Iran’s Big Yawn

The challenge for Iran's supreme leader: How to make a sham presidential election look like a real one.


None of Iran’s eight presidential candidates were prepared for the public humiliation they suffered during the election’s first televised debate on May 31. The program’s moderator informed them that he would be asking them yes-or-no questions – "to liven up the discussion," as he put it. (In a few cases, somewhat more daringly, he offered the option of multiple choice answers.) A few of the candidates refused to comply, complaining that the questions were too vague. Predictably enough, the debate-that-wasn’t-quite-a debate quickly became fodder for social media satirists. Perhaps as a result, in the third debate in last week, the candidates were granted much greater leeway to criticize each other. Looming over the proceedings, however, was a large digital clock tracking how much time each one of them spoke — clearly an effort to limit the time in which they could actually reach out to voters.

The spectacle of the anesthetized debates underlines the predicament in which Iran’s ruling elite now finds itself. The presidential election is one of the few realms in which a certain degree of political competition has been allowed to exist over the years. And even though the country’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final word on state matters (and even though many Iranians believe the vote on Friday will be rigged), voters still see the elections as their one chance to express their preference for more moderate policies. They know that the president sets the tone for domestic and foreign policy even though he has little constitutional power compared to Khamenei. So they know that this is a contest that matters.

As a result, the Iranian presidential election has always had the potential to introduce a certain degree of unpredictability — as happened in 2009, when hundreds of thousands of disgruntled voters took to the streets to protest alleged tampering with the election results. These events compelled Khamenei to throw his political capital into the fray in defense of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a figure he had backed in the 2005 elections in order to sideline moderate politicians). Now Ahmadinejad’s term is over, and he’s leaving office for an uncertain future.

Khamenei and his underlings clearly don’t want to see a repeat of the turmoil of four years ago. So last month they made their most dramatic move yet: The watchdog Guardian Council barred Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a founding father of the 1979 revolution, from running in the election. The Council, a group charged with interpreting the constitution, supervising elections, and approving candidates, is controlled by Khamenei. It has cleared eight candidates, among them two low-key independents. Two of the candidates withdrew this week — one of them a moderate who asked his voters to throw their support to Hassan Rowhani, the one reputed reformist left in the group.

The Guardian Council’s rejection of Rafsanjani sent shock waves through the country. Ridiculing the disqualification, parliament member Ali Motahari said [in Farsi] that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution) would probably be barred from the race if he tried to run today. "The system is becoming more authoritarian by the day," said former member of Parliament Fatemeh Haghighatjoo. "Mr. Khamenei doesn’t realize that he is making himself and the regime more vulnerable." She noted that Khamenei cannot, in the long term, run this regime alone.

Spooked by memories of the 2009 protests, the regime is once more resorting to police-state methods to cripple the oppositions’ ability to attract voters. Government forces patrol the streets, looking for what they refer to as "sedition." Hundreds of activists remain imprisoned, including two reformist candidates from the 2009 race who are under house arrest. Campaigners were summoned for questioning this month and parole rights of imprisoned activists have been withdrawn. The government has slowed the Internet to a crawl and blocked certain websites. It’s gotten so bad that even the conservative media have been complaining about censorship.

Iranian presidential election results are notoriously hard to predict. Given what’s already happened, though, Iranians can hardly be blamed for feeling that this year’s vote is already an anticlimax. It’s hard to overestimate the significance of the act of barring Rafsanjani — one of very few senior Iranian figures who, like Khamenei, can trace his political career back to the 1979 revolution.

By barring Rafsanjani, the regime has completely lost the ideological hegemony that kept it intact. Rafsanjani had been a close aide to Khomeini and played an instrumental role in elevating Khamenei to his position. Without him, Khamenei no longer derives his religious legitimacy as the country’s supreme leader from senior clerics. Instead, he entirely relies on the Revolutionary Guards, the armed force set up in 1979 to protect the Islamic regime.

"Khamenei has rejected his own legitimacy by disqualifying him," said Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He has undermined the Islamic Republic and senior clerics are worried now that he has turned the country into a military state."

Since his appointment in 1989, Khamenei has tried to consolidate his grip on power by alienating the clerics who appointed him. Fearing that as his previous position was a mid-ranking cleric he could never command their respect, Khamenei invested heavily in the Revolutionary Guards. Over the years, he switched his support base to the Guards and its militia wing, the Basij, the two groups that have played a major role in clamping down on the opposition.

Khamenei can certainly rest content. With Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani both out of the way, he can almost certainly count on a more manageable candidate ending up as president. The only remaining wild card is Rowhani. In an effort to resist political isolation, Rafsanjani and ex-president Mohammad Khatami, a lodestar of the moderates, threw their support behind Rowhani this week to mobilize the pro-reform vote behind him. But the powers-that-be don’t appear eager to give Rowhani enough space to challenge their grip. Earlier this month government forces broke up a Tehran rally where Rowhani was addressing his supporters. His leading campaigners were arrested.

If things continue like this, the main problem for the government will be making sure that the election doesn’
t look like too much of a farce. Khamenei has called for a large turnout, and street banners urge voters in the capital to go to the polls and create "an epic." But not everyone believes in the sincerity of these statements, since a large turnout is likely to make it harder for the regime to keep a lid on discontent. In 2009, government forces beat people outside the polling stations to turn them away, and the government closed the polls early to keep the turnout under control.

A clear favorite in the election has yet to emerge; any of the candidates has the potential to emerge victorious. What’s clear enough right now, though, is that it’s ordinary Iranians who will end up the losers.

Nazila Fathi, the author of the book Lonely War, reported from Iran for the New York Times until she was forced to leave the country in 2009. Twitter: @nazilafathi