Part of Foreign Affairs Report: The Iranian Election

Iran's Democracy of Small Differences

Why, Despite Everything, Iranians Are Still Excited to Vote

The paradoxical nature of politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran has been on full display in this short campaign season for the presidency. As plenty of commentators -- both in the Iranian and Western media -- have pointed out, much of the action took place before the race was officially under way. This week, the Guardian Council approved only eight candidates out of close to 700 who had registered to compete in the election scheduled for June 14.

But another paradox of the coming Iranian election has managed to escape some observers, especially those in the West. Ever since two of the highest-profile candidates, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, were barred from competing, commentators have assumed that the Iranian public will approach the election with apathy, maybe even hostility. But just because the vote is not entirely free and fair does not mean that Iranians will treat it as unimportant.

It is true that Iran's ability to put on a show of competing political ideologies -- which was always one of the purposes of presidential elections, as well as one of the keys to the longevity of the Islamic regime -- has recently been compromised. The crushing of the Green Movement in 2009 effectively banished real reform ideology from the country's political vocabulary. The last few years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency further solidified the view that, for the foreseeable future, Iranian politics would be dominated by hard-line politicians loyal to the nezam, the Islamic Republic's current political system. And the message from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the past several years has been that, whatever internal squabbles or internecine rivalry may exist among the political elite, he will no longer tolerate any direct challenges to his supreme authority.

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