at stake in Iran's elections By
Parliamentary elections this
Friday in Iran are far from being free and fair.
Well, at least that's a step beyond those paragons
of democracy - the election-free Persian Gulf
In Iran, this time the problem
is there's no opposition; it's cons
(conservatives) against neo-cons.
Green Movement leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and
his wife, Dr Zahra Rahnavard, as well as Mehdi
Karroubi, have been under house arrest for over a
year now; echoing Myanmar's Aung Suu Kyi, but more
vocally, they have repeatedly stressed they will
Virtually all key opposition
leaders, including university activists, almost
1,000 people, are in jail; not because they're
because they're very
canny organizers of popular anger.
most influential opposition groups have in fact
been outlawed - and that even includes groups of
clerics and the Islamically correct Association of
Teachers and Scholars in the holy city of Qom. No
fewer than 42 influential journalists are also in
The absolute majority of the
reformist press has been shut down. Non-government
organizations such as the Center for the Defense
of Human Rights, founded by Nobel Prize winner
Shirin Ebadi, have been outlawed.
definition of these elections would be something
like this; a byzantine scheme of power sharing
between political groups representing a very small
elite, while large swathes of the population - and
their representatives - are totally sidelined.
Essentially, this will be a fierce battle
between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So why do these
elections matter so much?
the Islamic UFC Khamenei-Ahmadinejad is now
a cage match. Stripped to the bone, it's the fight
between the ayatollah and the man with a halo over
his head that will set the stage for the next
presidential election, in June 2013 - when in the
best of possible worlds there will be an Obama II,
and the specter of war might have been averted.
Whenever lazy, prejudiced and
nuance-adverse Western corporate media refer to
Iran, it's all about "the mullahs". No; it's
infinitely more complicated than that.
Khamenei is betting on an "epic event" of
an election involving a turnout of at least 60%.
That's far from a given - and that's why the
regime is pulling no punches. This Wednesday, the
Leader himself laid out his view of what's at
stake: "Thanks to divine benevolence, the Iranian
nation will give a slap harder than the previous
ones in the face of Arrogance [as in the US] and
will show its decisiveness to the enemy so that
the front of Arrogance understands that it can't
do anything when confronting this nation."
Yet this is more about the internal front
than the "front of Arrogance". At this supremely
delicate stage, Khamenei badly craves legitimacy.
He needs to show that he is in charge, widely
respected, that most Iranians still believe in the
current Islamic Republic system, and thus ignored
the opposition's call to boycott the elections.
The economy is a disaster, to a certain
extent because of Western sanctions but most of
all because of the Ahmadinejad administration's
cosmic corruption and astonishing incompetence.
The Khamenei camp is actively stressing the point,
while positioning the Leader above it all.
Finally there's the "front of Arrogance" -
the non-stop threats of an attack by Israel, the
US or both. Khamenei needs the graphic proof - in
the polling booth - the country is united against
The role of the
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is also
key. We should not forget: this is now a military
dictatorship of the mullahtariat. The IRGC badly
wants to control the Majlis - for their own
This would allow them,
simultaneously, to monopolize the tools to impeach
Ahmadinejad if they need/want to and/or eliminate
a president elected by popular vote and reinstate
the position of prime minister - who would be
picked by the Majlis. The undisguised IRGC
position is essentially that they need to control
the Majlis, otherwise the "sedition" - as in the
Green movement - will return.
players So on one side, we have the
so-called "principlists" - let's call them the
Khamenei party. They are - in theory - led by
Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Kani, the chairman of the
Council of Experts. But in practice, whatever
powerful, former IRGC commanders say, goes.
A key candidate in their list is Gholam
Haddad Adel, the father-in-law of Khamenei's
second son, Mojtaba. He's running for a Tehran
seat. This means, crucially, that the IRGC
positioned the election in Tehran as a de facto
referendum on Khamenei. That's something to watch
The principlists boast a "United
Front" that actually became seriously disunited
(scattered in at least four groups). They fear the
Ahmadinejad faction will manipulate the vote - via
the Interior Ministry; it's an open secret in
Tehran that the Ahmadinejad people have been
furiously bribing blue-collar workers and
peasants. The principlists know if Ahmadinejad
controls the Majlis, he can't be impeached, and
will confront Khamenei even more forcefully.
On the other side, we have an outfit
called the Durable Front of the Islamic
Revolution. Let's call them the Ahmadinejad
faction. They claim to be the real principlists -
and essentially are disciples of the
mega-reactionary Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. Now
that's a tough cookie; many times I visited his
hawza in Qom, but Mesbah Yazdi refuses to talk to
Ahmadinejad used to
be an adoring Mesbah Yazdi worshipper. But then a
theological bomb exploded; Ahmadinejad started to
publicly boast that he was directly linked to the
hidden Imam Mahdi - and not to the Supreme Leader,
in thesis the Mahdi's representative on earth.
Mesbah Yazdi was mildly horrified. He then started
saying he is not the party's leader - but people
hardly believe it. If they capture a lot of seats,
Mesbah Yazdi will be even stronger among the
A third faction is led Mohsen
Rezaei, a former head of the IRGC between 1981 and
1997, and the current secretary-general of the
Expediency Council, the body that mediates between
the Majlis and the Council of Guardians and also
advises Khamenei. Among conservatives and
neo-cons, this faction is not exactly very
popular, even though Rezaei's game is to position
himself as a viable third way.
there are the conservatives and neo-cons who are
not aligned with anyone, with a major group led by
two fierce Ahmadinejad critics, and at least 200
To give an idea about the
tortuous nature of the system, the major group
presented a lot of current Majlis representatives,
as well as other regime figures, as candidates. In
the initial screening, run by the
Ahmadinejad-controlled Ministry of Interior, they
were rejected; but then the Guardian Council said
they were OK ...
So no one should expect a
Kim Jong-ilesque turn out this Friday.
Expectations for Tehran are a paltry 15% - and
that may be even less. A crushing majority of
university students will definitely follow the
Anyone interested in examining
the extraordinary impact of the aftermath of the
2009 elections in Tehran should read Death to
the Dictator: A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran's
2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price, by
Afsaneh Moqadam (Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar,
Straus and Giroux).
In small town Iran and
faraway provinces, the Leader - as well as the
"man of the people" with a halo over his head -
may still be popular. But no one, anywhere, really
knows for sure whether the absolute majority of
Iranians would do anything to support them.