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Democracy in the Islamic Republic is a peculiar institution: it is designed to reinforce the legitimacy of the theocracy. Various vetting bodies, all ultimately controlled by the clergy, routinely nullify parliamentary legislation. The Majlis, Iran's parliament, has long been a mere echo chamber for the ruling elite, an escape valve for regime-loyal dissent.
The curiousness of Iran's theocratically managed democracy is amplified by elections (like the ones just held) and the Iranian press, which reports on the campaigns and the differences among the political elite as if they were the left-right contests seen in the West. President Hassan Rouhani and his supporters styled themselves as hope-and-change candidates. By instinct, the Western press used the same vocabulary. In truth, the elections of 2016 did signal change, but not the kind the Western press had in mind. Rather, they spelled the end of Iran's once-vivacious reform movement and the death of the "Islamic Left," which has produced nearly all of Iran’s reformers.
In the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, an eclectic group of Iranian politicians and religious scholars undertook an imaginative re-examination of the role of the people in Islamic government. The essential basis of their ideology was that the interpretation of holy scripture must adjust to changing human conditions. For them, the elected institutions were more important sources of authority than appointed offices with mandates from heaven. These reformists, who were all loyal to the Islamic revolution, were convinced that compulsory imposition of religious strictures and a disdain for democracy would inexorably erode both the faith and the other foundations of the state. Unlike the hardliners, the reformers had ample confidence in the ability of the populace to sustain a country that was religious in character yet democratic in practice.
The movement has had its moments of success: in the 1990s, it captured both the presidency and parliament. The Islamic Republic’s security services, tightly aligned with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, once Rouhani's mentor, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, struck back hard in the early 2000s, with harassment, imprisonment, torture, and murder. In turn, they recaptured the government.
The reformers, however, remained defiant. They called for boycotts of elections, endured long prison terms, and led the charge against the regime in the summer of 2009 after a transparently fraudulent presidential election. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his praetorians, the Revolutionary Guards, had the power, but the reformers still held in their hands the legitimacy of the system.
To take it from them, hardliners conducted show trials and weaved intricate conspiracies about how the reformers plotted with Western intelligence services to undermine the Islamic Republic. Beneath all the aspersions was fear: the mullahs knew that they no longer had a popular mandate to govern. For the regime to crush the spirit of resistance, the reformers had to be transformed from dissidents into collaborators. That is precisely what took place in the recent elections.
The electoral cycle began with the usual mass disqualification of reformers and independent-minded politicians. A vicious media campaign in the right-wing press vilified the reformers as agents of the West. The pro-democracy Green Movement was denounced as a sinister creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The major difference is that, this time around, instead of staying away from the rigged vote, the reformers begged for inclusion. The leader of the reform movement today, the comical figure Mohammad Reza Aref, clutching his list of candidates on television, was reduced to pleading with the regime for a nominal reformist presence. There were no more demands for the release of political prisoners and electoral transparency. The giants of the reform movement, such as Abdullah Nuri, who once faced down interrogators on television and paid a torturous price in prison, were reduced to calling for mass participation in an election from which they were largely excluded.
No one can be sure how many Iranians actually voted. The regime reports a 62 percent participation rate. The final result is a parliament divided between hardliners, conservatives, and some reformers. In today’s Islamic Republic, the political spectrum has shifted so far to the right that die-hard reactionaries, such as Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, are presented as reasonable conservatives.
The real victor of the election was Rouhani, who in previous decades would not have been seen as a moderate at all, since he can project an image of moderation, thus easing the path for international investment. Foreigners don't have to confess that they are investing in an increasingly conservative and increasingly strong theocracy; rather, they are aiding “moderates” at the expense of hardliners. It is commerce with a conscience.
Paradoxically, the demise of the reform movement may yet presage the Islamic Republic’s downfall. The clerical regime has repeatedly been divided against itself, as Islamists heavily influenced by Marxism and leftist sociology have moved into the tolerated opposition. As long as there was a vibrant left-wing reformist faction lingering in the background, there was hope among the public that the regime could be liberalized through its own constitutional processes. Someday elections could matter. Someday bold men committed to real change could assume power. But now those reformers have become pets living off the hardliners’ scraps.
Iran is at an impasse. It has an economy that it cannot reform, a political order that it cannot liberalize, and a population that it cannot propitiate. There are now no pressure valves, no avenues toward a politics of accountability. On some occasion, something will spark another protest movement. But the Islamic Left won't be there to defend the system. The clerical regime again will have to use brute force. And as the Arab Spring and everything that followed has shown, brute force may not be enough to squash a popular insurrection.