OpinionIran in the World PressReading Iran's Elections Right

Reading Iran’s Elections Right

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American Foreign Policy Council: Tomorrow, when Iranians go to the polls to elect a new president, all eyes will be on the Islamic Republic. The outcome of Iran’s presidential race will undoubtedly be important for the legitimacy of the country’s current clerical regime, now embroiled in a thorny diplomatic dispute with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program. But it will be even more decisive for the Iranian people, whose urge for democracy is poised to take a giant step backward.

“For all of its fanfare, the Iranian presidential election is just a sideshow.” — Ilan Berman

American Foreign Policy Council

By Ilan Berman

Washington, DC – Tomorrow, when Iranians go to the polls to elect a new president, all eyes will be on the Islamic Republic.

The outcome of Iran’s presidential race will undoubtedly be important for the legitimacy of the country’s current clerical regime, now embroiled in a thorny diplomatic dispute with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program. But it will be even more decisive for the Iranian people, whose urge for democracy is poised to take a giant step backward.

The runaway favorite to be Iran’s next president is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. A consummate politician, shrewd pragmatist, and former Iranian head of state, Rafsanjani’s popular candidacy – which has been implicitly endorsed by the country’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – reflects the Iranian regime’s efforts to put forward a more pragmatic, accommodating international image. Simply put, officials in Tehran are banking on the fact that Rafsanjani can buy them greater diplomatic breathing room – and more time to attain their atomic ambitions.

Yet, for all of its fanfare, the Iranian presidential election is just a sideshow. No matter their political affiliation, all of the approved candidates have passed muster with the regime’s vetting authority for political appointments, known as the Guardian Council. This spring, in the run-up to the official electoral season, that same political body rejected more than one thousand political aspirants. The handful that has remained, despite variations in political tone, is uniformly beholden to the regime’s ideological line.

This means that irrespective of who wins the Iranian presidency, the Islamic Republic will not roll back its efforts to acquire a nuclear capability. Nor will it change any of the other troubling policies (such as sponsorship of terrorism and opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process) that characterize its core ideology. In the end, if there is a change in Iranian policies, it will be one of style, not substance.

Perhaps as important, however, is the fact that the presidential race has obscured another, more pivotal political shift now taking place within Iran. In 1997, “reformist” cleric Mohammed Khatami was swept into the country’s highest office by an unprecedented wave of popular support, buoyed by the notion that he would make dramatic changes to economic policies, improve social conditions and, above all, soften Iran’s radical political orientation.

Eight years later, however, much the opposite has happened. Reformists have lost ground, repression has deepened, and Iran’s radical ideology is experiencing a renaissance.

In the wake of the resounding victory of regime conservatives during Iran’s hotly-contested February 2004 parliamentary elections, close to a third of Iran’s 290 parliamentary deputies now have links to Iran’s military complex, and 42 are directly affiliated with the country’s clerical shock troops, the Pasdaran. Ezatullah Zarghami, the public relations czar installed by the regime last summer, is a former Pasdaran commander. So is Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who assumed the office of mayor of Tehran in the spring of 2003. The implications of these political developments are clear: Iran’s Islamic Revolution is getting a new lease on life.

All this is hardly likely to change under Iran’s new president. In fact, if the ruling ayatollahs have their way, the world will see a reconstituted, revitalized Iranian presidency in ideological lockstep on Iran’s quest for the bomb, its internal anti-democratic policies, its strategic agenda in the greater Middle East, and its opposition to American strategy.

American policymakers, currently involved in Europe’s diplomatic effort to roll back Iran’s atomic advances, may – like their counterparts in Britain, France and Germany – be banking on a concrete change in Iranian policy, post-June 17th. If so, they are likely to be sorely disappointed.

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