Ayatollah's Ruse Iran's Presidential Election Offers No Real Choice

On June 14, Iranians will choose their next president, but the candidates have been handpicked by an increasingly unyielding Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Hopes for a quick resolution to the nuclear conflict will likely go unfulfilled.
Supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran.

Supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran.

Foto: DPA/ AP

On June 14, the leadership in Tehran will deceive the Iranian people. It won't be the regime's first lie, but it is characteristic of the most recent history of the Islamic Republic. On Friday of next week, 55 million Iranian eligible voters will elect the future president from a selection of more than half a dozen candidates. The propaganda machine of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 74, is leading them to believe that they can indeed shape their country's future. If they weren't as afraid of the regime, many Iranians would not only laugh out loud at his audacity, but would also go to the barricades against this phony democracy.

But in the last four years, Iran  has become a republic of fear. The prisons are filled with countless activists and dissenters, and some of them may be there because they laughed too loudly at Khamenei at some point. Sometimes it doesn't take much to be arrested, interrogated and locked away. But the fear is mutual. While the people tremble at the thought of being apprehended by the regime's henchmen, the leadership is also nervous about new demands for more freedom and democracy. In the 2009 election, Khamenei made the mistake, disastrous from his standpoint, of allowing candidates to run who aroused hopes of liberalization. After three decades of being ruled by the turban-wearing ayatollahs, merely the prospect of a small measure of freedom was enough to drive millions to the polls and then into the streets, when they believed that their "green movement" had been cheated of its rightful victory.

This time Khamenei has deliberately obstructed a large number of potential candidates who have shown only the slightest potential of wanting to question the pure doctrine of the Islamic Republic that the revolutionary leader fiercely defends. The ayatollah is so fearful that he didn't even permit the candidacy of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Despite being a staunch supporter of the system, Rafsanjani did cautiously side with the opposition four years ago and could very well have developed into the leader of a protest movement.

Instead, the political stage is now filled with a group of especially lackluster apparatchiks. The favorites include conservatives from the ayatollah's machinery of power: his foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, 67, and Saeed Jalili, 47, Iran's chief negotiator in the nuclear conflict , who served as Khamenei's chief of staff for four years. Could the ayatollah have picked more loyal candidates?

Post-Revolutionary Autocracy

Elections in Iran are not democratic and fair. The run-up is marked by haggling and the post-election period by maneuvering. Only those who unconditionally support the "Wilayat al Faqih," or Guardianship of the Jurist, are permitted to run for president. The office of the Wilayat al Faqih was created for Ayatollah Khomenei, who drove out the Shah, and after Khomenei's death in 1989, Khamenei became the new supreme leader. He is the arbiter of war and peace, which means that he can issue the order to build a nuclear weapon or to reconcile with the "Great Satan," the United States. Khamenei is essentially the country's supreme leader for life, and his decisions are considered irrevocable. Because of this absolute power, he is no different than the autocrats the revolutionaries once vowed to defeat.

Officially, the constitution does provide for democratic corrective action, a right that many Iranians desperately invoked in the past, constantly pinning their hopes on the next election, the next parliament or the next president. Eventually they also came to believe that Khamenei, who considers himself a man of the people, could not completely ignore their desire for change.

Despite all the abuses and human rights violations, political life in Iran -- at least until the government's violent suppression of the protests against election fraud in the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- was still freer and more diverse than in some neighboring Arab countries. The Iranians had already elected about half a dozen presidents, including the liberal Mohammad Khatami. In contrast, the Saudi Arabian royal family doesn't even allow its subjects to express their opinions and women are forbidden to drive cars.

'They Don't Listen to Us Anyway'

But Khamenei clings tightly to his power and is not interested in the sort of change that has taken hold in many neighboring countries. In the 25th year of his rule, he views any change as a threat. Surrounded by enemies within his own ranks, the ayatollah sees an abyss running alongside the path of the revolution. The campaign slogan of his former assistant, Saeed Jalili, is entirely in keeping with Khamenei's mindset: "No compromise, no submission. Only Jalili." Nevertheless, the ayatollah even has to be cautious with this candidate, because it was Ahmadinejad who appointed Jalili to serve as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. The "martyr" Jalili, who lost his right lower leg in the war with Iraq, is a second-tier radical, like Ahmadinejad. "He is one of us," many Revolutionary Guards shouted during one of Jalili's campaign appearances last week.

The reformers are no longer likely to pose a threat. Although two candidates are considered part of the reform wing, it is questionable whether they will be able to mobilize large numbers of voters. The leader of the green movement is under house arrest, while other dissenters have fled the country or have simply given up. "They don't listen to us anyway," a prominent reformer told the International Herald Tribune, referring to the group of powerful men surrounding Khamenei. He was in prison for several months, and his forced confession of having been involved in a conspiracy was broadcast on national television. Since then the reformer, a religious scholar, has withdrawn from politics and abandoned his cause.

A greater threat to Khamenei comes from the nationalist wing, where his strongest challenger is the current president, who assumed office in 2005 with the support of Khamenei himself. For populist Ahmadinejad, nationalism is more important than Islamism. In the populist form of Islam that he preaches, the position of the once untouchable Khamenei is reduced to that of representative of a useless caste of clerics. Ahmadinejad reportedly used every tool within his power, including blackmail, to have his office manager, friend and brother-in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, admitted as a presidential candidate. But the Guardian Council, a sort of religious constitutional court filled with loyal supporters of the revolutionary leader, barred Mashaei, as well as 669 other potential candidates, from entering the race.

Desperation of the Ayatollah

At first glance, Khamenei now seems stronger than before. The reformers are intimidated, the favorite of the recalcitrant Ahmadinejad has been thwarted, and even Rafsanjani and his pragmatists have been weakened. But the Rafsanjani case, in particular, shows just how cornered the revolutionary leader must feel. Many Iranians felt that the wealthy businessman, religious scholar and experienced politician was the country's last hope of being led out of its current plight. They believed that Rafsanjani would be capable of crafting a face-saving compromise in the nuclear conflict and reviving the ailing economy.

Although Khamenei reportedly approved the former president's candidacy at first, the Guardian Council took him out of the running a few days later -- probably at the ayatollah's behest. The fear was that someone like Rafsanjani would not have allowed himself to be constrained by sheer revolutionary ideology. As a pragmatic politician, he knows all too well that the slogans of the revolution are not helping his country emerge from the crisis, but in fact are driving it further into isolation. Rafsanjani would have drawn many Iranians out of their lethargy and increased voter turnout. But that doesn't interest Khamenei. Apparently pliable candidates are more important to him.

The international community's hopes that a new president could resolve the nuclear conflict are unlikely to be fulfilled. A man like Jalili would distance himself from Ahmadinejad's abrasive diplomacy, although he too has attacked Israel  and made other defiant remarks in the campaign. As chief negotiator in the nuclear conflict, Jalili more than exhausted the patience of his Western counterparts. He was "polite, and occasionally even exceedingly pleasant," says someone who was involved in the negotiations with Jalili, and yet when it came to the negotiations, Jalili showed "zero good will, zero ability to reason and zero imagination."

Perhaps Khamenei believes that an improvement in the general mood is enough to lead the country out of its isolation. In his first campaign appearance, diplomat Ali Akbar Velayati promised that as president he would "avoid tensions with the West." The current administration could have achieved its successes in nuclear policy "at far fewer costs" to the people, he said, alluding to the international sanctions , if the government had only taken a more accommodating approach. Velayati, who served as foreign minister for more than 15 years, is worldly and enjoys Khamenei's special confidence. He currently serves as a sort of department head for international policy in the "Office of the Revolutionary Leader," where 5,000 advisors and informers shape Khamenei's worldview.

Expectations of a New President in Tehran

But when it comes down to it, someone like Velayati would also pursue the rigid course that the revolutionary leader outlined last Monday. Speaking at a military academy, he said: "The best president is the one who powerfully resists the enemy and will turn the Islamic republic into an international example for the oppressed people of the world," the International Herald Tribune reported.

In the siege mentality that has taken hold in Tehran, is a more accommodating stance in the nuclear conflict to be expected? Or even rapprochement with the US government? After all, in the Syrian conflict Washington aims to overthrow Iran's close ally, the regime of President Bashar Assad in Damascus, a regime that Iran, with its Lebanese Hezbollah allies, supports almost unconditionally.

In recent months, political observers in Tehran had hoped that the stalling tactics in the nuclear conflict were attributable to Khamenei's rift with Ahmadinejad. They speculated that the revolutionary leader was determined not to grant his adversary a success in foreign policy, and that once the elections were over, Khamenei would give a new president more room for maneuver. It was all a matter of patience, they said. For a time, this view seemed to make sense. But now pessimists aren't the only ones who fear that the new president could become a standard bearer of the old revolutionary ideology. It's no consolation that this person could perhaps behave more diplomatically than Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad.

For the election, at least, Khamenei's plan could work out. The massive security contingent that could be expected to quell possible student protests or reform initiatives will probably not be deployed in a large-scale operation. Even the notorious provocateur Ahmadinejad seems to be keeping a low profile. Supporters of the ayatollah have allegedly threatened the current president with arrest should he cause any problems. And perhaps the official turnout can be increased enough to ensure that Khamenei saves face. Four years ago, Ahmadinejad also had no shortage of votes, no matter where they were coming from. Manipulation and lies are part of the business of politics everywhere. But a system that allows no dissenting views is commonly known as a dictatorship, and an election that isn't one is called camouflage.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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