The moat that preserves the castle. What are the elections in Iran for?

As Frantz Fanon once argued, for colonial powers the most effective way to control a colonized people is to humiliate them. Reformist discourse in Iran functions in the same way.

Mahmood Delkhasteh
1 May 2016

Hashemi Rafsanjani, delivers his sermon of prayer under a poster showing the Iranian late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, left, and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, 2008. Vahid Salemi / Press Association. All rights reserved.Parastou Foruhar, daughter of Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar, cried when she found the name of Ayatollah Omid Najaf Abadi on the list of “Reformists” running for election to the Council of Experts in Iran in March 2016. The judge had ordered the assassination of her parents, who were major opponents of the regime and brutally murdered in their home in 1998, as well as four other Iranian writers and political activists who were critical of dictatorship. Foruhar was even more shocked when she realized that many people who had been trying to bring Najaf Abadi to court had voted for him in the election.

Najaf Abadi is not alone on the list of candidates which the Reformists called the ‘List of Hope’. On this list were many other “hanging judges”, like Ayatollah Reyshahri the first head of Vavak (Iran’s intelligence ministry). He executed many Iranian air force pilots, officers as well as Iran’s Foreign Minister in 1980, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, and Seyed Mehdi Hashemi, who played a leading role exposing the secret relationship between Khomeini’s regime and the Reagan administration, which came to be known as Iran-Gate or the Iran-Contra Affair.  Other “hanging judges” on the “List of Hope” included Mohseni Ejei, Ali Razini and Seyed Ebrahim Reisi, who was a judge presiding in 1988 when roughly 5000 prisoners who were already serving sentences were executed in three days.

Above all Hashemi Rafsanjani played a key role in re-reconstructing political dictatorship soon after the 1979 Iranian revolution, and prolonging the war with Iraq for seven years during which over two million Iranians and Iraqis were killed and injured. In the 1980s he orchestrated the execution of thousands of political prisoners and planned and executed the assassination of hundreds of political opponents both within Iran and outside Iran, including more than 70 in Europe. This only ended when, at the Mykonos trial in Germany, he along with ayatollah Ali Khamenei and several others was condemned for ordering the assassination of Kurdish leaders. His name is still held by Interpol as among criminals that must be tried. Some so-called reformist opposition elites support Rafsanjani, arguing that he is a changed man. Yet Rafsanjani continually talks about his past with pride; after his recent election he stated: “I have not changed, my opponents have changed.” 

The “List of Hope” had other sources of support, such as three main opposition leaders – Musavi, Rahnavard and Karubi – who have been held under house arrest for five years without charge and who were admired and made into heroes for their resistance to vote rigging in the 2009 presidential election which sparked the Green Movement.  They have also tried to make peace with the Supreme Leader by withdrawing their boycott of the election.  They also voted for the aforementioned criminals. In the words of Mohammad Khatami who actively encouraged his supporters to vote, “In this election, Messrs Karubi and Musavi and lady Rahnavard voluntarily participated, which means that we accept the system, the election and the supervisors (of the election)”.

After so many young people have been killed, injured, imprisoned, tortured and raped, these figures gave up their opposition, expecting a pardon from the leader in return.  However, Khamenei’s response was the opposite of what they expected.  He attacked them for daring to accuse him of vote rigging and called them ‘immodest’ people who refused to accept the honest result of the election and who led a seditious campaign  which has cost the country.

The Reformists justify their value-free politics through a Kantian logic, arguing that they are operating within “practical reason”. But this approach does not explain the systematic lying to and deception of their own followers.  For example, many of the people who boycotted the “election”, have argued the obvious by stating that like any other election the mere fact of participation provides legitimacy for the regime conducting it.  In the Iranian case, thus means participation in the election of a regime whose core ideology is the “absolute rule of the jurist” (velayat-e-Motlageh-Faqhi), is based on a belief that the people are ‘orphans’ and ‘minors’ and ‘ignorant’ and so need to obey the leader. Voting in such system, before anything else, legitimises the regime. Yet many Reformists have accused those who boycott the election as lying: “The opponents of the Islamic Republic claim that participation in the election....provides legitimacy to the regime, but this claim is false.”

With a few exceptions, the regime barred the main reformist leaders from running. Only the harmless “Reformists” passed through the Council of Guardian’s filter which decides who is allowed to run.  The Reformists have thus developed two new strategies in order to motivate voters to participate. The first asked followers to vote in order to prevent three of the most despised conservative leaders from getting seats on the Council of Experts.  The second was to cast a vote of protest.  It was obvious that the protest was meant to be against the supreme leader and his unpopular policies.  However, they failed to explain how participating in an election which provides legitimacy for the supreme leader can be used against him. Worse, after the election Khatami approvingly said: “more than anything else, the system and the leadership profited from it (the election).”

Although the Supreme leader let two of his three pawns lose their seats in this chess game, in return he check-mated the Reformists in the Council of Experts, whose task is to choose the next leader. In return for the loss of two, Khamenei filled the Council with others who were loyal and anti-Rafsanjani. Now dominating nearly 90% of the 88 seats, this halved the number of Rafsanjani’s supporters in the Council, reducing them to a single-digit number, in effect making him irrelevant.  So the Supreme leader was able not to only outmanoeuvre the Reformists, but by collapsing the elections for the Council of Experts and the Parliament in one day, he used reformist voters to provide an air of legitimacy for the Council. Now, whenever he decides to make his ultra-conservative son Mojaba or someone similar the next supreme leader, the Reformists won’t dare to dream of protesting.

The parliament follows the same destiny. At first glance, three seemingly equal factions of Reformists, Conservatives and so-called Independents have formed the parliament and no group has a majority.  However, the more we learn about the backgrounds of the “independents”, the more we see that most belong to the conservatives’ faction. The axing of others which don’t belong has already began, as the Council of Guardians has the power to de-select any MP who has already been elected.   

We also know that most Reformists were allowed to run because the Council of Guardians was certain of their loyalty to the Supreme leader.  For instance, Mohammad Reza Aref, who had the highest votes in Tehran, is known to be fiercely loyal to the Supreme leader and to have distanced himself from the leaders of the Green Movement.

It needs to be understood that the Iranian Parliament has very little power.  We saw this in the ratification of the Vienna Nuclear Agreement.  An agreement on this issue, which has been dragging on for nearly 20 years, cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars, inflicted massive misery on Iranians and brought the country to the brink of war with a super power, was passed in less than 20 minutes. This demonstrates that on serious issues, the Parliament in nothing but a rubber stamp for the Supreme Leader.  The head of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, justified such speedy ratification by arguing that the parliament only has a say about things like the price of potatoes.

What we are observing is that the Reformists have violated every principle and commitment they have made in order to get some power in return. After all, they are followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, who after monopolizing power by defeating the democratic front led by A.H. Banisadr, Iran’s first president, in 1981, openly stated: “It is possible that yesterday I have said something and today say something else and tomorrow say something else. It does not make sense that I say, because yesterday I have said something, I keep my word.”

What is Reformism?

This brings us to the terminology of Reformism and the question of what Reformism really means.  In western terminology, Reformism is mainly understood vis-a-vis Conservatism.  It refers to the action or process of reforming an institution or practice.  However, this understanding of reformism does not exist within the political system in Iran.  We saw this when Khatami became president and there were talks about reforming the constitution which would limit the power of the Supreme Leader and protect the rights of the people. He angrily argued that talking about changing the constitution was tantamount to treachery; later he even argued that the leaders of western democracies had more power than Iran’s supreme leader.

We also see it in the understanding of Green Movement leaders, when Karubi defined reformism as going back to the golden years of Imam Khomeini — the bloodiest and darkest period of the revolution — or when Musavi defined it as the ‘impeccable implementation of the constitution’ in which the Supreme leader has absolute power and, according to the Guardian Council of the Constitution, unprecedented constitutional power over the life, wealth and honour of all Iranians.

Even Reformists who are not part of the regime and who have endured harsh sentences are in fact conservatives in Reformist garb. Amir Khoram, one of the main leaders of the Freedom Movement, described his group as being the “moat” of the regime’s castle.  Referring to a conversation he had with his interrogator in prison, he says: “I told him that the Islamic Republic is like a castle, in which a group of people are living and another group are ruling.  Legal groups like the Freedom Movement and other legal groups are like a moat which is dug around the castle....our job is to prevent the discontented people from leaving this castle...etc.”

This misunderstanding of the meaning of reform, which Iranian “Reformists” outside the country have been able to solidify in the minds of many westerners, leads to a major misunderstanding of the political struggle within the Iranian regime.  This task is being completed by many political “opponents” who were imprisoned or harassed and have left the country and who end up also acting as the moat of the regime’s castle.  Iran might be the only country in the world where some political refugees end up supporting the very regime they ran away from, and one wonders about the motivations of such behaviour.

Not reformists, what then?

There are two main factions, with subdivisions, within the regime; however, they can’t be understood within a dichotomy of “Reformism vs, Conservatism.” They are two sides of a conservatism which is struggling over power.  They are vying to increase their share of power while remaining unconditionally committed to preserving the regime at any cost.  In order to do this, they have successfully created a closed circuit of “bad” and “worse” or ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’ in which people are used in elections to solidify the regime itself.   

One conservative faction, which is openly closer to the Supreme Leader, believes that the way to secure the regime is through creating crisis and to move the country from one crisis to another. For this they need for an enemy, which is the United States.  Their preferred method of maintaining power is thus to preserve the facade of tension with the US while engaging in secret collaboration (the October Surprise, Iran-Gate/Iran-Contra Affair and the secret agreement between Bush and the Iranian regime before the invasion of Afghanistan are a few examples of such collaboration). The other conservative faction is led by people like Rafsanjani and Khatami, Musavi and Karubi. 

What these factions share is a desire to preserve the power of the regime at any cost. They only differ in the methods used to maintain it while struggling for their share and for privileges of power, a struggle in which people are used instrumentally.

Election as a means of sustaining dictatorship

Within this context, one can understand the real function of the election in Iran. Unlike in democratic countries where the election is an exercise of people’s authority over the state and government, in Iran the election solidifies the power of the Supreme Leader and the regime as a whole over people.  This is why, after twenty years of reform, elections have only led to the increased power of the Supreme Leader.

So if elections in any democratic country are the exercise of people’s authority over the state, the reverse is true in Iran, and the reformist elites have made sure it remains that way; to make sure, in fact, that elections are used to legitimize a non-democratic regime.

They have some effective tools in their toolbox for doing this.  The most important are:

1. The equation of revolution with violence: through the essentialization of the concepts of “revolution” and “reform”, they have equated the former with violence and the latter with non-violence.  Hence, among some section of the youth they have created an aversion to revolution.  In the words of Boaventura de Sousa Santos, they have made the revolution as a method of change unintelligible and discredited it.

2. The import of the logic of market capitalism into political struggle:  The word “hazineh” (cost) is commonly used by those who think or are involved in the struggle. They ask themselves or others, “how much does it cost?” or “I have spent so much” in struggle.  They do not realize that the struggle for freedom, independence and social justice as non-material entities cannot be measured by the materialist logic of capitalism and that those who struggle on such calculation are involved in a haggling with the regime. The regime knows that if they increase the “cost” of the struggle, those struggling will give up, as many have done.

3. The misuse of “practical reason”: through a misuse of Kant’s “practical logic” they have developed a dichotomous relation between “theoretical reason” and “practical reason”.  Placing themselves within the domain of ‘practical reason’ in their view justifies a kind of ‘pragmatism’ which legitimises the dictatorial regime and works within the spaces offered by this regime.  This further defines those who argue that the regime is structurally unreformable, who refuse to provide any legitimacy for it and who seek to overthrow it through non-violent mass movement, as functioning within the realm of ‘theoretical reason’ and detached from reality. 

4. The trashing of idealism: the term “idealism” is being trashed as a negative term to such an extent that those who seek democracy, believing that “authority” belongs to the people and not the supreme leader, and thinking that human rights should form the basis of the relationship between people and state, are labelled as ‘idealist’.  Anyone who struggles for such goals is seen as ‘heroic’, while the concept of heroism is trashed and ridiculed.  The person who played a leading role in devaluing and attacking “idealism” and “heroism” is former president Mohammad Khatami.  It is no wonder that he defined his position as the errand boy of the Supreme Leader, and remains in post as such.

5. Naturalizing “bad” and “worse”: they have convinced their followers that politics is about choosing between ‘bad’ and ‘worse’ options, and that the choice between “bad” and “good” or “good” and “better” options belongs to the realm of dreams, outside of real politics.

6. The politics of fear has also proven very effective.  Reformists regularly use examples of countries like Libya and Syria to argue that any social movement in Iran would lead to civil war. They fail to tell people that the ongoing tragedies in these countries were not the result of social movements but of violations of the principle of “independence” in struggle, which led to the entrance of foreign powers and the creation of dependencies which turned the countries into proxies in a battlefield of external forces fighting for their own interests.

By internalizing these beliefs, Reformists are trying to suck the spirit of resistance from their followers, convincing them that as in any democratic country change should come out of the ballot box.  Yet the only functions of Iranian-style elections are to provide legitimacy for the Supreme Leader and give a facade of democracy to outsiders.  In effect, they have locked their followers within a discourse of reform which has humiliation at its heart. How else could one cast a vote to solidify a regime whose ideological linchpin is a belief that people are “minors”, “orphans” and “ignorant”, and thus have to be guided by a despot?

It is almost like the methods of colonial domination.  As Frantz Fanon once argued, for the colonial powers the most effective way to control a colonized people is to humiliate them and make sure that they have internalised this humiliation.  Reformist discourse in Iran also functions in this way. The dictatorial regime has dominated the country and through unprecedented corruption exploits its resources. The so-called Reformers, through their discourse, are trying to neutralise resistance to it.  Adding to this the politics of fear and false hope of change in the attitudes of the regime, they have been able to successfully convince their followers to reduce their demands to a bare minimum and to be patient when they are not met – as “logic” dictates that one has to “choose” between bad and worse.

Here, one can see how dictatorship constantly reproduces itself through elections and reformists play a vital role in maintaining the facade of democracy, hence prolonging the dictatorship. It is the internalization of this logic, which leads to votes for hanging judges, even from those who were striving to bring them to justice.

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