Every four years, the Iranian presidential election campaign is presented as a dramatic quest for power by rival factions defending sharply different programs.
A few weeks of excitement are created out of thin air to give the impression that the peculiar system created by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is an Islamic version of the cursed democracy promoted by the “infidel.”
The show is also used to blame all that is wrong in the country on the president in charge for the past four years, who almost always ends up getting reelected.
The well-rehearsed script provides at least three candidates representing “the bad,” “the worse,” and “the worst.”
This is important for confusing not only Iranians, but also foreign powers interested in or bothered by Iran.
In 1997, quite a few Iranians fell for the fiction that Mohammed Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, represented “the bad” option against Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri, another mid-ranking mullah, who was cast as a representative of “the worst.”
Khatami won and Iran ended up with an eight-year presidency that witnessed the “Chain Murders” of intellectuals, mass arrests of regime critics, strict censorship, increased support for terrorist groups, and the massive expansion of Iran’s clandestine nuclear project.
In the 2005 presidential campaign, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, branded “the worst” candidate, emerged victorious. Paradoxically, in some important cases, he turned out not as bad as Khatami. He overlooked corruption that had spread like wildfire, but toned down the crackdown organized against critics and dissidents. His clownish performance amused some and revolted many more but it did not translate into a substantial increase in the Islamist regime’s repressive measures.
Four years ago, US President Barack Obama bent over backwards to help Hassan Rouhani, whose four-year stint has been even worse than that of Khatami’s first term. Iran now ranks No. 1 globally in terms of the number of executions, second in terms of political prisoners and tops the list of states sponsoring international terrorism.
This year, the candidate supposed to represent “the worst” while being closest to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is Ebrahim Rais-Sadat, commonly known as Ebrahim Raisi, a mid-ranking mullah who is custodian of the Imam Reza in Mashhad, and presides over a wealthy religious fund.
Barring a last-minute surprise, Rouhani will remain in the race as “the bad” candidate, wearing his trademark smile and waving the cardboard key that symbolizes his promise to “open all doors.”
It is clear that many of the old themes are back.
Tehran lobbyists in the West are going around demanding support for Rouhani, who is supposed to be determined to do in the next four years what he could not or did not want to do in the last.
One US-based apologist, Abdolkarim Soroush, the so-called “Martin Luther of Islam,” invites Iranians to choose “the bad,” which he dubs “aslah” (the most qualified), meaning Rouhani.
Others have identified Raisi as the candidate closest to Khamenei and thus deserving a thrashing from an angry electorate. The list of candidates this time may also include Saeed Jalili, “the worst” candidate of the 2013 election, who presumably will still be only “the worse” this time.
The only time that Khamenei has indicated a personal opinion about any presidential candidate was when, in 2005, he made it clear he did not want Hashemi Rafsanjani to regain the presidency. However, the fact is that in 1997 Nateq Nuri was not Khamenei’s favored candidate, just as in 2005 he did not particularly favor Ahmadinejad.
For Khamenei, the presidential election is nothing but a four-year endorsement of the Khomeinist system, a kind of referendum on the regime’s legitimacy rather than a choice of an individual president.
In the current election, too, I doubt that Khamenei is particularly keen on seeing Raisi become president. True, Raisi is an old protege of Khamenei, hailing from his native Mashhad and holding the same narrow view of things. However, Khamenei will not mind if Rouhani wins again or if any of the other candidates whom he has pre-approved end up victorious.
The problem is not about who is elected, it is about the atrophied system that blocks all paths to reform, development and progress.
Though a protege of the late Rafsanjani, Rouhani has a 30-year record of service to the security services controlled by Khamenei. He is also close to powerful elements in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which provides the backbone of domestic support for the regime.
The only factor that might have concerned Khamenei regarding Rouhani would have been the latter’s tentative attempts at easing tension with the US. However, in the post-Barack Obama era, Rouhani has quickly switched to Khamenei’s strategy of alliance with Russia. In fact, Rouhani launched his presidential campaign with a visit to Moscow and photo-op with President Vladimir Putin.
Four years ago Rouhani, like Khatami before him, promised reform. Now, however, it is once again clear that the Iran system cannot be reformed. In his time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to end corruption, discrimination and poverty, exactly as Raisi does today. Eight years later, Iran ended up with more poverty, discrimination and corruption.
The problem is not about who plays the role of president in a charade of pseudo-democracy. The problem is about an atrophied system that blocks all paths to reform, development and progress.
Thus the question Iranians face is not about which of the various puppets is best. The real issue is whether they wish this broken system to continue.
Four years ago, the presidential election scored the lowest rate of voter participation, and Rouhani won with the smallest margin in the Islamic Republic’s history. In its limited way, the last election was a slap in the face for the Khomeinists. Will we see another such slap this time?
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He worked at, or wrote for innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.