Iran’s Hardliners Ensuring They Keep Grip on Power

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2008 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Note: Click here to view an extended version of this article.

Iran’s parliamentary election on Friday has been fixed in advance and the West is doing nothing to help democrats.

Here’s the result of Iran’s parliamentary (Majlis) election. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s neoconservative supporters and the moderate conservatives win a majority of the 290 seats. How an unelected elite has already fixed that election is a sad reflection on how the West has misunderstood, mismanaged and squandered its diplomatic capital in dealing with a proud nation with an ancient culture and much to offer the world.

Here is how the fix works.

The Iranian political spectrum can be divided into the reformers at the centre, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his supporters at the centre right as moderate conservatives, with on the extreme right, the neoconservatives.

To the neoconservatives reform is heresy and those involved in it traitors and enemies of Islam.

The neoconservatives maintain that reform failed because of the inadequacy of the very concept of democracy, which is ill-suited to Iran. They selectively interpret Islam to prove that politics is the preserve of a select elite (themselves) and therefore they, with their religious qualifications (and power), are uniquely qualified to rule.

According to Ali M Ansari in Iran under Ahmadinejad – The Politics of Confrontation, the neoconservatives believe “firmly in the primacy of the Islamic state over any sort of democracy and in a particular interpretation of Islam over any suggestion of pluralism, and who argued, in effect, that it was better for their own inner circle to govern, via the institutions of the supreme leader, than to allow any type of government that involved the participation of those who did not adhere to or ‘understand’ the faith. This was a highly elitist philosophy that went against one of the central myths of the Islamic revolution: that of its inherent popularity and mass base.”

The neoconservatives then had to square this circle and came up with four tactics to do so. Firstly they focused on the failures of reconstruction and reform under the two previous regimes while slowly increasing political repression.

Secondly they used populism to excite and distract the masses – focusing on the Islamic revolution and on nationalist myths to promote a sense of Iranian victimhood at the hands of a treacherous world. (This approach was brilliantly successful but needed a continuing atmosphere of national and international crises to deflect attention from these contradictions and to suppress dissent.)

The third tactic was to install a president who would reflect the previous tactics, popularise them, and capture the public’s imagination. Ahmadinejad fitted this bill perfectly. The fourth tactic was then to build up a personality cult around him, when he was duly elected in 2005.

But first they had to fix the 2004 parliamentary elections. As they dominated the interior ministry and were influential in the guardian council, they simply barred more than 3,000 potential candidates from running for parliament, many of them sitting parliamentarians. (The guardian council has 12 members who are appointed by the supreme leader. It is charged with checking legislation to ensure it conforms with their view of Islamic law, and with vetting candidates for election.)

This parliamentary coup unfortunately was greeted with silence in Europe despite the obvious monumental electoral fraud. The result: the neoconservatives achieved a dramatic landslide victory.

They then turned their attention to the 2005 presidential elections.

After much jockeying, they threw their support behind Ahmadinejad who, with the help of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij militia, came second to Rafsanjani in the first round of the presidential elections, accompanied by major allegations of electoral fraud.

Ahmadinejad ran a populist campaign focusing on the economy and political corruption and ignoring his own personal hobbyhorse of religion, and eventually won the election.

Ahmadinejad was widely known to be obsessed with the “imminent” return of the 12th or Hidden Imam. The Hidden Imam was descended, through the Prophet’s son-in-law, the first Shia Imam, Ali. He is believed, within the dominant sect of Shia Islam in Iran, to have gone into “greater Occultism” in the ninth century and is expected to return to the world at the end of time to inaugurate an “age of justice and peace”.

Ahmadinejad claims to know where but not when the Hidden Imam will return, asserting that he will appear from a well south of Tehran in the town of Jamkaran.

The tactics of Ahmadinejad and the neoconservatives may keep them in power in the short term. But they will so damage the economy that they eventually face a serious reckoning. The maintenance of foreign-relations crises, thereby minimising crucially important external investment in Iran and access to international funds, has justified and eventually facilitated the tightening of repression at home.

At the same time, worsening economic conditions mean that the neoconservatives increasingly depend on the fear of external threats and enemies to keep the masses distracted from domestic economic failures and their own misery, and to win the election.

So they went out of their way to silence anyone who gave the Iranian people their voice. Zanan, Iran’s number-one women’s magazine, was shut down by the government some weeks ago. The reason given: “It was a threat to the psychological security of society.”

They also repeated their successful tactic from the parliamentary elections in 2004. More than 2,400 candidates, most of them reformers, have been barred from running by the interior ministry.

The guardian council, controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, reinstated a few hundred, but also barred some additional candidates. Iran’s reformers now say they can compete for only 10 per cent of the parliamentary seats.

The lack of serious complaint by the EU, the US and others in the West about this electoral fraud allows the neoconservatives to believe that they can continue to exercise “the hand of God” in Iranian elections.

Real power in Iran resides in the supreme leader and the guardian council appointed by him. The result of the parliamentary elections, and particularly the current struggle for seats between the moderate conservatives and the neoconservatives, is essentially determined by Ayatollah Khamenei.

As elections go, Friday’s Majlis election probably does not matter as much as many think – parliament is easily vetoed. What does matter is that religious hardliners are stealing yet another election in Iran, a populous country on the geopolitical faultline of the Middle East/Gulf on the brink of obtaining nuclear weaponry.

And the major achievement of western diplomacy to date has been to bolster the position of those least likely to advance the cause of peace in that troubled region.

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