What U.S. commentators get wrong about Iran — and why Iran’s election matters


Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes in The Atlantic this morning that Iran has a ‘presidential selection,’ not a presidential election.Iran Flag Icon

That will come as some surprise to Iran’s 75 million citizens, many of whom have turned out today to participate in the first of what is likely to be two votes to determine who will succeed outgoing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Moreover, the ultimate winner of the election will pay a vital role in shaping policy for the struggling Iranian economy over the next four years and, more crucially for the United States, help determine the tone that Iran will take with respect to ongoing P5+1 negotiations over the future of Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Iran’s democracy is, shall we say, less than perfect from any objective standards of democracy — Western, Islamic or otherwise.

But Dubowitz is essentially arguing that the election has no consequences:

But Iranian voters know better. The election may indicate changes in the interfactional balance of power within the regime, and a victory by [Hassan] Rouhani or [Mohammad Baqer] Qalibaf may temper the tone of the regime’s nuclear intransigence, but there will be no change in substance. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, election in reality means selection. [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei will remain in charge.

But that Khamenei will remain in charge is a coals-to-Newcastle argument.  Today’s election is for president, not for Supreme Leader.

We may not like it, but the dual roles of the Supreme Leader and the Iranian president are part of the system of Iran’s government for over three decades.  You can, perhaps, think of the Supreme Leader as a strong head of state and the president as the head of government.  It’s perhaps easier to think of Iran’s president as akin to a prime minister — Iran had a prime minister in the 1980s, but the office ended in 1989, largely because of the overlap between the president and the prime minister.  It’s arguable that Iran’s president has more independence from the Supreme Leader than, in effect, French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has from French president François Hollande.

Perhaps Iran’s is not the most representative system, but it’s more representative than the dictator-for-life model that Hosni Mubarak effected in Egypt for three decades with the full bipartisan support of U.S. policymakers.  It’s also more representative than the current system of selecting the leadership of the People’s Republic of China as well.

Dubowitz is right that there are many reasons to cast doubt on the role of the Guardian Council, a gatekeeper body comprised of 12 members, six appointed by the Supreme Leader and six by Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament.  Despite hundreds of hopeful presidential candidates, the Guardian Council approved just eight candidates to run in today’s election, though two have already dropped out.  The Guardian Council has never approved a woman to run for the presidency, and its dubious refusal to approve former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate seen as the best shot in 2013 for reformist-minded voters, calls into question the even-handedness of the Guardian Council.

It also refused to allow Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei to run, though many believe Mashaei’s campaign was a stalking-horse candidacy designed to provide Ahmadinejad a way to continue to influence policy despite a limit of two consecutive presidential terms.

Without doubt, these disqualifications (and Guardian Council interference in other minor elections, such as for Tehran’s city council, and in Iran’s parliamentary elections last year) call into question whether Iran’s odd style of democracy is as robust as it once was.  Remember that eight years ago, the relatively unknown Ahmadinejad leapt over many more experienced rivals into the presidency on a conservative and populist agenda, and 16 years ago, reformist dark-horse candidate Mohammed Khatami won the presidency in a landslide as well.

In many cases, however, the Guardian Council whittles down the field to the most serious of contenders by refusing to allow unknown or quixotic candidates into the race.  That’s not dissimilar to formal (i.e.presidential primaries and caucuses) and informal processes in the United States and other democracies.  Consider, for example, the role that the U.S. media and the U.S. commission on presidential debates played in the 2012 presidential election by essentially ignoring the campaign of former two-term New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, the nominee of the minor Libertarian Party.

Ultimately, however, the most relevant question is not whether the United States approves of the internal governing mechanisms of the Islamic Republic, but whether U.S. policymakers can work with Iran’s leadership to come to a satisfactory solution on Iran’s nuclear energy program in the same way that, though we may not believe Xi Jinping is a representative Chinese president, U.S. policymakers continue to work with his government.

In that regard, Dubowitz is playing a dangerous game because there are, in fact, real differences among the six candidates.  The winner of today’s election will have profound consequences for not only Iran, but the Middle East, Europe and the United States as well.  A Jalili presidency could, as Dubowitz writes, bring about a ‘Nixon-goes-to-China’ opportunity for Khamenei and his principlist allies to reverse course on their recent hardline stance to negotiations.  But a Rowhani presidency would clearly be much more conciliatory to the West — it was Rowhani, after all, who served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator in the mid-2000s when Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment.

Dubowitz lumps Qalibaf together with Jalili, Mohsen Rezai and Mohammad Gharazi as former officers of the Revolutionary Guards, though the differences among the four candidates are much wider than their shared ties to the Revolutionary Guards.  Gharazi, an Iranian minister in the 1980s and early 1990s who has virtually no chance of winning, comes from the previous generation of Iran’s leadership.  Jalili and Qalibaf, on the other hand, come from the younger generation of Iranian leaders who, having fought through the crucible of the Iraq war of the 1980s, hold a very different worldview that the older ‘revolutionary’ generation.  Moreover, Qalibaf is an elected official as Tehran’s mayor since 2005, and that gives him a grassroots base among urban Tehranites that no other candidate in the race has.  In contrast, Rezai, the former head of the Revolutionary Guards, draws much of his support from rural voters.

Moreover, if the election were as rigged as Dubowitz believes, there would be wider calls for boycott, not only from the former ‘Green movement’ supporters, but from Rafsanjani himself.  To the contrary, Rafsanjani (pictured above voting earlier today) has worked with Khatami to unite around Rowhani’s candidacy.  Khatami’s former vice president Mohammad Reza Aref dropped out of the race on Tuesday in order to allow moderate and reformist voters to coalesce behind Rowhani’s candidacy.

Dubowitz takes as a fact that Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2009 election over former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi was fraudulent, despite the fact that Ahmadinejad’s margin of victory was over 11.25 million votes, and former U.S. policymakers Flynn Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have long made a strong case for the notion that Ahmadinejad really did win.

Mousavi and fellow reformist Mehdi Karroubi remain, shamefully, under house arrest, and too many ‘Green movement’ supporters remain in prison as well.  Iran’s government undeniably has a long way to go with respect to many freedoms, and to argue, as some of Khamenei’s defenders have, that the Islamic Republic is less repressive than the shah’s government that preceded it is far from an adequate rejoinder.  Rowhani, however, has called for releasing Mousavi, Karroubi and the 2009 protesters — and that was even before his candidacy was approved by the Guardian Council. That, too, is a significant contrast to Qalibaf, Jalili and the other principlist candidates.

It’s also not entirely true that Khamenei ‘came to power by undemocratic means in 1989,’ because the Assembly of Experts, a body of around 80 to 90 elected members is responsible for electing the Supreme Leader.  Theoretically at least, the Assembly of Experts has the power to regulate and even remove the Supreme Leader.  Though there are imperfections with this system, it’s not necessarily more undemocratic than an ‘electoral college’ of Italy’s deputies, senators and other regional electors choosing Giorgio Napolitano as Italy’s president.

With tensions between the United States and Iran at perhaps their highest levels since 1979, the costs of misreading Iran’s election are incredibly high.  By dismissing Iran’s presidential election as an exercise of complete chicanery, I fear that Dubowitz and similar commentators are missing key nuances among the candidates and the path forward for Iran and its foreign relations.

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