On June 14, the leadership in Tehran will deceive the Iranian people. It won’t be the regime’s first lie, but it is characteristic of the most recent history of the Islamic Republic. On Friday, 55 million Iranian eligible voters will elect the future president from a selection of more than half a dozen candidates. The propaganda machine of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 74, is leading them to believe that they can indeed shape their country’s future.
But in the last four years, Iran has become a republic of fear. The prisons are filled with countless activists and dissenters, and some of them may be there because they laughed too loudly at Khamenei at some point. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to be arrested, interrogated and locked away. But the fear is mutual. While the people tremble at the thought of being apprehended by the regime’s henchmen, the leadership is also nervous about new demands for more freedom and democracy.
In the 2009 election, Khamenei made the mistake, disastrous from his standpoint, of allowing candidates to run who aroused hopes of liberalization. After three decades of being ruled by the turban-wearing ayatollahs, merely the prospect of a small measure of freedom was enough to drive millions to the polls and then into the streets, when they believed that their “green movement” had been cheated of its rightful victory.
This time Khamenei has deliberately obstructed a large number of potential candidates who have shown only the slightest potential of wanting to question the pure doctrine of the Islamic Republic that the revolutionary leader fiercely defends. The ayatollah is so fearful that he didn’t even permit the candidacy of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Despite being a staunch supporter of the system, Rafsanjani did cautiously side with the opposition four years ago and could very well have developed into the leader of a protest movement.
Instead, the political stage is now filled with a group of especially lackluster apparatchiks. The favorites include conservatives from the ayatollah’s machinery of power: his foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, 67, and Saeed Jalili, 47, Iran’s chief negotiator in the nuclear conflict, who served as Khamenei’s chief of staff for four years. Could the ayatollah have picked more loyal candidates?
Elections in Iran are not democratic and fair. The run-up is marked by haggling and the post-election period by maneuvering. Only those who unconditionally support the “Wilayat al Faqih,” or Guardianship of the Jurist, are permitted to run for president. The office of the Wilayat al Faqih was created for Ayatollah Khomenei, who drove out the Shah, and after Khomenei’s death in 1989, Khamenei became the new supreme leader. He is the arbiter of war and peace, which means that he can issue the order to build a nuclear weapon or to reconcile with the “Great Satan,” the United States. Khamenei is essentially the country’s supreme leader for life, and his decisions are considered irrevocable. Because of this absolute power, he is no different than the autocrats the revolutionaries once vowed to defeat.Officially, the constitution does provide for democratic corrective action, a right that many Iranians desperately invoked in the past, constantly pinning their hopes on the next election, the next parliament or the next president. Eventually they also came to believe that Khamenei, who considers himself a man of the people, could not completely ignore their desire for change.
But Khamenei clings tightly to his power and is not interested in the sort of change that has taken hold in many neighboring countries. In the 25th year of his rule, he views any change as a threat. Surrounded by enemies within his own ranks, the ayatollah sees an abyss running alongside the path of the revolution. The campaign slogan of his former assistant, Saeed Jalili, is entirely in keeping with Khamenei’s mindset: “No compromise, no submission. Only Jalili.” Nevertheless, the ayatollah even has to be cautious with this candidate, because it was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who appointed Jalili to serve as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. The “martyr” Jalili, who lost his right lower leg in the war with Iraq, is a second-tier radical, like Ahmadinejad. “He is one of us,” many Revolutionary Guards shouted during one of Jalili’s campaign appearances last week.
A greater threat to Khamenei comes from the nationalist wing, where his strongest challenger is the current president, who assumed office in 2005 with the support of Khamenei himself. For populist Ahmadinejad, nationalism is more important than Islamism. In the populist form of Islam that he preaches, the position of the once untouchable Khamenei is reduced to that of representative of a useless caste of clerics. Ahmadinejad reportedly used every tool within his power, including blackmail, to have his office manager, friend and brother-in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, admitted as a presidential candidate. But the Guardian Council, a sort of religious constitutional court filled with loyal supporters of the revolutionary leader, barred Mashaei, as well as 669 other potential candidates, from entering the race.
This time is far different from the 2009 election, when supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, now under house arrest, filled stadiums and took to the streets in the middle of the night to show their support.
Even the campaign stops are muted, with state-run TV showing candidates walking through small groups of enthusiastic supporters and offering vague assurances about Iran’s struggling economy.
At first glance, Khamenei now seems stronger than before. The reformers are intimidated, the favorite of the recalcitrant Ahmadinejad has been thwarted, and even Rafsanjani and his pragmatists have been weakened. But the Rafsanjani case, in particular, shows just how cornered the revolutionary leader must feel. Many Iranians felt that the wealthy businessman, religious scholar and experienced politician was the country’s last hope of being led out of its current plight. They believed that Rafsanjani would be capable of crafting a face-saving compromise in the nuclear conflict and reviving the ailing economy.The international community’s hopes that a new president could resolve the nuclear conflict are unlikely to be fulfilled. A man like Jalili would distance himself from Ahmadinejad’s abrasive diplomacy, although he too has attacked Israel and made other defiant remarks in the campaign. As chief negotiator in the nuclear conflict, Jalili more than exhausted the patience of his Western counterparts. He was “polite, and occasionally even exceedingly pleasant,” says someone who was involved in the negotiations with Jalili, and yet when it came to the negotiations, Jalili showed “zero good will, zero ability to reason and zero imagination.”
In recent months, political observers in Tehran had hoped that the stalling tactics in the nuclear conflict were attributable to Khamenei’s rift with Ahmadinejad. They speculated that the revolutionary leader was determined not to grant his adversary a success in foreign policy, and that once the elections were over, Khamenei would give a new president more room for maneuver. It was all a matter of patience, they said. For a time, this view seemed to make sense. But now pessimists aren’t the only ones who fear that the new president could become a standard bearer of the old revolutionary ideology. It’s no consolation that this person could perhaps behave more diplomatically than Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad.
For the election, at least, Khamenei’s plan could work out. The massive security contingent that could be expected to quell possible student protests or reform initiatives will probably not be deployed in a large-scale operation. Even the notorious provocateur Ahmadinejad seems to be keeping a low profile. Supporters of the ayatollah have allegedly threatened the current president with arrest should he cause any problems. And perhaps the official turnout can be increased enough to ensure that Khamenei saves face.