Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has gone through three distinct political stages. The first stage, which began with the victory of the revolution and ended with the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was a period in which the revolutionary regime was established and consolidated. This stage, which also witnessed an eight-year war with Iraq, may be referred to as the Republic of Revolution and War. The second stage, known as the Republic of Terror, correlated with the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the leadership of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This period saw increasing popular dissatisfaction with the regime that led, in turn, to the "silent revolution" that brought Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in 1997. As Khatami's second term draws to a close, the third stage in Iran's post-revolutionary development -- the Republic of Reform -- is also coming to an end. The reform movement has been defeated. The upcoming presidential elections in Iran may thus signal a new stage in Iran's political evolution, with important implications for Iran's domestic political situation as well as U.S. policy toward Tehran.
On the basis of Iran’s current constitution, the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) has more than 80 percent of the country’s power concentrated in his hands. The judicial branch is under his direct supervision. And the executive branch—whose head is the president—must operate within the framework of key policies set by the Supreme Leader. Additionally, the military, the security and police forces, and radio and television are all under the sole authority of the Supreme Leader. And the Supreme Leader has authority to control the parliament, sometimes even telling it which subjects it can or cannot discuss.
But most important of all, the appointment of the members of the Council of Guardians is in the hands of the Supreme Leader. This institution is a key instrument for limiting democracy in Iran. In every election, this Council pre-selects the candidates from among those applying to run and, in practice, before the people themselves vote, this Council tells the people who they can vote for and this is done under the supervision of the Supreme Leader. In the parliamentary elections of February 2004, the Council of Guardians disapproved of the candidacy of 3,000 candidates. In the current presidential elections, only eight individuals--from among 1,000 who put their names forward --have been selected for whom the people can vote. There are no members of the opposition among these eight individuals, nor are there any women. The main candidates are a former president (Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani), a former Minister of Higher Education (the one reformist, Mustafa Mo’in), a former police chief, a former head of the state radio and television, and a former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – all of whom are committed to the present system in which power is concentrated in the hands of the Supreme Leader.
No matter who wins the presidential election, there will be no real changes in Iran’s domestic or foreign policy. The experiences of the last eight years showed that Mr. Khatami was not even permitted to shake hands with President Bill Clinton when both men spoke one after the other at the United Nations; the Supreme Leader forbad it. In practice, the control of foreign policy, nuclear policy, and the main economic policies are all within the power of the Supreme Leader and, thus, it would be futile to expect any change from a new president.
Among the current candidates, Mr. Rafsanjani has claimed--more than others--that he can possibly bring about changes. However, given that during all the past years Mr. Rafsanjani has been the Supreme Leader’s partner in all his policies and that, from acts of terror inside and outside the country to the suppression of university students, and from closing newspapers to imprisoning journalists, he has always been by the side of the Supreme Leader, it would be even more futile to expect changes from him. This is especially true, given that in suppressing the people, he has acted--and continues to act--much more violently than the Supreme Leader and that rumors of his family’s financial corruption are rife.
The experiences of the last parliamentary and municipal elections have showed that in Tehran and large cities about three-quarters of the people do not vote. The only chance that two of the candidates (Mr. Mo’in of Mr. Khatami’s front and Mr. Rafsanjani) have is if they can bring to the ballot boxes some of those who do not usually vote; those who usually stay away will vote for one of these two candidates. If recent precedent holds and only one-quarter of the people show up to vote, then about half of those who vote (about 10-15 percent of the total eligible voting population) will be supporters of the Supreme Leader who will divide their votes among the six candidates who come from the front supporting the Supreme Leader. It is not clear if the candidate field will narrow at the last minute; so far, the front supporting the Supreme Leader has not been able to agree on a single candidate. In this situation, it is quite possible that no candidate will win the 51% required for victory, and so there will have to be a second ballot among the top two candidates on the Friday of the week following the elections.
The elections have not generated much enthusiasm among Iranians. In most of Iran’s universities, assemblies and sit-ins have taken place, where the main slogan has been, “No to sham elections; Yes to a free referendum.” Many political prisoners are on hunger strike, including Dr. Zarafshan, the defense attorney of the families of those killed during serial murders of dissidents a few years ago, and Akbar Ganji, a brave journalist who has been in prison for five years because of his anti-Rafsanjani writings. Calls for boycotting the elections and changing the constitution have come from many political groups and personalities such as Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, once Khomeini’s designated successor; Abbas Amir Entezam, Iran’s longest-held political prisoner who has been in prison for 25 years; the National Front; the members of the Writers’ Association, the leaders of the university student movements, and almost all the opposition groups and personalities outside the country.
What matters now for Iranians is not the election but the prospect for real change. Iranian society may be at the threshold of a transformation in the structure of the current regime and the birth of a new structure, which will not be in the shape of the current Islamic Republic. For the first time, a large front—comprising the opponents of the regime, from monarchists to republicans, from secular nationalists to observant Muslims, from leftists to rightists—seeks to change Iran’s Constitution via a free referendum, overseen by international organizations. The low percentage of people who participate in these hollow elections will spur the democratic allies to even greater movement.
When President Khatami was elected eight years ago, he ran on a platform of democracy, human rights, civil society, and engagement with the international community. The failure of reform since 1997 has led to a political depression in Iran. Iranians need a renewed sense of hope. In this respect, the West has an important, even crucial, role to play. For the first time, Iranians are looking abroad for assistance. Specifically, the United States can do three things to signal its support for the promotion of democracy in Iran:
1. The U.S. government could announce that it will not recognize the results of the June 17 elections or any future elections held under the current Iranian constitution, because any contest organized under its terms is certain to be neither free nor fair.
2. The United States could put the spotlight on the human rights situation in Iran. This can be accomplished by, for example, supporting the government of Canada in its investigation of the death of Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi and calling for a trial for Saeed Mortazavi, the Tehran prosecutor responsible for her murder. He is responsible for the closing of more than one hundred journals and the imprisonment of several journalists and politicians.
3. The United States could focus on Iran's role in sponsoring terrorism, which has blackened the name of the Iranian people as well as those officials within the regime who genuinely strive to serve their country. The United States could, for example, launch an international investigation into the regime's support of terrorism against Iranians and foreigners, which would serve to inform the Iranian public of the regime's abhorrent policies while concurrently showing the rest of the world that those policies are in no way indicative of the attitudes of the Iranian people.
These policies, if implemented, would serve to convince ordinary Iranians that the United States is genuinely interested in promoting democracy in their country, and that there will be no deals behind the curtain with the current regime. (The Iranian government is trying to convince Iranians that commercial interests will force the United States to strike secret deals with the current regime, as some Western government have already done.) None of these proposals involves financial assistance, which is not necessary and could in fact be harmful to those advocating political change in Iran. As Iran stands at a political crossroads, America's words and actions -- not its money -- can best serve the cause of freedom and democracy.