Iran’s Incredible Shrinking Democracy

Iran’s Incredible Shrinking Democracy

Iran’s Incredible Shrinking Democracy

For the first time, Iran’s presidential election outcome has been predetermined.


There’s a running joke among Iranians that the Iranian political system must be far more advanced than the one in the United States; months after the US election millions of Americans doubt the winner, but months before the Iranian election, everyone was certain who the winner was going to be.

Iran has begun an electoral process in which the vote, scheduled for June 18, is predetermined and where voter participation will likely be at a record low. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appears to have handpicked Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-liner who is head of the judiciary, to succeed Hassan Rouhani as president.

This has never happened before in Iran, and since 1997—when Mohammad Khatami, a reform-minded long-shot candidate, won the presidency—elections have been especially unpredictable and dramatic. Khatami continued to defy the odds by winning another mandate in 2001 against conservative candidates. Four years later, a relative unknown backed by Khamenei named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad upended the prior arrangements. While ostensibly a right-wing extremist, he secretly harbored anti-establishment sentiments. In the meantime, a popular democratic movement called the Green Movement, born of the 2009 election, shook the system for more than a year.

In 2013 and 2017, another reformist candidate, Hassan Rouhani, ran on a platform of joining the global order, de-escalation, and rolling back social and religious strictures. He easily defeated the hard-line candidates arrayed against him, including Raisi.

On all these occasions, spontaneous popular mobilization emerged from below. The regime tolerated it as a price to pay for maintaining its legitimacy and a display of its popular sovereignty.

These past elections have not been fully democratic. Women are barred from running, and candidates must be vetted by a process in which only those hailing from the religious elite are ultimately allowed to run. Still, elections provide opportunities for internal regime dissenters to voice their views and even get elected.

Mass participation in an electoral process has been a cornerstone of the Islamic Republic from the beginning. In 1979, the electorate voted to abolish the monarchy. This is a legacy of the republic’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, who was adamant that veering from this model would betray his vision. The current supreme leader, Khamenei, has until now followed the same formula. Elections confer both legitimacy and an internal dynamism to the system, which has likely prolonged the rule of the clergy against formidable odds.

Informal opinion surveys indicate that the participation rate, which normally averages around 70 percent of the electorate, is expected to fall below 35 percent, perhaps even to the lower 20s.

If the election is allowed to go ahead under these circumstances—there is always a chance Khamenei could reverse the process by decree—a pillar of the clerical system, namely its republican element, will be permanently impaired. Once voters fall out with a political establishment, they may not be easily nudged back to the ballot box. This kind of fissure, as the republic’s founder repeatedly emphasized, could endanger the Islamic regime in the long run.

Who is Raisi?

Raisi is a 61-year-old mid-ranking clerical judge who is now poised to reach the highest echelon of theocratic establishment in the Islamic Republic. At seminary schools, first in the city of Mashahd and then at the holy city of Qum, he became a devout follower of a clergyman named Noorollahian who later became an aide to the custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine, one of the nerve centers of the clerical regime. At age 23, he married the daughter of the future Friday prayer leader of the city of Mashhad, a hard-line cleric named Ahmad Alamolhoda. Both his teacher and his father-in-law played key roles in his meteoric rise in the clerical-juridical firmament. Thanks to these connections as well as his talent for political maneuvering, he raised himself through the ranks of the juridical system with bewildering speed. Starting out as assistant prosecutor and inspector of the revolutionary courts in the provinces, he soon became top prosecutor in a city 30 miles west of the capital. At the ripe age of 25, Raisi found his way to Tehran, where he took up a post as assistant to the chief prosecutor general of the Revolutionary Courts, Ali Razini. Two years later, in 1988, he was invited to join the so-called Committee of Death to mete out death sentences to thousands of political prisoners who refused to renounce their political or ideological beliefs. This was in the last months of the Iran–Iraq War in which a sense of fear and paranoia pervaded the entire regime.

After joining the Committee of Death, it was smooth sailing to top-tier jobs like inspector general of the Judiciary, chief prosecutor at the Special Court of the Clergy and, for the last three years, the top justice at the Judiciary.

But until now, people believed that the Committee of Death had been just three judges. Few people knew that Raisi was in fact a fourth jurist, who presided over the proceedings. This surprising development was revealed in August 2016 through the efforts of the family of a deceased dissident cleric named Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.

In August 2016, Montazeri’s family released a taped message of a meeting in which the dead cleric admonished the Committee of Death members for their bloody misdeeds. He said, “History will condemn us [for this], and the names of those responsible will be written in history as criminals.” Raisi has routinely evaded addressing the charges, preferring instead to blame Khomeini for the orders and minimize his own role.

The selection of Raisi as Iran’s de facto strongman—at a time when there are persistent rumors of the deterioration of the supreme leader’s health—is a puzzling choice. On the upside, his past record of fighting tirelessly for the interests of the clerical establishment endears him to the large array of factions and groupings that come under the umbrella of Principalist or Conservative forces. A series of setbacks—including loss of elections to the hated reformists, the betrayal of Ahmadinejad, the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the economic meltdown, and the divisive nuclear accord—have demoralized these hard-line factions in recent years, and they have been seeking out a unifying charismatic figure like Raisi to restore confidence in their ideology.

In addition to this, for the last few years, Raisi and his team have crafted an image of him as an incorruptible crusader for the little guy. The state-run television frequently airs footage of his visits to courthouses, closed factories, and dispossessed peasants’ lots in which he is seen railing against government misconduct. In all this coverage, he tries to appear unassuming and troubled by injustice. Sometimes he orders new rulings against a prior judgment on the spot. On his website, he states that he has dismissed hundreds of corrupt judges and public prosecutors in his capacity as the chief of the Judiciary.

Still, the fact that he will have won the presidency in an uncompetitive and lopsided manner is sure to tarnish his reputation with the electorate for years to come.

Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the leader of the Green Movement who has been under house arrest for over a decade, expressed his solidarity with those boycotting the election. Calling the vote “staged,” he decried the “butchering and total elimination of republicanism.”

Even the two major reformist-clerical groupings—the Militant Clerical Society and the Theological Teachers and Researchers Society—which have always encouraged people to vote in the past, no matter how undemocratic the conditions, are refraining from endorsing candidates. The Theological Teachers called the election “cosmetic.” In a statement issued by the group on May 26, it warned that the Guardian Council and “some elements outside it” are “bent on creating a mono-factional rule.”

At the same time, Raisi’s appalling human rights record—specifically his role in the murder of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988—is a major liability for him and his backers. It is not inconceivable that the International Court of Human Rights at The Hague could take up a case against him litigated by lawyers of the victims’ families and find him guilty.

End of an Era?

There were many indications that decision makers had opted for a norm-defying course of action weeks before the announcement of the list of approved candidates. On May 4, a spokesman for the Guardian Council, the oversight entity charged with vetting candidates, announced that it had changed the rules for selecting candidates even though a constitutional amendment is supposed to be needed for such a change. Then, a few days later, another spokesman declared, “Well, the people as well as national and political anticipations always expect to see a large rate of participation in the election. However, on strictly legal and statutory grounds, a low participation poses no problem for the credibility and legitimacy of the elections.”

Finally, on May 26 when the Guardian Council rolled out its final list of approved contenders for the 2021 election, one name, aside from the current vice president and other reformist candidates, was absent: Ali Larijani, a three-term parliamentary spokesman, former secretary of the Supreme National Supreme Council, and special adviser to the supreme leader. Larijani was believed to be the only candidate who could have defeated Raisi. (Three of the six lay jurists in the Guardian Council had been placed there by Raisi himself.)

It is little wonder that few people will turn out for the June 18 vote. Even those who believe a monolithic leadership has a better shot at bringing the country out of its economic morass and therefore support Raisi may not vote; his victory is already foreordained.

The voting bloc that has consistently prevented the country from going fully theocratic—a coalition of students, young people, secularists, and middle-class voters who come together briefly during elections—is now boycotting the election. They saw their hopes dashed under the reformist presidency of Hassan Rouhani, whose second term saw an economic depression that devastated the livelihood of tens of millions of the same people that were the chief backers of the reformists. The damage was so calamitous that even if the massive sanctions imposed by Donald Trump were to be lifted today, it would take years for many people to rebuild their lives.

On top of that, two major waves of protests by the unemployed and the working poor were put down in an exceedingly violent manner, further alienating the voters from the reformists.

With the loss of faith in reformists and the absence of any viable candidates to challenge the official establishment candidate, it was an opportune moment to do away with the republican element of the regime. This move would have elicited massive waves of protest just three or four years ago but was met with a collective yawn. According to a poll by Mehdi Nasiri, a former hard-line activist and publicist, 70 percent of those polled said they wouldn’t take part in any form of election because they saw no point in doing so.

The Way Forward

Absent any major developments, the trend is here to stay. According to some experts, among them a prominent Iranian sociologist named Taghi Azad Armaki at the University of Tehran, most Iranians want reform, and so even a hard-line administration occupying all three branches of the government will be forced to moderate its radicalism. “I believe that Conservatives would have to follow the reformist path,” Armaki told the newswire IRNA. “However, if the election becomes unpolarized, it becomes monolithic and therefore turns the act of criticism into one of opposition.” Like most Iranians, Armaki doesn’t see the election as creating immediate dangers for the regime, but he said it will strain the system.

Another academic from Azad University, who requested anonymity, predicted a darker future for Iran. He told me that he anticipated further militarization, increased repression, and more confrontations with other countries: “If Raisi wins, which seems more than likely now, I see a short period of retrenchment and relative peace followed by very serious deterioration of the conditions both domestically and internationally with unforeseen consequences for everyone.”

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