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Democracy, ‘axis of unity’ style

More than 40 million Iranians went to the polls to elect their president. Social media was awash with praise for the dynamism of Iran’s Islamic democracy. The simultaneous visit of US President Donald Trump to Riyadh was used to contrast the supposed progressivism of Iran’s political system with the undemocratic, conservative nature of its Gulf neighbors.

On a recent visit to South America, I had close contact with the unfolding crisis in Venezuela, a reality that in many ways is reminiscent of Iran’s. For over a month and on a daily basis, Venezuela has witnessed some of the biggest protests in its history against President Nicolas Maduro. The exodus to neighboring countries has turned into a refugee crisis.

The dramatic instability tearing down Venezuela is at odds with the confidence in Tehran following the nuclear deal, the effects of which are visible well beyond Iran’s borders. But there are numerous parallels between the two countries, including the instrumental use of elections and other features commonly associated with democracy to uphold the regime.

For various factors noted in analyses published over the last week, to label Iran as democratic is stretching the meaning of the word beyond its limits. There is the tightly vetted poll of candidates, the strict control exerted by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council over the whole process, and the looming coercion of the security and intelligence entities, ready to be deployed in case things do not turn out as planned.

In 2009, when it looked like the reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi was well positioned to win the presidential race, the vote was rigged in favor of the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The massive protests that followed were crushed by the police and the Basij paramilitary militia. More than 100 people were killed.

Still, last week’s vote — which gave an overwhelming victory to the incumbent Hassan Rouhani, the moderate face within the acceptable spectrum of candidates as defined by the regime — should not be dismissed as insignificant. The same holds true for last year’s parliamentary elections, a setback for hard-line factions.

Instead of a statement about the health of Iran’s so-called semi-democratic political system, it could be seen as a strong signal of how an increasingly significant portion of Iran’s vibrant and resilient society is at odds with the clerical-military establishment that runs the show.

Like Iran, Venezuela has major oil reserves — the world’s largest according to various 2016 estimates — yet the regular citizen hardly felt the benefits before the current long run of low oil prices. World Bank figures place youth unemployment in Venezuela above 15 percent. Iran’s is a staggering 32 percent.

Anti-imperialism and an aversion to the US-led global order unite both regimes. It was anti-imperialism that justified the coups that installed the late Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini and former President Hugo Chavez in power. Their successors, Khamenei and Maduro, took on the mantle of anti-imperialism that became both regimes’ raison d’etre.

To label Iran as democratic is stretching the meaning of the word beyond its limits. There is the tightly vetted poll of candidates, the strict control exerted by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei over the whole process, and the looming coercion of the security and intelligence entities.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

Bilateral relations developed considerably under Chavez and former President Mohamed Khatami, and deepened with Ahmadinejad. In 2007, both governments famously declared an “axis of unity” against the US. The presence of Hezbollah in Venezuela, including involvement in the global drug trade, is well documented.

Tehran consistently blamed economic troubles on US-led international sanctions, oblivious to its own financial empire of hundreds of billions of dollars that underpins the “economy of resistance.” Maduro uses the pretext of US interference for everything that goes wrong. He blamed the CIA for the cancer that took his predecessor’s life.

While the lifting of most economic sanctions on Iran post-nuclear deal brought much-needed breathing room for the regime, Venezuela is on the verge of collapse. Economic mismanagement, including the disappearance of billions of dollars from the state-owned oil company, led the government to print currency relentlessly. Annual inflation skyrocketed to a world record of 800 percent. Public services such as electricity provision massively deteriorated, and food and medicine shortages are the new normal.

Holding the keys to the future of Chavismo are the army and manipulation of the electoral process. Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez has so far stuck with Maduro and stepped up pressure on dissent among the military’s lower ranks. A popular armed militia created by Maduro in the image of Iran’s Basij has assisted the police in the crackdown on protesters. Dozens have been killed, and many more arrested and tried in military courts.

In March, the government-controlled Supreme Court dissolved the opposition-led legislature. The United Socialist Party is now twisting and breaking constitutional norms to remain in power. Regional elections have been repeatedly postponed out of fear of a massive defeat for the ruling party. Meanwhile, opposition leaders are being arrested and opposition parties forced to re-register.

A vote to elect members of a new constituent assembly, which will be charged with re-writing Venezuela’s constitution, is expected in the next few months. The president may then try to extend his term before next year’s presidential elections.  

The failure of neoliberal reforms in the early 1990s is blamed for the strength of the populist revolutionary movement that put Chavez in power. This is another alarming parallel with today’s Iran: Without deep structural changes and the endorsement of powerful hard-line factions, it is difficult to see how Rouhani’s neoliberal economic agenda can deliver.

• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a consultant and political analyst focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.