The Real World: Iran’s Managed Democracy

Date: 03-21-2008 | Category: Articles, Middle East

By Ariel Cohen

  Iranian voters – 44 million of them – cast their ballots on March 14, in the country’s eighth parliamentary election since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Surprisingly, many in the media and in the "chattering classes" still view Iran as a democracy, albeit of an "Islamic" type. In reality, Iran has a political process about as "democratic" as the Soviet Union used to have, or as communist regimes around the world, from Cuba to North Korea still maintain. Certainly, politics are involved, in the sense of struggles for power between factions and individuals. However, Iran’s latest round of elections was hardly democratic by any stretch of the imagination. First, traditional Iranian parties which go back a century, as well as the Marxists, Social Democrats, secular nationalists, and liberals, were all barred from participation. Second, even current Majlis members and religious reformers á la former President Muhammad Khatami were effectively neutered and screened out. Third, no meaningful democratic institutions, so necessary for a true reflection of people’s will, are present in Iran. There is no free press, no independent judiciary, no freedom of speech or assembly. Student protesters are beaten up, imprisoned, or murdered. So are many opposition intellectuals. Newspapers and Web sites are shut down on the whim of the theocratic regime. No one who is gay or feminist is allowed to run for office. Instead, they could well end up in jail, in exile, or dead. The election results were pre-determined by Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his satraps. The secretive non-elected Guardians Council had screened out candidates who were not acceptable to the Velayat-e-Faghih, or clerical state. The all-powerful Guardian Council consists of 12 Shiite clerics and jurists, six of which are directly appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s lifelong supreme leader since 1989. The supreme leader has the power to appoint the heads of the Iranian judicial system, the military, the national radio and television, as well as leaders of Friday prayers. The Guardian Council is not only tasked with cherry-picking those political candidates most palatable to Iran’s Islamic dictatorship, but also has the power to supervise all of the country’s legislation. The favorites to win this latest round of elections were the religious hardliners, who call themselves the "Principlists," because they consider themselves loyal to the original ideals of the Islamic Revolution. These totalitarians oppose any kind of reform, pledging to uphold the country’s traditional Islamic values – the way they interpret them for their own and their regime’s benefit. Needless to say, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is one of them. Ali Larijani, the hawkish former national security advisor, who lost out in a power struggle with Ahmadinejad, was elected from the holy city of Qom. The "reformers," who support political and economic change under Islamic law also advocate closer ties with the international community. Yet, many of the reformers actively support Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shiite organization which is on the U.S. and EU terrorist watch lists, and cheer when Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which Iran funds together with Hamas, blows up innocent civilians on buses, in markets, and restaurants. Both the hardliners and reformers support Iran becoming a nuclear power, with nuances of policy often used as a pretext for their political infighting. In this case, the hardliners made sure their own candidates would win the legislative elections by a landslide. But their efforts at "managing" Iranian democracy ended up eviscerating the opposition. Hence, before the elections, out of 7,600 candidates for parliament, the Guardian Council excluded over 3,000 as "undesirable." Of these, about 1,700 were "reformist" candidates, including Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson. According to a "reformist" candidate, the results of the elections in relatively liberal Tehran, favored by the reformists, "shocked everyone," since they only secured one seat. It appears that actually 10 reformist candidates won in the Iranian capital. But, as the Soviet communist dictator Joseph Stalin said, it is not important who votes, but who counts the votes. In Iran, it is the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of the Interior that manages the electoral process. Not surprisingly, Khatami’s reformers have accused the Interior Ministry, which is an Ahmadinejad stronghold, of stealing the elections. Yet, the difference between these "reformers" and the "hardliners" is like the difference between Mikhail Gorbachev’s supporters and the Soviet communist hardliners. There is no Iranian Boris Yeltsin or Andrey Sakharov in Tehran’s parliament yet. Prior to the elections, the Iranian government cracked down on the opposition. The voting age was changed from 15 to 18, because the Iranian youth want reform. Like in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, reformers were usually barred from holding campaign rallies. Many news Web sites and magazines critical of the regime were shut down. The screws were tightened. For many months Teheran ran a police campaign detaining women for dressing inappropriately, closing beauty parlors that offered Western style hairstyles, and shutting down Internet cafes and contemporary music clubs. The similarities to Stalinist – or Brezhnev’s – Russia are just too obvious to ignore. Yet, humans are political animals. You can’t ban politics, but you can drive them underground. Iran’s parliament will experience political struggles within the hardline bloc. Currently there is a fight brewing within this block between the old guard clerics and younger radical former members of the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), which some compare to the Bolsheviks’ much-feared NKVD secret police or Hitler’s SS. Ahmadinejad is surrounding himself with his Pasdaran cronies like Putin concentrates ex-KGB in key positions in Moscow. Pro-Ahmadinejad candidates won 70 seats in parliament while hardline critics of the Iranian president gained 43 seats. The reformers won 31 places, and independent candidates without a clear position got 39 seats, although the reformists claim that half of those support reform. In addition, five seats are reserved for the country’s Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians, although they are dwindling in numbers and subject to discriminatory laws. A further 70 seats will be contested in the runoffs later this spring. Unsurprisingly, the EU called these elections "neither fair nor free" and the U.S. State Department said that the Iranian electoral results were "cooked in the sense that the Iranian people were not able to vote for a full range of people." Until the Iranian people, who justly boast a rich and ancient political and state tradition, are given a free choice and can vote for their preferred candidates, Iran has no future. Its state and its economy will remain in the hands of oppressive and retrograde clerics, who do not have the vision, the education, or the skills to run a modern economy in the globalizing world. The Iranian political system will remain archaic. To some, it will be reminiscent of Uzbek-style "managed democracy." To others, it will reek of a decaying communist regime. This is why voter apathy is high. Only 40 percent of those still deemed eligible bothered to vote in Tehran. The hope is that the deadly grip which the Iranian regime has on the throats of the Iranian people will sooner or later give in and give up. This regime cannot last forever, particularly when the economy is deteriorating, with inflation running officially close to 18 percent and unofficially at almost 30 percent. Velayat-e-Faghih, the rule of the cleric, has outlived its natural life span. Even if the next U.S. administration deals with Tehran with its nuclear program and support of terrorism, it should clearly recognize the regime for what it is: a dictatorship, not a democracy. In the Iranian future, there is an open ballot box, and the last vote of the Iranian people has yet to be cast. The longer Iran’s path to democracy is, the higher price its people will pay in the end. -- Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The author wants to thank James Phillips, a colleague at the Davis Center, and Dr. Lajos Szaszdi, for contributing to this.

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