Once again it is election time in the Islamic Republic of Iran. June 12 will decide whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is allowed another term in office, or whether a new, perhaps more moderate, candidate will be allowed to push Persia in a (slightly) different direction. Ever since the revolution of 1979, elections have been held every four years with Swiss precision, always one year after the equally consistent parliamentary ballots. And every time, it has been a moment for Teheran to proclaim its plutocratic nature and for Washington and friends to denounce the elections as an undemocratic sham. As tends to be the case in most facets of life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The elections are Ahmadinejad’s to lose, and he is the clear frontrunner, especially because of the institutional constraints that his opponents face. On the other hand, his victory is not a foregone conclusion. Iranian politics are too complex for that. There are significant differences on the table, and the choice for one candidate or the other is going to have a real impact on the direction of the nation. The impact on the rest of the world is unlikely to be anywhere near as transcendent, however. Iranian politics are far too complex for that as well.
Besides any institutional blemishes on the electoral process, the structural suppression of dissent and the lack of a strong independent media are other constraints to true choice or change.
The mere fact that candidates first need to get approved by the conservative Guardian Council is already an obvious beauty flaw in the Iranian democratic pageant. Only four men were admitted: Ahmadinejad, Mohsen Rezaei, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Moussavi, Ajmadinejad’s biggest threat. None of these represents a truly radical departure from the past four years. The fact that Teheran decided to temporarily block all access to Facebook because of an apparent anti-Ahmadinejad bias is a clear anecdotal sign that something is rotten in the Kingdom of the Ayatollah.
It should also be remembered that, even though Western media seem to represent Moussavi as a true force for change, such interpretation seems to be more spurned by fantasy than his own track record or even his electoral promises. A glowing article in the NY Times painted him as the defender of secular democracy. The words “pigs” and “fly” spring to mind. Moussavi was prime minister during the 1980’s, which was not exactly a time of political enlightenment in the Land of the Aryans.
What is clear, however, is that for Iran, these elections have a particular importance. Whereas the West tends to focus on the nuclear program and other distractions, the real question that Iran faces is how to deal with the endemic corruption and mistaken economic policies that the current government has been promoting. Even if he is not exactly the Thomas Jefferson of Iranian democracy, Moussavi has shown himself to be a competent political leader during difficult times (the brutal war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988), and is well positioned to take on the Orwellian bureaucracy that seems bent on hampering progress and economic competence. A domestic reformer, perhaps. An international revolutionary, not quite.
The outcome of the elections will have much less of an impact on the rest of the world than at home. Whereas Europe and the US sometimes behave like three-year-old toddlers that think that everything is about them, Iran’s importance or even interest in geopolitical affairs is grossly exaggerated by Western media and politicians alike. Regardless of the election’s outcome, Persian ambitions will continue to center on being a regional superpower (as opposed to a world player), Teheran will not become BFF (“best-friend-forever” for those of us not familiar with American teenage lingo) with Israel any time soon, and its nuclear weapons program will continue regardless. Or not, depending on whether it is actually there in the first place.
Its (civil) nuclear program is both seen as an issue of national pride as well as economic necessity, partly because of the decrepit state of its own oil-refinery capacity. Even though it seems common knowledge that Iran has an advanced nuclear weapons program, this is still far from clear. In April it claimed to be operating 7,000 centrifuges and it announced the testing of a new, more advanced type. However, such centrifuges could form part of any civil ambitions, and there is very little evidence to date to accept a nuclear weapons program as fact. In any case, the repeated insistence of Iran leaders that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic at the very least makes it less likely that the republic will come out of the closet any time soon.
More importantly, Iran will continue to be a highly multifaceted nation with a political culture and system that are far too complex to be treated with the simplistic visions propagated by too many of the Western media. The fact that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has refused to truly endorse Ahmadinejad is one indication that even the religious leader is not all-powerful, and needs to hedge his bets.
The week before the Persian elections, Europe is voting. Perhaps Europeans should worry a little more about their own faltering democratic institutions, with predicted turnout at historic lows, politicians being unresponsive to the electorate, and a large bureaucracy both deciding the ideology as well as the practical direction of Brussels. Iran’s system is deeply flawed, but it is certainly still capable of enthusing the Iranian people, as the student rallies in support of Moussavi show. Don’t expect the outcome to lead to a cessation of the Persian nuclear weapons program, however. Nor its initiation, if no such program exists yet.