Democracy Lab

Iran's Big Yawn

The challenge for Iran's supreme leader: How to make a sham presidential election look like a real one.

None of Iran's eight presidential candidates were prepared for the public humiliation they suffered during the election's first televised debate on May 31. The program's moderator informed them that he would be asking them yes-or-no questions - "to liven up the discussion," as he put it. (In a few cases, somewhat more daringly, he offered the option of multiple choice answers.) A few of the candidates refused to comply, complaining that the questions were too vague. Predictably enough, the debate-that-wasn't-quite-a debate quickly became fodder for social media satirists. Perhaps as a result, in the third debate in last week, the candidates were granted much greater leeway to criticize each other. Looming over the proceedings, however, was a large digital clock tracking how much time each one of them spoke -- clearly an effort to limit the time in which they could actually reach out to voters.

The spectacle of the anesthetized debates underlines the predicament in which Iran's ruling elite now finds itself. The presidential election is one of the few realms in which a certain degree of political competition has been allowed to exist over the years. And even though the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final word on state matters (and even though many Iranians believe the vote on Friday will be rigged), voters still see the elections as their one chance to express their preference for more moderate policies. They know that the president sets the tone for domestic and foreign policy even though he has little constitutional power compared to Khamenei. So they know that this is a contest that matters.

As a result, the Iranian presidential election has always had the potential to introduce a certain degree of unpredictability -- as happened in 2009, when hundreds of thousands of disgruntled voters took to the streets to protest alleged tampering with the election results. These events compelled Khamenei to throw his political capital into the fray in defense of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a figure he had backed in the 2005 elections in order to sideline moderate politicians). Now Ahmadinejad's term is over, and he's leaving office for an uncertain future.

Khamenei and his underlings clearly don't want to see a repeat of the turmoil of four years ago. So last month they made their most dramatic move yet: The watchdog Guardian Council barred Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a founding father of the 1979 revolution, from running in the election. The Council, a group charged with interpreting the constitution, supervising elections, and approving candidates, is controlled by Khamenei. It has cleared eight candidates, among them two low-key independents. Two of the candidates withdrew this week -- one of them a moderate who asked his voters to throw their support to Hassan Rowhani, the one reputed reformist left in the group.

The Guardian Council's rejection of Rafsanjani sent shock waves through the country. Ridiculing the disqualification, parliament member Ali Motahari said [in Farsi] that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution) would probably be barred from the race if he tried to run today. "The system is becoming more authoritarian by the day," said former member of Parliament Fatemeh Haghighatjoo. "Mr. Khamenei doesn't realize that he is making himself and the regime more vulnerable." She noted that Khamenei cannot, in the long term, run this regime alone.

Spooked by memories of the 2009 protests, the regime is once more resorting to police-state methods to cripple the oppositions' ability to attract voters. Government forces patrol the streets, looking for what they refer to as "sedition." Hundreds of activists remain imprisoned, including two reformist candidates from the 2009 race who are under house arrest. Campaigners were summoned for questioning this month and parole rights of imprisoned activists have been withdrawn. The government has slowed the Internet to a crawl and blocked certain websites. It's gotten so bad that even the conservative media have been complaining about censorship.

Iranian presidential election results are notoriously hard to predict. Given what's already happened, though, Iranians can hardly be blamed for feeling that this year's vote is already an anticlimax. It's hard to overestimate the significance of the act of barring Rafsanjani -- one of very few senior Iranian figures who, like Khamenei, can trace his political career back to the 1979 revolution.

By barring Rafsanjani, the regime has completely lost the ideological hegemony that kept it intact. Rafsanjani had been a close aide to Khomeini and played an instrumental role in elevating Khamenei to his position. Without him, Khamenei no longer derives his religious legitimacy as the country's supreme leader from senior clerics. Instead, he entirely relies on the Revolutionary Guards, the armed force set up in 1979 to protect the Islamic regime.

"Khamenei has rejected his own legitimacy by disqualifying him," said Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He has undermined the Islamic Republic and senior clerics are worried now that he has turned the country into a military state."

Since his appointment in 1989, Khamenei has tried to consolidate his grip on power by alienating the clerics who appointed him. Fearing that as his previous position was a mid-ranking cleric he could never command their respect, Khamenei invested heavily in the Revolutionary Guards. Over the years, he switched his support base to the Guards and its militia wing, the Basij, the two groups that have played a major role in clamping down on the opposition.

Khamenei can certainly rest content. With Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani both out of the way, he can almost certainly count on a more manageable candidate ending up as president. The only remaining wild card is Rowhani. In an effort to resist political isolation, Rafsanjani and ex-president Mohammad Khatami, a lodestar of the moderates, threw their support behind Rowhani this week to mobilize the pro-reform vote behind him. But the powers-that-be don't appear eager to give Rowhani enough space to challenge their grip. Earlier this month government forces broke up a Tehran rally where Rowhani was addressing his supporters. His leading campaigners were arrested.

If things continue like this, the main problem for the government will be making sure that the election doesn't look like too much of a farce. Khamenei has called for a large turnout, and street banners urge voters in the capital to go to the polls and create "an epic." But not everyone believes in the sincerity of these statements, since a large turnout is likely to make it harder for the regime to keep a lid on discontent. In 2009, government forces beat people outside the polling stations to turn them away, and the government closed the polls early to keep the turnout under control.

A clear favorite in the election has yet to emerge; any of the candidates has the potential to emerge victorious. What's clear enough right now, though, is that it's ordinary Iranians who will end up the losers.



The Ayatollah's Point Man

Meet Saeed Jalili, the holier-than-thou front-runner in Iran's presidential election.

In politics, vapid certitudes, fortified by real or professed pieties, form a dangerous brew. Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator for the past six years, not only proudly drinks it like Kool-Aid, but offers servings to the troubled people of Iran as a panacea for their economic, cultural, and political challenges, and also as a path to salvation in the afterlife.

Jalili, at 47 years old, is the youngest candidate in the presidential election taking place this Friday -- and he owes his meteoric rise to his unabashed fealty to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. We are, the Iranian presidential candidate has repeatedly declared, travelers through this fleeting material life -- but residents of the other, more important eternal Existence. "All across the region we can hear our battle cry, 'Ya Ali,'" he said, referencing the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, a vaunted figure in Shiism. "We heard it in Lebanon with the victory of Hezbollah. We hear it in our resistance against the Zionist regime. Time and time again we have proved our strength through this slogan."

Jalili, who was declared the front-runner in the presidential race early on by media outlets close to Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is often praised as "our living martyr" due to his loss of one leg in Iran's eight-year war with Iraq. He was appointed director-general of the office of the supreme leader in 2001 and then became an advisor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following the 2005 presidential election. The confrontation between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad did not damage the supreme leader's trust in Jalili, however, as Jalili was entrusted with the Islamic Republic's nuclear file in 2007. Iran's position in its negotiations with the West became more uncompromising after his appointment: A U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks reported how an EU official "was struck by his seeming inability or unwillingness to deviate from the same presentation" and described him as "a true product of the Iranian revolution."

Such sentiments, however, have not protected Jalili from attacks by Khamenei's other loyalists. Ali Akbar Velayati, the other candidate known to be favored by the supreme leader, used the last televised debate to lambast Jalili for his utter failure in nuclear negotiations: Iran is facing harsher sanctions, it has repeatedly been referred to the U.N. Security Council, and its nuclear program is less accepted by the international community than when Jalili took over the portfolio. Jalili returned this verbal fire in kind, saying that his foreign-policy choices are based on a "pure Islam."

The two men's attacks on each other are particularly revealing -- and ironic -- as they have both repeatedly said in the past that Iran's nuclear policy is set by Khamenei. In other words, they are debating an issue over which they say they have no control. This is just one of the many paradoxes that define modern Iran: In the presidential election, Khamenei desperately wants what he referred to as people's "epic" participation on election day, but at the same time he laid the groundwork for a motley crew of "vetted" candidates seemingly designed to provoke apathy.

Jalili embodies the stale political consensus sanctioned by the supreme leader. The regime has tried to drum up support for him: No sooner had he announced his candidacy than sites close to Khamenei praised him as the embodiment of Islamic values and virtues, while local offices of the Basij -- a militia connected to the IRGC -- tried to organize rallies in support of him.

But the surge of support failed to materialize. Even the commander of the Quds Force -- a critical part of the IRGC, responsible for foreign operations -- was quoted as saying he would be voting for another candidate. Polls published by some sites loyal to the regime found Jalili garnering no more than single-digit support. Meanwhile, some conservative sites claimed that Jalili was in fact Ahmadinejad's stealth candidate, while others criticized him for his lack of executive experience.

Win or lose, Jalili's candidacy is the perfect metaphor for what has befallen Iran. He is one of the most successful alumni of the centerpiece of the Islamic regime's education system, Imam Sadiq University. As products of the regime, both the university and Jalili represent Iran's shifting place in the world since the 1979 revolution.

In the years before the revolution, a family of innovative Iranian industrialists succeeded in collaborating with Harvard University to set up a satellite campus of the famed American university in Tehran. The team set up a state-of-the-art campus and began giving out Harvard MBAs -- but its doors were shuttered after the revolution. The campus was eventually turned over to Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, who in the early days of the revolution was the head of revolutionary committees and a trusted aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and is now an ally of Khamenei. The Harvard campus was renamed Imam Sadiq University; since then, it has been a Kani fiefdom, and the school's mission statement makes it clear that it considers its duty to select students based first and foremost on their professed piety.

If success is based on one's pious pedigree, Jalili succeeded with flying colors. It is often claimed, falsely, that he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Prophet Mohammed's foreign policy. In fact, the subject of his dissertation, which was finished in 2001, is the political paradigm of the Quran. In a language chilling in its certitude, he not only claims that Islam's holy book offers a complete, inerrant, and timeless model for politics and life, but adds that the sine qua non of belief is complete submission to -- and implementation of -- the book's divine wisdom. His dissertation advisor was Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer leader of the city of Mashhad and one of Khamenei's most stalwart allies. In Alamolhoda's most recent sermon, for example, he claimed that anyone who does not vote in the upcoming election will certainly go to hell.

Jalili is still focused on piety at the expense of practical realities. He refuses to recognize the existence of a serious economic crisis, even as oil exports have been reduced to the lowest levels in more than a half-century. Instead of proposing solutions on how to end sanctions and reduce tensions, Jalili offers facile certitudes about the need for an "economy of resistance." In one televised interview, he suggested Iran's economy could be improved if Iran stopped buying millions of dollars of ice-cream sticks from Germany: As he put it, "Imagine how many jobs we can create in our villages by producing ice-cream sticks ourselves."

One of the main slogans of Jalili's campaign is hayat tayyebe -- "pious living." It is a phrase that comes from the Quran and, according to Jalili, demands absolute belief in the righteousness of Khamenei's leadership. He often repeats verbatim what the supreme leader has said -- that pious living is political resistance, not compromise.

Jalili's views on social issues are also framed through his conception of "pious living." In a meeting with a group of women in late May, he drew a sharp distinction between the Western and "Islamic" view of the role of women. In Islam, he said, the most basic unit is the family, and "women's identity is through family, which is the same as being a mother." Iranians should not, he claimed, be ashamed of this view -- it is the West that should be ashamed.

In today's Iran, where more than 60 percent of college science degrees are earned by women -- in spite of the obstacles the regime throws in their way -- ideas like Jalili's are a hard sell. That might be why, with every passing day, his candidacy is also proving to be a harder sell -- even for his powerful supporters.