Iran’s presidential election next week presents a false choice to their restive people. There are two main candidates in the race, both of whom are rubber-stamped by the mullahs in Tehran. They are fighting over a very narrow sliver of turf. No matter who wins, count on Iran remaining viciously repressive, destabilizing to the region and ever-eager to attain nuclear weapons.
In a recent survey of Iranians in 15 provinces, by the International American Council on the Middle East and North Africa, 79 percent of those asked said they don’t believe the outcome of the election will make any difference in their lives. Faces change, but policies remain the same.
The vitality and diversity of the Iranian people’s politics is well-known. There are religious conservatives of course, but the streets teem with young people who hold secular, democratic views. There are savvy entrepreneurs, environmentalists and everything in between. Much of the body politic remains disaffected and disenfranchised by the unrealized economic gains that were promised after the end of nuclear sanctions with the rush of cash that filled Tehran’s coffers.
According to U.S. intelligence estimates and the analysis of Iranian opposition groups, the “nuclear accord dividend” has been siphoned off by the state’s instruments of violence and repression, including a huge budget increase to the brutal Iranian Revolutionary Guard, massive expenditures in ballistic missile development and ongoing interference in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the lot of the Iranian people remains dire as wages stagnate, needed investments in infrastructure are deferred and corruption runs rampant. These grievances have no real outlet and no real hope for redress. The greatest danger in a theocracy is that all state actions are sanctified by an authority for whom there is no higher appeal. Democracy is but a mirage under the theocracy.
Still, the Iranian people have no alternative but to boycott the elections and call for genuine regime change. There is a real Iranian opposition; they are jailed, hunted and murdered by the score, or otherwise pushed into exile. So, the mullahs have stacked the deck, offering their own alternative: current President Hassan Rouhani, who, of course, played a key role in suppressing a 1999 uprising of the people and bragged about lying to U.N. nuclear weapons inspectors.
His rival, the midlevel cleric Ebrahim Raisi is a close ally of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The other notable candidate, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who withdrew from the race in favor of Raisi, was a commander of the notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps before becoming Tehran’s mayor.
The candidates are approved by the unelected watchdog body, the Guardian Council, as are all the candidates in the election. This includes a process that entails complete acceptance of the Supreme Leader's ideology and policy “suggestions,” which explains why only six out of 1,636 candidates were allowed to run.
Given the sad reality that not much will change, no matter who is elected, what does the future look like? Well, what is past is prologue. Rouhani, the “moderate” presided over a record number of state executions that far outpaced his predecessor, the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Raisi has been part of the judiciary of the regime since its establishment and has made a reputation for himself as a brutal personality. As a member of a “death commission” in 1988, he authorized the execution of 30,000 political prisoners — men, women and even children, mostly belonging to the main opposition, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), as “enemies” of the state. There is little differentiation between the whip and the hand that holds it.
Today, the regime is more vulnerable than ever, from its internal divisions, its failure to wipe out all of my fellow dissidents in Iraq (who were successfully transferred to Europe) and the Trump administration's vow to review its Iran policy. All of these developments point to an unprecedented opportunity for the opposition to play a significant role in wresting control from the Mullahs and reshaping the country’s future.
Regardless of when that would happen, millions of disgruntled Iranians may prove to be a force to be reckoned with for the regime in the near future and the true partners of the United States.
Soona Samsami is the Representative in the United States for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is dedicated to the establishment of a democratic, secular republic in Iran.
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