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Op-Ed: Elections in Iran- Instruments for conditioning international response to the Islamist regime

Iranian political theorist Reza Parchizadeh explains why all of the elections in Iran are merely a show in order to keep the regime in power. He claims that there is no difference between the moderates and hardliners except for their appearance.
Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

This May, the Islamist regime in Iran will hold what might prove the last presidential election in its history. As the US Senate recently postponed the proposed Revolutionary Guards sanctions lest they affect the re-election of the “Moderate” President Rouhani in a negative way, in this article, I want to show that it is indeed the Iranian regime that for two decades has shrewdly conditioned the responses of international players – including the US Senate – to its so-called “elections” and not the other way around.

In a democracy – such as France or the United States – the election is a process that guarantees the circulation and at times radical transition of power at the highest level without resorting to violence – or at least that’s what the theory says. That is why, for instance, the policies of the Trump administration can be so drastically different from that of its immediate predecessor the Obama administration and yet overall function along the lines of the US constitution and thus resume rather than disrupt the system. In other words, in a democratic system, elections ensure a representational transformation of policy without the need for a popular revolution.

 In contrast, in totalitarian and dictatorial systems – where there is no civil society or there is an underdeveloped one – elections work to warrant the concentration of power in the hands of a select few or a class, and by that the continuation of the same policy perused by the regime’s elite. That is exactly the case with Iran under the mullahs and of course, with China, Russia, Syria and North Korea. Turkey just recently joined the club. Times have changed and the world has grown up. Therefore, despots and dictators cannot maintain their power without a show of democracy, both for their own people and for the eyes of the world. That is why the above-mentioned countries all hold elections of some sort every once in a while. The trick is in the hands of totalitarian and dictatorial regimes the democratic process of election has turned into an instrument of reproducing despotism with a democratic appearance.

The Islamic Republic, at least given its general shape and structure, looks like a quasi-democracy. Leadership is not hereditary, there is a nominal tripartite division of powers (executive/legislative/judiciary), and the regime holds many token elections: for presidency, for parliament, for Assembly of Experts, for city councils, for village councils, etc. Indeed, there seems to be more elections in Iran than probably in any democratic country around the world. But the Iranian regime is not a democracy. It is in fact a totalitarian oligarchy – where the ruling elite hold all the power in the form of the military, the economy, the propaganda machinery, etc. – posing as a democracy.

The election in Iran is a tightly controlled and stage-managed process that has been carefully and craftily designed to produce the result desirable to the ruling elite. Elections, to use the Persian term for them, are “engineered” right from the start to the end. The engineering comes in three major phases: the Guardian Council, the state propaganda, and the announcement of results. The Guardian Council is an extra-legal entity composed of twelve clerics and lawyers at the Supreme Leader’s beck and call who vet those who register for any elections. The undesirable individuals get crossed out right from the start, which means that anybody who does not hold an unquestioning allegiance to the ruling elite won’t pass this stage to become a candidate.

When the candidates are announced by the Guardian Council, the show effectively begins. For the past two decades, the regime has been staging a highly elaborate and dynamic spectacle to push the people to the polls on one hand and to prove to the world that it is a healthy democracy with a considerable social base on the other. The basic principle of the election show is to create a strong polarized environment around two candidates. There are usually between four and ten candidates to indicate plurality but only two or three of them really matter. One or two are promoted as the “establishment candidate,” representing the worst aspects of the regime like oppression, execution, militarism and uncompromising anti-Westernism. In contrast, one is denigrated as “anti-establishment,” morally lax, disloyal to the revolutionary values, compromised and pro-Western. Indeed, the ever-elusive binary opposition of “Hardliner” and “Reformist/Moderate” finds its most appropriate use during the election.

The whole scenario unfolds in acts and scenes like a massive drama where the candidates spar with one another while the Guardian Council keeps threatening to take further measures and the Supreme Leader retreats to the background with rumors of his imminent death in the air. In the meantime, the regime’s domestic and international network of opinion-makers work in tandem to drum up the binary opposition and capitalize on the “fundamental division” inside the regime that can be exploited to weaken it. As such, the regime in effect conducts a very neat game of “Good Cop/Bad Cop” – or “the Bad & the Worse” in the semi-official regime parlance – with two candidates who are both absolutely loyal to the establishment and are meant to advance its agenda, not to bring about fundamental change.

The last stage of the election show is the announcement of the “winner” while trying to make it appear natural. Indeed, the decision for whom to become president is only made in the last week or even on the election day in response to public and international reactions to the show up to that point. If the people are happy with the so-called Moderate candidate and actually get to believe it is their “votes” that “elect” him to office in opposition to the “establishment candidate,” and if the international community is willing to make concessions to the regime – like postponing its sanctions and disregarding its violation of human rights in Iran and bloody and destructive intervention in the region – due to the assumption that it can get a progressive and pro-Western Iranian president, then the regime is most likely to announce the Good Cop/Moderate as president.

As such, the Islamist regime has managed to design a deceptive satisfaction-producing mechanism that has insured the despotic system’s survival so far by bestowing upon it the appearance of legitimacy and popularity. On one hand, this mechanism deceives the people into believing that it was their “agency” and active resistance that made the Moderate figure president; on the other, it maneuvers the international players into believing that it was their concessions that “empowered” him to become president. But the result never represents the collective will of the people and the international community because “change” in the Iran of the ayatollahs is only cosmetic.

This has been the interactive drama that the Islamist regime has been performing for the people of Iran and the West for two decades. It started with the election of the so-called Reformist Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and continued with his re-election in 2001, disrupted with the election of the so-called Hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and his controversial re-election in 2009, and continued with the election of the so-called Moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2013. It is yet to be seen whom the regime prefers for president this time: the Good Cop or the Bad Cop? And that is only besides the fact that presidency is a largely ceremonial position in the Islamic Republic because almost all the power constitutionally speaking is invested in the office of the Supreme Leader.

Therefore, whatever the outcome, we must note that it is all a puppet show with the Islamist regime as the puppeteer. For sure, the regime has changed face many times since 1997. What has never changed, however, is the regime’s criminal, despotic and apocalyptic behavior. Indeed, the regime keeps changing its appearance in order to maintain the status quo in its substance. That is why the real popular participation has witnessed a sharp decline in recent years. But we are not going to see that reflected in the mainstream media. As there is no mechanism in place to make the system answerable over its claims, the regime’s routine unilateral announcement of 60 to 70 percent popular participation in the election seals the process.

In conclusion, with a contemplative view to the failures of the past two decades regarding the policy of “positive engagement” with the mullahs, if the world wants a stable and friendly Iran, it must once and for all banish the myth of moderation in the Islamist regime and see it for what it really is: a hydra with two heads, one of which keeps you engaged while the other is trying to bite you. Many Iranians have now come to realize that ruse – and that the whole charade of election is a vicious circle that goes nowhere, and they are no longer buying into it. To slay the monster one cannot wage war on one head and dally with the other. Both must be chopped off.

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