Pretend democracy

The face of a man who always gets election results he can live with
I wanted to write a post this week about how there are actually signs that moderates are gaining some traction in Iranian politics for the first time since Hassan Rouhani was elected president, but you know what? It would have been a bunch of feel-good bullshit. In the only way that actually matters, Iranian hardliners are making sure that whatever change is in the air is infinitesimal:

Iran’s Guardian Council, which vets candidates for elections, has failed to qualify 40% of more than 12,000 candidates for parliamentary elections on 26 February, ILNA news agency has reported.

Reformists told Tehran Bureau that those blocked included the vast majority of their hopefuls. “I predicted that the Guardian Council would massively disqualify the reformists,” said Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at Tehran University. “But the reality is even worse.”

According to Hossein Marashi, a member of the Reformists’ Policy Council, which was set up in October to coordinate efforts for the parliamentary poll, out of the total 3,000 reformist candidates, only 30, or 1%, have been qualified. Their criterion of ‘reformist’ appears unclear, and may include pragmatic conservatives, or ‘moderates’, like supporters of president Hassan Rouhani or former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Two of Rafsanjani’s children, Mehdi and Fatemeh, are among those not qualified, as is Morteza Eshraghi, grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In Tehran, from nearly 1,700 candidates, 760 were qualified, among which only four – Mohammad-Reza Aref, Soheila Jelodarzadeh, Mostafa Kavakebian and Alireza Mahjoub – were reformists, according to the reformist newspaper Arman.

The Islamic Republic often touts its elections as a sign that its system isn’t the repressive authoritarian nightmare it’s often portrayed as in, say, Western media. But when you ensure that the only candidates who are allowed to stand for election are those whose views align with those of the Supreme Leader, then your elections are in fact a symbol of that repression, not a symbol of any kind of freedom. There is no freedom when your choices are “candidate who agrees with Ayatollah Khamenei on almost everything” and “candidate who agrees with Ayatollah Khamenei on almost everything, but in a slightly different way.” That’s not democracy, it’s the illusion of democracy. It’s a pretend democracy. It’s all for show. Iran and thr Iranian people deserve better than this.

Speaking of the Ayatollah, he’s defending the Guardian Council’s decision to rig the election while at the same time insisting that all Iranians should come out and vote, to lend the legitimacy of high turnout to what is otherwise clearly a giant electoral con:

“I said that even those who oppose the Islamic Republic should take part in the election,” he said, underlining his wish for a high turnout to convey popular support for the system.

“(But) this does not mean that opponents of the Islamic Republic should be elected to parliament… Only those who believe in the Islamic Republic and its values should be allowed to enter parliament,” Khamenei said.

If I wanted to be disrespectful, I’d say “can you believe the balls on this guy,” but…well, let’s actually say that. Khamenei the hilariously tries to justify this electoral farce by citing American history:

“Even in America, which claims it is the land of freedom and some people naively accept that, during the Cold War those with slightest socialist leaning would have been marginalized.”

This is true, although it leaves out the part where most sane Americans now believe that the fucking Red Scare was one of the most embarrassing episodes in U.S. history. And yes, our politicians still red-bait opponents even in 20-freaking-16, but–and here’s the crucial point–the candidates being red-baited are still allowed to run for office. As rough as things are in this country electorally, as much as we try to rig and gerrymander and marginalize certain categories of voters, all of which are deplorable, we don’t have a panel of unaccountable geezers outright disqualifying would-be candidates for thoughtcrime. Khamenei doesn’t think that “opponents of the Islamic Republic” should be allowed to stand for office, meanwhile over here we’ve got people who literally don’t believe in the legitimacy of the federal government serving in Congress. It’s not very conducive to getting anything done legislatively, but it’s certainly better than the alternative.

Iranian moderates, led by Rouhani, are pressuring the government to review the Guardian Council’s decisions and reverse them in some cases, but this seems unlikely to accomplish much except on the margins. And, in truth, this is how Iran works. Khamenei gets the elections he wants because his gatekeepers only allow the right kind of people to actually stand for office. Even Rouhani’s election back in 2013 wasn’t a bad outcome for Khamenei, although the two differ on a lot of issues these days–Rouhani is part of the Islamic Republic’s political elite through and through, so he’s no danger to really try to rock the boat, and his election helped soothe residual anger from the outright fraudulent (probably) 2009 election and the subsequent Green Revolution. The unfortunate result of this particular rigging is not the parliamentary election, although that’s unfortunate enough; it’s the Assembly of Experts election, since it’s highly likely that body is going to have to select a new Supreme Leader before its next term ends.

The thing is, there really have been signs that some kind of change is in the air in Tehran. I don’t count the release of those four American prisoners over the weekend; negotiations on that front have been going on for months. But the incident with those US sailors in the Gulf was resolved with astonishing speed, and partly because Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was able to talk the Revolutionary Guard Navy, an institution that doesn’t answer to Rouhani, in to letting the sailors go after less than 24 hours in custody. And there’s also the matter of the Saudi embassy attack to consider; the fact that the embassy was attacked at all, probably by unofficially official paramilitaries disguised as a “mass demonstration,” is a sign that nothing much has changed, I grant you. But the response to the attack in Tehran has been fairly surprising. That Rouhani denounced the attack wasn’t so surprising, to be sure. But then the highest-ranking Revolutionary Guard officer in Tehran, Brigadier General Mohsen Kazemeini, also condemned it. And then, just a couple of days ago, this happened:

Iran’s highest leader strongly denounced on Wednesday a mob attack on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran this month, saying the event was “very bad” and “detrimental to the country and Islam.”

The embassy attack followed the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia, and it seemingly played into the Saudis’ hands by shifting the focus of global outrage to Shiite Iran from the Sunni kingdom. The attack led Saudi Arabia and several of its allies to cut ties with Iran.

Analysts said the comments from the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could be tied to a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday, where the embassy attack is high on the agenda.

It seems probable that the Iranians didn’t envision the kind of coordinated diplomatic response that the embassy attack would generate, but still, to have Khamenei himself criticizing the embassy attack seems like a big concession to the idea of getting along with your neighbors. Taken together, all of these things suggest that some new thinking might be prevailing inside the Iranian government, but they’re dwarfed by what the Guardian Council did with respect to the elections.

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