Although Westerners are inclined to think the outcome of an election is something you find out after the vote, that is not the case in Iran under the mullahs. There, elections are staged, but sometimes the plot has a twist. The real story of the parliamentary elections in Iran this Friday will not be the wholesale defeat of the so-called “reformists”; it will be the boycott of the electoral sham by the majority of Iranians, particularly the youth.
This year's election, while in many ways similar to every other election held under the rule of the ayatollahs since 1979, has a particular significance. The regime finds itself in a conundrum: it is in dire need of a show of popular legitimacy — something it obviously lacks — but it must also preserve the most radical, belligerent faction at the helm of power.
The Friday election also coincides with anti-regime protests and rallies throughout the country, particularly in the universities of major cities. This upsurge in dissent has only increased in spite of a state crackdown unprecedented in recent years. The Washington Times reported from Tehran on March 7 that more than 3,000 students held anti-government protests at major universities in Shiraz for the ninth consecutive day, chanting, “We are men and women of fighting, dare to fight and we will fight back,” and “This is the final warning. The student movement is ready for the uprising.”
According to the Times, the network of the People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI/MEK), which “also has been involved in a nationwide campaign urging Iranians to boycott the upcoming Majlis (parliamentary) elections scheduled to take place next Friday,” had a very active role in the student rallies.
There are a few fundamental facts one must consider before delving into deciphering the election news from Iran. First, there is the regime's obsession with inflated voter turnout numbers. This does not come from its commitment to democratic practices and respect for the popular will, but to its need to create an aura of legitimacy. The more isolated and illegitimate the Tehran regime becomes, the more it presses for stupefyingly high turnouts.
Secondly, in true democracies, free elections are a manifestation of popular sovereignty. In Iran under the mullahs, however, free elections are intrinsically and irreconcilably in contradiction with the despotic theocracy, in which a cleric, the Supreme Leader, has ultimate, unquestioned power and talk of popular sovereignty is considered apostasy.
Thirdly, the Friday election, like others before it, is in many ways simply a barometer to measure the political balance among the rival factions within the theocratic regime. In the months preceding the March 14 election, Iran's political landscape has been the scene of ferocious factional infighting, known among Iranians as the “fight among the wolf pack.”
The fact is that despite the crushing weight of domestic and foreign isolation, the ayatollahs' regime has neither the political nor ideological capacity to change the course of its rogue behavior at home or abroad. Incapable of satisfying these pre-requisites to emergence from isolation, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei views the appalling suppression at home coupled with escalation of terrorism in Iraq and beyond, as well as the acceleration of the nuclear weapons program as his only options.
Backed by his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and President Ahmadinejad's cabinet, Khamenei has set about purging all political rivals from the ruling body at the expense of evermore contraction of the entire system. After the election, power will be concentrated in the hands of the most extreme factions of the theocracy, embodied by the IRGC and Ahmadinejad.
This faction is comprised of Supreme Leader Khamenei, the IRGC's top brass and the various groups of the political block known as the “Principlists,” which includes Ahmadinejad and his cabinet as well as other radicals like former top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, and former IRGC top commander Mohsen Rezaei.
The faction inappropriately labeled as “reformist” has been dealt a heavy blow by the faction of Ahmadinejad, et al. Of course, as this drama plays out, the names have been changed to protect the guilty. The “reformists” are in fact a who's who of political figures who, throughout the 1980s and the 16 years of rule by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, had a major role in the atrocities, terrorism and nuclear weapons program of the ayatollahs' regime.
Prior to the upcoming election, many of the “reformist” candidates were disqualified by the Guardian Council, the vetting body of the clerical regime. But the radicals wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted to keep key “reformist” figures out of the parliament, but not to the extent that Rafsanjani, Khatami or other heavyweights would call for an election boycott.
In a political machination known as “electoral engineering” in the regime's inner circle, the dominant faction put in place an elaborate scheme to exact maximum benefit from the elections. According to this scenario, they will de-claw the “reformist” list of candidates and at the same time keep enough of them on the ballot to claim the election was inclusive. The end result is that come Friday, about 60 candidates of the “reformist” faction, albeit insignificant ones, will probably make it to the 290-seat Parliament (Majlis). Almost all of the key leaders have been purged, and in the actual competitions for about 200 Majlis seats, no “reformist” candidate is on the list.
On Friday, the Iran policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic should be listening not to the mullahs' election reports, but to the voice of millions of Iranians, as echoed by the students in recent anti-regime rallies. The people of Iran want real democratic change, and that means regime change. The international community should coordinate political and diplomatic efforts abroad in support of the movement for democracy in Iran.
Alireza Jafarzadeh is the author of The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis (Palgrave: February 2008).
Jafarzadeh has revealed Iran's terrorist network in Iraq and its terror training camps since 2003. He first disclosed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water facility in August 2002.
Until August 2003, Jafarzadeh acted for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the Washington office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is credited with exposing Iranian nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak in 2002, triggering International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. He is the author of "The Iran Threat" (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008). His email is Jafarzadeh@ncrius.org, and is on twitter @A_Jafarzadeh.