Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Iran: Risky Elections Ahead

In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in the Wonderland” a visual perversion deforms people and objects so that they look like what they are meant to be but are not quite the same.

The fantasy device used by the English poet in his comic tale has given its name to a neurological condition known as the Alice in wonderland syndrome (AIWS) which causes an incorrect perception of external reality.

The four decades’ long experiment that Iran has had with the Khomeinist ideology is a big-size illustration of that syndrome.

To start with you call yourself Islamic but end up as a regime that directly or indirectly has attacked all of Iran’s Muslim neighbors, sparing the only two that are not Muslims: Armenia and Russia.

Then you call yourself a republic but insist that an elected president cannot be installed unless endorsed by the “Supreme Guide” who could also veto all of the president’s decisions or even sack him with a nod.

Finally you use the name Iran but make sure that nothing of Iran’s long history and rich culture is mentioned unless it serves the personality cult built of “the Supreme Guide”.

Former Foreign Minister Muhammad-Jawad Zarif called that “Our own way of being; our brand of democracy.”

The current manifestation of the AIWS in Iran is the cannulation presented as general elections are due in a few weeks’ time.

The first thing that those delving into the official media in Tehran notice in this context is that the coming election started months ago, long before there were any candidates or program on offer. “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei fired the staring shot by saying that this election was about the very existence of his regime and that those who didn’t take it were “opponents of the system.”

In other words this was not about choosing the 290 members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, but a referendum in which the 68 million Iranians eligible to vote would come forward to renew allegiance to the “Supreme Guide”.

Nevertheless, those wishing to stand for a seat in the Majlis must be approved by a Council of the Guardians whose members are named by the “Supreme Guide”.

After four decades the rules by which candidates are tested by the council remain a mystery. Someone who has served as a parliamentarian for decades could be disqualified for the next election. Even former presidents of the republic or senior minsters could, and have been, declared “unfit” as candidates.

At the same time, the “Supreme Guide” can reinstate someone disqualified as a candidate or qualify someone who hasn’t been.

Those elected won’t be considered elected unless the “Supreme Guide” approves. And someone who has not been elected could be declared elected, again by the “Supreme Guide”.

In an arrangement that might have amused Alice, candidates are not allowed to criticize the leadership or to offer programs that contradict choices already made by the ruling elite. Once approved, candidates are allowed only two weeks of campaigning in which they can brag about their own competence but allowed little else.

Since there are no real political parties inside Iran, candidates usually block together in two informal camps: Fundamentalists (Osul-garayan) and Reformists (Islah-talaban).

The Fundamentalists have never made it clear what their fundamentals are, and the Reformists have always shied away from suggesting any concrete reform.

Broadly speaking, however, one could say that the Fundamentalists want Iran to be in a real or imaginary anti-West, more specifically anti-American, camp with the hope of support from China and Russia while the Reformists dream of normalization with the US.

The “Supreme Guide” has repeatedly said he prefers the Fundamentalists who praise his “Looking East” strategy.

At the same time he needs the Reformists to make the elections appear as something more than a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

However, an election without an opposition is like an opera without a tenor.

So, what to do? In early phases the ruling clique cast the former regime of the Pahlavis as the opposition, although nostalgics of the ancien regime largely remained silent. If something was wrong it was the fault of Reza Shah and Muhammad Reza Shah.

From the 2000s that narrative appeared to be redundant.

So a new opposition was invented in the form of previous officials of the regime itself with former Presidents Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami cast as villains.

Then it was the turn of former Premier Mir-Hussain Mussavi and former Islamic Majlis Speaker Mehdi Karrubi to be dubbed enemies of the system.

This time round those in charge of engineering the coming elections seem uncertain about whom they should castigate as opponents. Some “engineers” seem keen to give the role of the villain to former President Hassan Rouhani and his close associate Zarif. Hardly a day passes without official media attacking the du for allegedly trying to put Iran under American tutelage while wrecking the national economy.

Other “engineers” seem keen on once again refocusing on the Pahlavis as the more serious opponents, a gambit that would allow both Fundamentalists and Reformists to bury the hatchet for the time being and perform a “democratic” tango Khomeinist-style.

This is why Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, is once again the subject of vitriolic articles, seminars and TV series designed to present him as a man who tried to de-Islamize Iran by clipping the wings of the clergy and propagating the idea of national, as opposed to religious, identity.

It is easy to dismiss the whole process as an exercise in futility. Nevertheless, even the holding of questionable elections is a form of tribute that vice pays to virtue.

Previous elections never produced meaningful changes in Tehran’s policies or behavior. But they all provided valuable information on the mood of the people across the nation and in individual constituencies.

The key trend to watch is voter participation.

Forty-two years ago over 80 percent of those eligible to vote went to the polls.

Last time round, when Ayatollah Dr. Ibrahim Raisi was elected President, the number had almost halved.

Although almost two years of public protests and, more recently, the Gaza war and Iran’s attacks on Iraq, Syria and Pakistan have dominated the news, the electoral show, if it isn’t stopped by something unforeseeable, is still interesting to watch.

What will 68 million Iranian potential voters do just before their New Year in March?