The upcoming Iranian elections mean even less than you think.
That’s the bad news. The worse news is that this has little, if anything, to do with the individual candidates running for election. Rather, it is almost entirely a result of the structure of the Iranian government, and the inherent nature of the regime itself.
Reformist candidates, followers of “moderate” President Rouhani, have been systematically excluded from the ballot, with only 30 of their 3,000 candidates green-lighted for the election. The others have been deemed unacceptable to the religious establishment.
The body responsible for this triage, the Guardian Council, is a religious body, above the electoral process, appointed by and kept in line by the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei himself is the leader of the Hardliner faction.
From the names, and the Western press’s eager attachment to them, one might think that these factions represent significant policy differences.
They don’t. The factions are real enough, but they merely represent different flavors of the same tyranny.
According to Reza Parchizadeh, an Iranian political theorist and activist living in exile in the United States, the Reformists and the Hardliners are names of convenience, designed to deceive the West into thinking that the factional struggle has policy implications for us.
In fact, the Reformist faction isn’t really interested in reform at all. Rather, they are followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who found themselves on the outside looking in when the followers of the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, took control. Remember, Khomeini was responsible for the rise of the Islamic state in the first place. He oversaw the rise of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut.
Domestically, when the mullahs took over, they reinstated the burqa and radically curtailed the role of women in public life. Since Rouhani took over, things have gotten worse, not better. Women remain discriminated against. Young people long for unfiltered Internet access.
These two elements – religious discrimination and Internet access – recently came together in a way that was particularly threatening to the religious establishment. An app enabling Iranians to warn each other of locations where the Morality Police were sighted quickly became popular, and almost as quickly was blocked by the authorities.
Little wonder, then, that Reuters reports that many women and young people are ready to give up on Rouhani.
This isn’t the first time Iran elected a “moderate” president from the so-called “Reformist” camp. In 1997, Muhammad Khatami took office, and served until 2005. During his term, Hezbollah launched numerous rocket attacks against the Israeli civilian population. It was listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, the UK and Australia. The EU found that “clear evidence exists of terrorist activities by Hezbollah.” And Iran began killing American soldiers by proxy in Iraq.
Nevertheless, in a 2006 speech at – of all places – Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia, Khatami had the temerity to claim that Hezbollah had committed no terrorist acts in 10 years, and was on its way to becoming a responsible member of the Lebanese political community. In fact, it was well on its way towards swallowing Lebanon’s political community whole.
Parchizadeh explains that this is because the regime defines itself in opposition to the US and to the international nation-state system, in the same way that the Soviet Union defined itself in opposition to capitalism and the West. The US must remain the regime’s main enemy, and the nation-state system serves as an impediment to its regional and global aspirations. The mullahs cannot change that and remain the mullahs.
Consider the situation of the United States in 1800. A mere quarter-century after the Revolution, rival political parties had sprung up, with significant differences in foreign and domestic policy. But a British observer looking for a party that wanted to reconsider the verdict of 1781 would have been searching in vain.
And like the old Soviet Union, any differences between the factions’ respective approaches to the US are deliberate deception designed to make us believe in an opening that will never happen, and to bolster that faction internally.
The real opportunity for change came not with the ascent of this or that faction, but with the street demonstrations of the 2009 Green Revolution, which the Obama administration chose to let wither on the vine, despite outreach from its leaders asking for words of support.
Anything else is mere illusion, designed for our consumption and for the benefit of the ruling factions.
Sharf is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and head of the PERA project at the Independence Institute. Follow him @joshuasharf.