Iran's Democracy of Small Differences

Why, Despite Everything, Iranians Are Still Excited to Vote

 An Iranian woman after voting in the 2009 presidential election (Courtesy Reuters)

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.

The Guardian Council's recent handling of the nomination process has done little to dispel that notion. The candidacies of Rafsanjani, a former president and ally of the major reformist candidates from 2009, and Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s closest aide and a bête noire to hard-line conservative politicians who despise his emphasis on secular Iranian nationalism, each posed distinct challenges to Khamenei's political primacy. And the supreme leader seems to have had little inclination even to allow the Iranian public to consider their viewpoints. (It is still possible, if unlikely, that Khamenei will eventually choose to portray himself as the true savior of Iranian democracy by overruling the Guardian Council and insisting that Rafsanjani be allowed to run.)

Still, Iranians are well aware, and Westerners would be wise to remind themselves, that broad ideological debate about the direction of the Islamic regime is only one aspect of Iranian presidential contests. Yes, the eight remaining candidates are all, to varying degrees, Khamenei loyalists. But there is still a diversity of political opinion among them, and still much at stake in terms of Iran's domestic and foreign policy.

The economy, for example, is an area where presidents in the Islamic Republic have always had a great influence (and territory the supreme leader tends to avoid). It is also the issue that is the top priority, as it is in the West, for most Iranian voters. (Ahmadinejad, for example, was voted into office partly on the basis of his promise to “bring the oil revenue to the dinner table” of ordinary folk.) It is true that the international sanctions that have drastically impacted the Iranian economy would not be under the immediate control of the president; any sanctions relief would be subject to changes in Iran’s foreign and nuclear policy, areas mostly under the supreme leader’s control.

But there is little doubt in voters’ minds that a president can influence those areas, too. Indeed, the president sits on the Supreme National Security Council, where he earns some leverage over the appointment of the foreign minister and the secretary of the Security Council, who also serves as the country’s chief nuclear negotiator. Most Iranians have a very keen appreciation for the fact that the priorities and temperament of their president do matter, regardless of who has ultimate political power in Iran and despite the fact that presidential candidates are limited by an unelected governmental body. Indeed, after eight years of Ahmadinejad -- during which the public was forced to endure economic hardship, mismanagement of the economy, corruption at high levels of government, isolation from the outside world, and the constant threat of war with the West -- they could hardly believe otherwise.

In that way, it might be a mistake to lump the remaining candidates together. Saeed Jalili, the current secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and top nuclear negotiator, is generally considered a staunch conservative and a loyal technocrat; if he were to win, he would likely follow the supreme leader’s advice and orders to the letter. That means it is unlikely Iran would offer a new tone in nuclear talks -- indeed, in economic terms, it appears that his view on sanctions is that in the long run they help Iran by making the country more self-sufficient. (That view may not sit well with voters who are currently suffering the effects of those sanctions.)

Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the charismatic and highly regarded mayor of Tehran, is known as a pragmatic conservative; although many reformists and regime opponents inside Iran resent his past as a Revolutionary Guard commander and police chief, others recognize that he is less of an ideologue when it comes to social issues in Iran. As mayor, he has earned a reputation as an efficient manger, and as president, he would likely emphasize improving Iran’s international economic ties.

Hassan Rowhani, for his part, is a substantially different candidate than both Jalili and Qalibaf. As a a close associate of Rafsanjani and one-time nuclear negotiator under former President Muhammad Khatami, he could certainly change the tone, if not the substance, of nuclear diplomacy, and thus improve Iran’s relations with the outside world. Furthermore, although he is a cleric, he is not known for hard-line social views. If Rowhani earns the backing of Rafsanjani and Khatami, as some suggest he might, he is likely to introduce familiar faces from earlier reformist administrations into his own cabinet to help determine social and economic policy. (It is worth noting that there is one openly reformist candidate who passed the Guardian Council's vetting process, Mohammad Reza Aref; although he was a vice president under Khatami, he is not an especially prominent nor charismatic figure, so his victory is unlikely. Indeed, if that were not the case, the Guardian Council would in all probability have disqualified him, too.)

The point is that Iranians are perfectly capable of keeping two seemingly contradictory ideas in their minds when it comes time to vote: That their democratic institutions are largely a sham (Rafsanjani’s brief candidacy, perhaps intentionally, proved as much), and that their votes are nonetheless meaningful. It is unlikely that any single candidate will ever be able to do what Khatami did when he was first elected to the presidency in 1997 with over 70 percent of the vote -- namely, create a real hope that the Iranian regime might finally move beyond its revolutionary mentality. The experience of 2009 and the actions of the Guardian Council this week have banished such prospects, certainly for the time being.

Still, one should not be fooled if the streets of Tehran are quiet as the presidential race gets under way in earnest in the days and weeks ahead. Iranian campaigns are notorious for igniting slowly. (It was not until the final days of the 2009 campaign that Mir Hossein Mousavi's supporters were gathering by the thousands to cheer him on, and that street parties in favor of one candidate or another, but mostly for Mousavi, were erupting all over Tehran.) Moreover, no one can predict when one of the candidates will figure out how to energize Iranians this time around -- whether Rowhani, for example, can ignite the race by appealing to reformists and what is left of the opposition, or whether Qalibaf can leverage his charisma and popularity as mayor of Iran’s largest city. (The debates, scheduled closer to the election date, could have a big impact if they prove to be as interesting, and exciting, as they were four years ago.)

In short, it would be presumptuous to think of the election as simply a rubber stamp for the authority of the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards. Iranians appreciate that there is a world of difference in politics between bad and worse. Even if they feel like holding their noses as they cast a ballot, they will, in all probability, still go to the polls.

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