Yes We Can! (If Khamenei Lets Us)

Iran’s reformists are trying to get back in the political game during this week’s crucial election — but the system may be rigged against them.


TEHRAN — In a Jan. 9 speech to commemorate a 1978 uprising in Qom, Iran’s religious center, in which the country’s then-royal regime killed protesters opposed to its rule, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei extolled the event as an example of Islamic exceptionalism. The deadly incident, known as the 19th of Dey, its date in the Persian calendar, is widely considered a prelude to the revolution that one year later established the clerical theocracy that rules Iran today.

Khamenei boasted that the flame of Iran’s revolution, unlike its French and Russian forebears, has never been extinguished. And he pledged to keep it that way.

“It is very important that a revolution manages to survive, keep itself alive, and confront its enemies and defeat them,” he said. “Our revolution is the only revolution that has managed to achieve these things, and these achievements will continue.”

The tribute served as a warning that, regardless of the outcome of the elections this Friday, Iran’s path is unlikely to change. Having warmed up his audience, Khamenei turned his attention to more recent demonstrations — the street protests, led by Iran’s reformist candidates, against then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009, after a ballot widely considered to have been rigged.

Unlike the remembrance of the 19th of Dey, future history lessons in Iranian schools are unlikely to cast these protests as glorious if Khamenei gets his way.

That election’s outcome is the gaping sore that scars Iranian politics and the low point of Khamenei’s near 27-year tenure as supreme leader. To him, the protests were not a reaction to the betrayal of the electorate by those intent on securing Ahmadinejad’s re-election, but a U.S.-engineered plot to weaken the Islamic revolution. The same specter of foreign plots hangs over all Iranian elections, including the upcoming vote.

“In order to magnify the losing minority and make them visible, they use a color to represent them.… Our lot was green,” he said of the movement that opposed Ahmadinejad’s victory. Despite the protests resulting in dozens of Iranians being killed by their own security forces, the crowd laughed at Khamenei’s remarks about the pro-democracy Green Movement, according to the official transcript of the speech posted on his website.

This mocking of Iran’s reformists and the tragic fate they met in 2009 presaged what took place a few weeks later, when Khamenei’s allies excluded thousands of reformist candidates from this week’s elections. The only reformist candidates who survived the cull were those whom most voters had never heard of.

Paradoxically, the reformist list’s best-known candidate is Ali Motahari, parliament’s most outspoken member. A lifetime conservative scion of a famous cleric, his recent realignment with the reformists is testament to the country’s changing political landscape. While the regime wants 2009 to be forgotten, Motahari has criticized the detention of Green Movement leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, simultaneously winning respect from centrists and moderates as well as reformists.

The reformists have also toned down their ideological aims markedly in this election — a step backward from President Mohammad Khatami’s administration of the early 2000s, when they openly aimed to alter the Islamic Republic’s rigid ideology and pass new laws to tackle gender inequality and promote personal freedoms. This was due to the crackdown that followed the 2009 vote: The judiciary locked up so many activists and shut down so many newspapers that, right now, their goals are far more modest, including avoiding being outlawed as a political force entirely. In the present election, they have formed an ad hoc coalition with political factions supporting the country’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, who has tended to seek more gradual change.

This week’s election consists of two separate votes. In one ballot, Iranians will choose lawmakers for the country’s parliament, the Majlis, which is currently dominated by conservatives who have frustrated Rouhani’s tentative steps for limited political and social reform. Voting out hard-liners would make his job easier. In the second poll, the electorate will select the country’s Assembly of Experts, a committee of clerics responsible for monitoring Khamenei’s work. Despite its lofty status — the assembly even technically has the power to fire the supreme leader — it has in recent years become a biannual talking shop, with praise for the incumbent the most consistent talking point.

Its biggest potential task has long lay dormant: In a manner similar to how the Roman Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals selects a new pope, the 88 clerics who will comprise the next Assembly of Experts will pick the 76-year-old Khamenei’s successor should he die during its eight-year term.

While Khamenei and other officials have urged a high turnout in the run-up to election day, they have also taken steps to show that Iran’s elections will happen on the regime’s terms. The Guardian Council, a 12-member constitutional watchdog, in addition to excluding parliamentary candidates deemed insufficiently loyal to the clergy, has sought to neuter Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khamenei’s revolutionary brother turned foe.

In barring Hassan Khomeini, grandson of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a Rafsanjani ally, from standing for the assembly, the council said he lacked the “Islamic knowledge to distinguish the next supreme leader,” according to a family member. Rafsanjani was furious. “They excluded the most similar person to Imam Khomeini: his grandson,” the former president said on Feb. 2. “Who gave you the right?”

The answer is: Khamenei did. The supreme leader personally appoints six of the council’s members. The head of the judiciary, another Khamenei appointee, picks the remaining six. Two hard-line ayatollahs and Khamenei acolytes — Ahmad Jannati, 89, and Mohammad Yazdi, 84 — led the charge in excluding candidates deemed to have strayed too far from the revolution’s true path. Both Jannati and Yazdi are standing for office again, even though they have ultimately approved the 159 candidates — all men — who will be running against them.

For the country’s reformists, the contradictions of the orchestrated selection process and the predominantly octogenarian makeup of Iran’s highest clerical body make a mockery of claims that the polls are democratic. This dissonance is increasingly hard for a young population to stomach. (Iran’s median age is 30, and around 60 percent of its population of roughly 80 million is younger than that.) It is, according to Khamenei, the duty of all citizens to vote. But the underlying meaning of his pronouncements is that the purpose of doing so is to enshrine the system’s legitimacy, rather than allow people to register disapproval.

“My father says I should vote, but the way I see it there is no point,” said Mira, a 28-year-old fashion designer in Tehran who believes she and her peers would only be powerless dupes should they cast a ballot. She has voted only once in her lifetime — in 2009, in Ahmadinejad’s controversial re-election.

“It doesn’t make a difference who we support,” Mira said. “We saw that then with the results, and it’s no different now.”

Such remarks reflect the fact that those inside Iran are less optimistic for dramatic reform at home than some foreign observers, who have been gripped by the prospect of a post-nuclear-deal domestic shake-up. The vetting process has played its part in dampening hopes of change. But it remains true that Iran, in the words of Matthew Trevithick, the American student who was recently released after being imprisoned by the regime, “is at war with itself” — and it’s not yet clear who will win the battle in the long term.

The wounds that were opened by the suppression of the 2009 protests show no sign of healing. At the first rally of the pro-Rouhani Alliance of Reformists and Government Supporters, which aims to topple hard-line conservatives on Friday, thousands chanted “no more house arrest” and “free the prisoners.” The chants were a reference to Mousavi, Karroubi and the countless others deprived of liberty.

The thousands who convened in the sports hall rally also held up a modified version of a poster of the reform movement’s éminence grise, Khatami, from the presidential campaign that saw him elected in 1997. The original shows his face in studied concentration, chin resting on hands. But the 2016 version shows only the hands, due to censorship under a media ban on Khatami’s face being published or his words used. The moderate alliance’s logo fills the blank space.

Acknowledged as the real organizer of this year’s reformist effort — albeit from the home in which he is mostly confined because of his stance over the 2009 election — Khatami took to YouTube on Feb. 21 to publicly back the Rouhani-allied list, saying it should be known as “the list of hope.” The list is headed by Mohammad Reza Aref, one of Khatami’s former vice presidents.

“If good figures who are trusted by the people are presented in this election, experience shows that the more the people take part, the more the result will be closer to the people’s views — and to the country’s benefit,” he said.

Khatami criticized the exclusion of reformist candidates but urged voters to back those who remain. “All of us have to go to the ballot box and vote for a better Iran,” he said.

Khatami knows better than most the boundaries of what is possible for Iranian presidents and governments. The sprawling remit of the Guardian Council means it can veto any act passed by parliament on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. It repeatedly blocked the then president’s legislation between 1997 and 2005. But he remains an inspirational figure to many of Iran’s reformists, despite the official attempts to silence him.

“Mr. Khatami is not with us today, but he is guiding us,” said Omid Abdollahi, handing out fliers at the reformist event. “He’s the architect of this campaign.”

Abdollahi, a 37-year-old engineer, was an undergraduate at Tehran University when the reform movement originally burst into life. Almost 20 years later, his eyes widened with enthusiasm when he sought to explain what is at stake on Friday.

“This election must bring real change and show the world that we are looking outward as a confident nation. We can only do that if people go to the ballot box and continue what has started with the nuclear deal,” he said.

Despite such hopes, it is hard to see past the biggest influence over the elections so far: Khamenei and who will be his successor. While members of parliament come and go, the office of the supreme leader is, for all intents and purposes, for life. In his 19th of Dey speech, the supreme leader not only took potshots at his Green Movement enemies — he raised the subject of his own death, highlighting the overarching significance of the Assembly of Experts election.

“When the current leader is not in this world, the day we do not have a leader, it is the responsibility of the Assembly of Experts to choose a leader … who holds the key to this revolution,” he said, urging even those who do not approve of him to cast a ballot.

But to many, the overt action of his officials to influence the vote and counter Rouhani’s momentum and popularity after the nuclear deal has grossly undermined the prospect of a huge turnout.

Photo credit: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

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