and served two terms as Iran's president. Nonetheless, in March 2011, fundamentalists forced Rafsanjani to cede his position as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the 86-member Muslim scholarly body that appoints the supreme leader, when he unsuccessfully canvassed its members to remove Khamenei after the uprising of 2009. (He retains his position as chairman of the Expediency Council.) His daughter Faezeh, a feminist activist and fierce critic of the incumbent regime, was sentenced to six months in jail for "spreading propaganda against the ruling system" during those protests.

In January, President Ahmadinejad's media advisor, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment and banned from all civic activities for five years for publicly suggesting that Islam should not be the sole determinant of what are and are not appropriate political and social activities. Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have been under house arrest since early 2011, and so will be unavailable to participate in upcoming elections. Fundamentalist ayatollahs have been calling for the arrest and execution of another popular office-holder, presidential chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, on charges of heresy. When an aspiring political opponent, former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Commander Admiral Hossein Alaei, suggested that the supreme leader was exploiting Iran's government and trampling Iranians' rights, his home was besieged by Khamenei's followers, and fellow officers were lined up to cast suspicion on his national loyalty.

Opposition websites, including those of the Green Movement, are routinely censored and blocked. But so, too, are those belonging to government agencies and officials regarded as favoring even the most limited electoral, administrative, or civic reforms -- including a site run by Rafsanjani. With the Greens out of serious contention and factions loyal to Iran's president emerging as the main opposition to the ayatollahs, even pro-Ahmadinejad and pro-Mashaei sites are being censored on the basis that they propagate messages of change. Journalists and bloggers are detained, their equipment confiscated, and their families and associates intimidated verbally and physically with increasing frequency. Human Rights Watch notes that Iran imprisoned more journalists and bloggers in 2011 than any other nation.

Through these actions, the clergy have ensured that the opposition remains incapable of mounting much of a challenge.

Additionally, in the wake of mounting tensions between the theocratic and executive branches over whether unelected clergymen should have so much sway over national and international affairs (including the supervision of elections), Khamenei publicly suggested in late 2011: "There may no longer be the need for the country to have a president; rather, an official appointed by parliament can be in charge." Quickly, hard-line members of the majles, including Speaker Ali Larijani, seized this opportunity to abolish the post of the elected (but potentially independent-minded) chief executive. Larijani, who hails from a family of ayatollahs, and whose own position will be enhanced by terminating the presidency and elevating his role to that of a prime minister, has been especially vocal on the need for such change.

For all these reasons, the Green opposition is reaching the conclusion that the surge of popular discontent expressed in 2009 will not be able to find expression through ballot boxes. So the foes of the regime have begun considering a boycott of the elections.

But even the ayatollahs need the semblance of public participation in the political process, and they are correspondingly worried about rising apathy among voters who see the whole process as a sham. So, retired IRGC Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, who now serves as a senior adviser to Khamenei, is pleading with his fellow citizens "to take the elections seriously." Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi warns that not voting is tantamount to sinning. Another influential cleric, Gholam Reza Mesbahi Moghaddam, who doubles as a current parliamentarian, even openly suggests "giving people more cash handouts to encourage them to vote."

Seeking to generate voters' sympathy for the regime, the ayatollahs are doing their best to goad the U.S. and Israel into confrontation. A war with Israel or the U.S. would be a boon for the ayatollahs. Not only would it boost their sagging legitimacy by compelling Iranians to rally around the flag; it would also give the clerics a perfect pretext to cancel the elections (under Article 68 of the Islamic Republic's Constitution), round up the reformists, and silence all dissent under the guise of national survival. Consequently, if one of Iran's adversaries decides to take on the ayatollahs militarily, mere tactical strikes will not sway Iran's despots. Only complete elimination of the ayatollahs' means of enforcing tyranny upon the Iranian people will establish conditions for significant and enduring change at home, which would then pave the way for conforming to international norms.

Supreme Leader Khamenei presents himself and his supporters as defending not only Iran but Islam against internal and external adversaries -- even invoking comparisons with the trials of Prophet Mohammed and the earliest Muslims. These ayatollahs regard the Islamic Republic as "established according to the decree of the 12th Shiite Imam [the Mahdi or Savior] and, therefore, any criticism of the regime is unacceptable." Those words, broadcast by the official Islamic Republic News Agency, reflect the unfortunate reality.

The bottom line is that representative governance is unlikely to emerge in Iran either during the forthcoming elections or in the future so long as the theocracy endures through force and freedom-seekers lack the might to overthrow it. Supreme Leader Khamenei regards all attempts at sociopolitical change as meddling in affairs of state -- something that he will not brook. Given the circumstances, it's not surprising to hear some Iranians make comments like this one: "If the supreme leader could kill all of us, he would so to ensure he has no opponents."

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

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