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Epic or Farce: Preliminary Assessment of Iran's Parliamentary Elections (Part One)

[Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and ‘Ali Khamenei. Photos by Sinaf, via Creative Commons.] [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and ‘Ali Khamenei. Photos by Sinaf, via Creative Commons.]

The 2nd of March marked Iran’s first nationwide elections since the widely disputed presidential race in June 2009 and its turbulent aftermath. They also hastened the decline of a “president” who owed his second term in office to a “miraculous hand,” a “hand” that, on 2 March, sought to curb Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s influence over the country’s affairs.

The embattled head of the executive of branch, whose protégés have dominated Iranian politics for the past seven years, is slowly but surely coming to terms with the realities of Iran’s power structure, namely the will of the Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards.

Prior to the election, and for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a near unanimous consensus had been reached within the opposition forces in the country to boycott the vote. The Coordination Council of the Green Path of Hope, an important decision-making body within the opposition Green Movement, had explicitly called on Iranians to “stay in their homes.” The boycott was intended to protest the illegitimacy of the election process as well as the ongoing house arrest of the movement’s leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, who were opposition candidates in the 2009 elections. The country’s major reformist parties, such as the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organisation (MIRO), the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), and the Freedom Movement of Iran (FMI), also refused to take part in the elections. (For two practical reasons, most reformist candidates would not have been able to participate even if they had decided to do so: first, most would have been disqualified from the race owing to the twelve-member Guardian Council’s vetting process; second, the main figures in the reformist camp are either in prison or awaiting jail.) This stance of refusal was also the position of foreign-based opposition groups, which had traditionally sided with the boycott strategy since the very early days of the Revolution.

In the months leading up to Election Day, it became reasonably evident that the parliamentary elections would merely pit one group of conservatives (or “Principlists”) against another. No independent observers would be allowed to monitor the soundness of the vote, and, as is the case with all Iranian elections, all candidates had to be screened by the Guardian Council.

While there was widespread belief that the elections would be nothing short of a sham, the vote was far from inconsequential: an electoral “farce, but an important one.”

The Stakes

Muhammad Sahimi’s description of the electoral “farce” is quite fitting:

These elections [are] a sort of team wrestling match held in an enormous stadium. Two groups grapple fiercely with each other, cheered on by a small number of supporters at ringside, while the vast majority of the people in the packed stadium are silent and uninterested, because they regard the match as an exercise in futility...the silent mass represents the large majority of the Iranian people who will, in all likelihood, sit out the elections, even if...the government announces that…Khamenei's “prophetic” prediction has been fulfilled.

Iran’s hardliners had been unified in the purpose of crushing the reformist threat personified in Mousavi and Karroubi during the presidential elections. In June 2009, the hardliners saw their man “re-elected” for a second term in office, yet few could predict that just months later, deep divisions would surface amongst the victors. A week after the Election Day, Khamenei himself threw his firm backing behind Ahmadinejad during Friday prayers by declaring that “the views of [P]resident [Ahmadinejad] are closer to mine.” In doing so, Khamenei jeopardized his life-long friendship and comradeship with former president and parliament speaker ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who currently heads the Expediency Discernment Council. The country’s leadership, the armed forces, the Principlist-dominated Majlis (parliament), the judiciary, and, above all, the Supreme Leader, were all united. An unprecedented and impenetrable harmony existed amongst all of the branches of state and the military in the quest to quell the “seditionists” (the Green Movement). The conservatives were untouchable. Or so it seemed.

As soon as the seven-month-old well-disciplined mass street protests were suppressed—at least temporarily—by an equally well organized and highly efficient security apparatus, this honeymoon would come to a gradual halt. As the tides receded, the deeper divisions within Iran’s complex power structure became increasingly apparent.

At no point in the past three years was this rift more evident than in the spring of 2011, when Ahmadinejad refused to appear in public or to attend cabinet meetings for two weeks as a sign of protest against Khamenei’s decision to reinstate Heidar Moslehi as Intelligence Minister, just days after he had been asked to resign by Ahmadinejad. This was seen as an unparalleled act of defiance in the eyes of the leader and his followers, a “deviation” from the path of the Valiye Faqih, the “Guardian Jurist.”

The fragmentation of the Principlists required a new nomenclature for the increasingly limited array of political ideologies acceptable to the Islamic Republic. There were the “true” Principlists—those who had shown obedience to the Leader and were also represented in the parliamentary elections, albeit under different names—and then there was the “Deviant Current,” believed to be headed by none other than Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s chief-of-staff, who is said to have a great deal of influence over him. The understanding was that if Ahmadinejad and his supporters were to consolidate their grip on power, they would first have to seize control of the parliament.

In the weeks and months before Election Day, the “Deviant Current” was even accused by the “true” Principlists, who had grown weary of “Ahmadinejadism,” of plotting to meddle in the election in order to ensure that pro-Ahmadinejad lawmakers won the majority of seats in the Majlis.

A commonly held belief amongst Khamenei supporters was that Ahmadinejad had been grooming the fifty-one-year-old Mashaei to succeed him as president in 2013, and in doing so, was attempting to dominate the upcoming Majlis with his list of allies. To an objective observer, regardless of how fair, free, or sound the electoral process would turn out to be, victory could be a symbolic prize in anticipation of the 2013 race.

Despite the utter ineptitude of most Majlis members in taking the president to task over misconduct and a whole host of colossal corruption scandals engulfing his administration, Ahmadinejad made no secret of his discontent over what he saw as acts of pestering by MPs (such as Ali Motahhari), who would occasionally question cabinet members and threaten them (and him) with impeachment.

On one such occasion in February 2011, Ahmadinejad refused to even attend the impeachment hearing of his Transport Minister, Hamid Behbahani, calling the act “illegal.” “If the issues underlying the impeachment should apply to the minister, they would apply to the impeachers by more than a hundredfold,” he doggedly responded, referring to Behbahani as “the best minister of the government.” Behbahani, a former university professor who is said to have been Ahmadinejad’s PhD supervisor, was ultimately ousted from his position and lambasted for his failure to improve Iran’s poor air, rail, and road safety record, as well as for general mismanagement. The move had come just weeks after the crash of an Iranian passenger plane with at least 105 people on board near the city of Urmia, but not even that could persuade a stubborn Ahmadinejad or his minister to attend the hearing. Parliament speaker Ali Larijani called his absence at the impeachment a “violation of the law.” Ahmadinejad was required by law to name a new candidate for the post in less than three months. Nevertheless, a caretaker managed the ministry for the next four months.

If the Ahmadinejad presidency had taught Khamenei anything, it was the extent to which a president, even one as “Principlist” and “close” to the leader as Ahmadinejad himself, could prove to be an inconvenience. The seventy-two-year-old had come to learn the hard way about the nuisance posed by the office of president, one that required a final solution. This might help us understand why he hinted, in October 2011, that he might favour a revision of the constitution in order to allow for the parliament to choose the country’s head of government without the need for the population to vote him into office. With the parliament on his side, Khamenei would finally be able to appoint or dismiss a head of state of his choosing at will.

When it was time for the Guardian Council to screen candidates for the parliamentary elections, around six hundred supporters of the “Deviant Current” were barred from taking part in the race. This meant that in effect, the two main groups of Principlists allowed to participate were: a) those who opposed Ahmadinejad; and b) those who were more sympathetic towards Ahmadinejad himself, but were displeased with the “Deviant Current” spearheaded by Mashaei. This ensured an Ahmadinejad defeat, weeks before the 2 March vote.

These schisms within the Iranian leadership were viewed with much satisfaction within the Green Movement.

Come election season, it was clear that the battlefield would not be limited to the confines of the “ringside.” Winning the parliamentary elections and subsequently moving to put the Ahmadinejad gang in their place was undoubtedly a priority for Khamenei (and the Revolutionary Guards), yet he was well aware that the stakes were much higher than the two hundred seats in parliament. For him, the real headache was caused by the thought of the “silent and uninterested” majority of Iranians whose silence and apathy could morph into a form of activism and disobedience.

Since the 2009 presidential race, the ruling elite has been grappling with a crisis of legitimacy never before seen in the Islamic Republic. The overwhelming evidence presented until now suggests widespread fraud in the election process. However, even if we do, for the sake of argument, accept the government’s claims about the soundness of the vote, a substantial segment of the country’s population—according to the government’s own admission more than thirty-five percent of the population did not vote for Ahmadinejad—questioned the legitimacy of the election and the authorities’ brutal reaction to its aftermath. For them, the establishment made no attempt at addressing their grievances, but rather launched an all-out assault on their civil liberties. Who could forget Khamenei’s comparing the “seditionists” to “social and political germs” that needed to be eliminated by means of “vaccination”?

In the last days of 2010, Mohammad Khatami, former reformist president and arguably a formidable figure in the Green Movement, announced that three conditions would have to be met before the reformist factions could consider taking part in the 2012 elections: first, the release of political prisoners and allowing for “all” political parties to participate; second, the full implementation of the constitution; and third, moving towards “sound and free” elections.

We can only speculate whether Khatami himself really believed the authorities would ever give heed to his pre-conditions. His comments were greeted with great cynicism by a number of dissidents who regarded any form of participation in the regime’s elections as a betrayal of the opposition’s most sacrosanct red lines, as it would grant legitimacy to the establishment. Ultimately, the overwhelming consensus within the opposition was that a boycott was the only way forward.

Yet what is certain is that for the hardliners, submitting to any one of these three demands would represent a significant retreat from their heavy-handed approach towards the “sedition” that had erupted in June 2009. Fully aware of this, Tehran prosecutor Jafari Dolatabadi responded to Khatami’s remarks days later: “They mustn’t think they can set conditions for us.…It is the Islamic State which will set conditions for them.”

Just weeks later, Mousavi and Karroubi were placed under house arrest after calling for a fresh wave of opposition protests in solidarity with the Arab Spring in early 2011.

But two hundred days into his house arrest, Mousavi infuriated the establishment by voicing scepticism about the 2012 elections, “Given the current climate in our country, one cannot be hopeful regarding participation in the upcoming elections.” Similar comments made by Karroubi also found their way onto the media.

Hashemi Rafsanjani echoed Khatami’s pleas and called for “laying the groundwork” for a “good election.” Those calls fell on deaf ears.

If there was ever a glimmer of hope that the authorities would actually hold free and fair elections, it became clear by mid-December 2011 that none of the major reformist players, not even a firm believer in the Islamic Republic like Khatami, had any illusions in the hard-line ruling elite’s intentions. A boycott now seemed less like a solution and more like the solution.

At first, the president of the Coordination Council of the Reformist Front announced that the country’s pro-reform factions would not be participating in the elections. Khatami expressed his support for the remarks a week later, adding that “the reformists cannot and must not have candidates and a unified list in the elections....I think that all indicators suggest that we must not take part in the elections.”

The “Green Seditionists”—which included the reformists—would soon put its full force behind the boycott campaign. It would be watching the 2 March spectacle, but scornfully.

Even Khamenei, who typically does not miss an opportunity to underscore the people’s widespread support for the regime, had to explicitly acknowledge not only the great blow delivered to the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy after the events of 2009, but also the opposition’s boycott campaign: “Elections are a sign of the people’s trust in the [political] system. After the much-debated and eventful [presidential] elections of 2009, some estimated that the people’s trust in the establishment had been shattered, that people would not be coming to the polls [any more].”

“They’ve set up millions of media [outlets] so as to discourage the people,” Khamenei continued. “At times they claimed the people wouldn’t partake. At times they said the people would boycott, other times they said they [authorities] would rig [the elections]…[all of this] so that people don’t come to the polls.”

“The Supreme Leader has warned of the possibility of the elections being faced with a security challenge,” Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guards admitted.

“I do not recall the Supreme Leader ever warning about [elections] becoming a security concern, but he has done so with regards to the upcoming elections.…Remnants of the sedition might want to stir up trouble. It’s also possible that foreign [powers] will take advantage of the opportunity, as well as weaknesses in the executive and supervisory branches, in order to prepare the groundwork for [security challenges],” the IRGC official continued.

Last year, IRGC spokesmen, Brigadier General Salar Abnoush, warned of bloodshed if the result of the Majles elections turned out to be incompatible “with our values.” The reason, he said, was that “there will be infighting [amongst Principlists] in the Majles that will allow the sedition [Green Movement] to rise up again.”

A “Slap” in the Face of “The Enemy”

“The Enemy” is a perhaps one of the most frequently appearing terms in Khamenei’s limited choice of revolutionary vocabulary. This is more the case when the Islamic Republic gears up for election season and “The Enemy” becomes the dichotomy of high voter turnout, or what is referred to as hozoor (the people’s “presence” in long queues at polling booths).

While “The Enemy” is generally believed to consist of the United States, its allies in the West, and opposition groups who seek the Islamic Republic’s overthrow, this time around, its scope had been expanded to include the Green Movement, which was now endorsing the boycott. This was despite the fact that its core was made up of reformists who had, in previous years, been key players in forming Iran’s factional politics.

Khamenei had made it clear on numerous occasions what this “Enemy” would encompass. Just two days before Election Day, he warned, “For more than six months now, they’ve been propagating against Friday’s vote. All forms and types of propaganda [have been utilized] in order to discourage the people, so that the polling stations will be empty.”

In an interview with reporters from state TV just seconds after he had cast his vote on 2 March, Khamenei compared participating in the vote to the Muslim act of prayer. Once again, he did not forget to call for greater participation—as the country’s “prestige” was at stake—and to warn about the “enemy.”

“Voting for any candidate, coming to the polling stations, is a vote for the Islamic Republic,” he declared.

The “presence” or “participation” of the masses in elections has always been considered an important indicator of the ruling class’s legitimacy. The commonly held belief, not without reason, is that nothing can get the Islamic Republic’s main base of support to polling stations like the threat of “The Enemy.” This “presence” is even more important than the actual election outcome, as Khamenei himself has said.

The tightening international pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme in the months leading up to parliamentary elections also proved convenient. With talk of a military strike and crippling sanctions in the air, the authorities sought to capitalize on the foreign threat and to highlight, for those strata of the population who would be persuaded, the need to counter the danger by means of mass participation in elections.

And so the Supreme Leader is to parrot the importance of “participation,” for it injects “fresh blood into the body of the Revolution, country, and the Islamic Republic. The higher the turnout,” he maintained, “the more the country will benefit. More fervor, enthusiasm, and motivation [in the elections] will be beneficial for the country’s future. It is better for the country’s prestige. It is better for maintaining the country’s security and keeping it safe.”

This “fervor,” he claimed, less than a week after the polls, was what had taught “The Enemy” a good lesson. “Two days ago, we heard that the President of the United States has said that ‘we are not thinking about a war with Iran.’”

“Very well; this is good. These are wise words. This is an exit from illusion.”

As was the case in June 2009, Khamenei was again quick to praise the elections as yet another “victory” for the Islamic Republic, one that had delivered a “slap” in the face of the regime’s opponents, including the Green Movement.

[Read Part Two here.]

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