Can the Iranian regime survive yet more political cannibalism?

The upcoming elections in Iran will be neither free nor fair, says Trita Parsi, but people are still willing to consider voting to challenge the establishment.

Iranians wave flags at a campaign rally at Heydarnia stadium in Tehran. Photograph: Getty Images

After the fraudulent “re-election” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, Iranian elections were not supposed to matter. But the upcoming vote on 14 June is becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss.

The campaign began with a surprise when, at the last minute, the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani registered his candidacy. This decision energised large parts of the populace – not because they necessarily support Rafsanjani, but because he is seen as capable of reversing the disastrous direction the country has been heading in the past eight years: increased state repression, economic disaster at home and clumsy foreign policy abroad, and the concentration of power around the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini.

The central role Rafsanjani played in the Islamic Revolution – he was a close confident of the late Ayatollah Khomeini – should have made him veto-proof. But on 21 May, Rafsanjani was disqualified by Iran’s Guardian Council. Khamenei refused to intervene and reverse the decision, meaning that there would not even be the pretence of real elections. The political space in Iran – which already had contracted significantly under Ahmadinejad – was now so narrow that the clique around Iran’s Supreme Leader rejected even pillars of the revolution such as Rafsanjani.

At this point, participation in the elections appeared futile for many in Iran. Not because they ever had any illusions about the unfairness of Iranian elections, but because it was a low-risk path towards pushing for gradual change. Granted, of course, that candidates willing to push for change were permitted to run. But if the political spectrum would be limited to what Khamenei could tolerate, in reality, it meant that the views of the people would not be tolerated.

Yet the surprises did not end there. Two of the candidates permitted to run were neither conservatives nor known Khamenei loyalists. At first, many observers dismissed these as obscure token candidates, allowed to run in order to give the illusion of choice.

The regime may have miscalculated once again, however. The population is not necessarily looking for someone with charisma – the Green Movement’s leader Mir Hossein Moussavi, certainly didn’t have much of it – but rather for someone capable of challenging the system. The two candidates – Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Reza Aref – are not household names in Iran. Rouhani, who is close to Rafsanjani, is a former nuclear negotiator who often is referred to by Western diplomats as the smartest Iranian negotiator they have dealt with. Aref, a Stanford-educated former vice-president in the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami and a former head of Tehran university, was virtually unknown outside of Tehran and his home town of Yazd prior to the elections.

The energy of the campaign is nowhere near what it was in 2009. But people seem to be gradually paying closer attention. Both candidates have crossed political red lines in the heated televised debates and their confrontational interviews with Iranian state TV. Rouhani has accused state television of spreading lies and of unethical behavior. Aref has mentioned Mir Hossein Moussavi’s name and expressed his frustration over the events around the 2009 elections. “I don’t want to open the case of 2009, but I silenced myself for four years, and I was in pain,” he complained. 

Rouhani has promised – or perhaps warned – that the 2013 elections won’t be a repeat of 2009. Slogans of the Green movement have been chanted at both of their rallies – and both have seen campaign functionaries arrested. Rouhani even skipped an important meeting of all the candidates with Khamenei to attend the funeral of a senior dissident Ayatollah. And both have decried the securitised atmosphere enforced on society since the 2009 elections, while vowing to “break” it.

This challenge to the establishment is precisely what large parts of the population are looking for. And while it remains to be seen if they will succeed in getting out the vote – on Facebook, some activists are campaigning by changing their avatars to a green sign saying “I will vote”, while others sport avatars that say “I might vote” – their progress thus far appears to have made the conservatives quite nervous. Reports emerged on 9 June that the Guardian Council is reconsidering its approval of Rouhani’s candidacy.

This serves as a reminder that elections in Iran are neither fair nor free. They remain a cat-and-mouse game between a regime that needs to sustain an image of legitimacy, and a civil society that uses every opportunity, however small, to push for change without risking a direct confrontation with the regime. In 2009, confrontation became unavoidable and the regime quelled the protests with violent repression, at great cost to its own internal cohesion. If it resorts to cheating and repression once again, then the question is whether the regime itself can survive yet another round of political cannibalism.

Trita Parsi is the author of A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012) and the President of the National Iranian American Council

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