The people of Iran were again subjected last Friday to the farce that befalls them every four years, when the Islamist regime calls for mass participation in its presidential “election.” Ten hours after the polls opened, a CBS News team in Tehran reported that less than 25 percent of eligible voters had bothered to turn out, providing early confirmation of what was widely suspected before the ballot—that Iranians at large would shun the risible attempt of their rulers to persuade the outside world that their corrupt, bloodstained theocracy is a respectable form of government.
The names that eventually make it onto the ballot paper of an Iranian presidential “election” are handpicked by the 12 jurists on the powerful Guardians Council, six of whom are personally appointed by Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At the beginning of this election cycle, 600 candidates threw their hats into the presidential ring, including 40 women. By the time the Guardians Council had whittled the list down, seven men remained, of whom only four went on to actually contest the election on June 18.
Though Iranian presidential elections have always been rigged in advance through this system, in the not-so-distant past, some Western media organizations have depicted them as genuine political contests between “reformers” and “hardliners.” During the 1990s, the late Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—a canny multimillionaire widely believed to have approved the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires in 1994—nonetheless enjoyed the reputation of a reformer who wanted to improve relations with the West. This was even more the case with his successor, Mohammad Khatami, a diva whose love of the international stage sparked the ire of regime conservatives, and who was duly replaced in 2005 with the renowned Holocaust denier, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
For a significant period during the 2010s, both Ahmadinejad’s successor, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, were portrayed by President Barack Obama’s administration as heroic, yet Islamically authentic, reformers whose overarching goal was to protect world civilization by agreeing to a historic deal over Iran’s nuclear program.
There is no such misleading hyperbole this time around, however. Indeed, any qualms I had about writing this column before the winner of the election was officially announced were laid to rest when I encountered the comment of a Tehran shopkeeper to a journalist from the AFP news agency: “Whether or not I vote, someone has already been elected. They organize the elections for the media.”
All four presidential candidates are staunch loyalists of the velayat-e faqih system—the political and social “guardianship” of Islamic judicial scholars—that has prevailed in Iran since the Islamist seizure of power in 1979. Frontrunner Ebrahim Raisi is a butcher who murdered thousands of dissidents opposed to the regime during his term as a prosecutor in Tehran in the 1980s. Abdolnasser Hemmati is a former Ahmadinejad lieutenant, and most recently, the governor of Iran’s sanctioned, terror-funding Central Bank. Mohsen Rezaei was the commander of the feared Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) during the hellish eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq between 1980 and 1988. Amir Hossein Qazizadeh Hashemi—at 50, the youngest candidate—is the deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament and an unshakeable Khamenei loyalist.
Iran’s next president will assume office after an election that will be remembered for its laughably poor turnout. He will do so, moreover, amid an economy that has been shattered by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the choking economic sanctions on regime interests that were reimposed by the former Trump administration after it withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. Iran’s currency has lost about 500 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar in the same period, while inflation has reached 50 percent.
Despite this twin emergency in both public health and the basic ability of ordinary citizens to put food on the table, the priorities of the incoming president will center upon increasing conflict both at home and abroad. “Under a hardline presidency, Iran would continue to have tense relations with the West. It would continue to push to extend Shia Islam and project power in the region with the help of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—a major armed, political and economic force in Iran—and its local proxies” wrote Kasra Naji, an analyst with the BBC’s Persian-language service, on election day. “Iran would want to cozy up to China in the hope of attracting hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese investment.”
Please don’t ignore the pungent irony of the Islamic Republic of Iran, bold defender of the Muslim ummah and of “occupied” Jerusalem/Al Quds, begging for investment from a Communist regime that has incarcerated up to 2 million members of its Muslim Uyghur minority in concentration camps. While moral consistency is not a particularly useful yardstick when it comes to judging the Iranian regime’s prospects, the mood of the Iranian people certainly is.
There have been many instances during the last four decades when Iranian popular dissatisfaction with the regime has given way to open protest. The most recent round began in late 2019 and continued throughout much of the pandemic in 2020, initially sparked by a backlash against fuel-price increases. What was clear in that round of demonstrations—as clear as it was in 2010, when Ahmadinejad provoked a mass student-led uprising—was that the real focus of enmity was the regime itself. Among the slogans chanted was, “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon,” a pithy summation of how many Iranians feel towards a government that starves and brutalizes its own population while glorifying Palestinian “resistance.”
The Biden administration is cautiously feeling its way into its Iran policy. If history is a guide, it will need to have a clear response ready in the coming days and weeks, when protests in Iran could quite easily be reignited. After all, the key elements are present: a fanatical president with no democratic legitimacy, a socioeconomic infrastructure that has collapsed, and a foreign policy that robs Iranians themselves of livelihoods and opportunities.
Each time this set of circumstances has resulted in protests, the United States and its allies have offered some rhetorical support (in Obama’s case, securing even that was a challenge), yet no strategy for toppling the regime. The Trump administration was in no doubt over the nature of Iran’s rulers, and it sanctioned them accordingly; however, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was always clear that its overall aim was to secure a radical change in the Islamic Republic’s behavior, rather than pushing for all-out “regime change.” So far, the Biden administration has said nothing to suggest that it would depart from this path. We will have a better idea, perhaps, once the protests begin.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.