North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Who decides Iran’s presidential elections?

On Friday, Iranians will go to the polls to vote for the new president. But the will of the people is not the only thing that determines the results

Mehrdad Khonsari
18 June 2021, 12.00am
A supporter sits among posters of conservative presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi in his store in Tehran
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Sipa USA / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

In a recent interview with BBC Persian Television, the host asked me to explain in simple terms how I define the deep state in Iran. I responded that the deep state is a small, unelected group of people who have a monopoly over every major lever of power in Iran.

Under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei, this group implements policies that are primarily designed to preserve the regime and cement the group’s complete control over the nation. Under such a reality, the role of any elected official, be it the presidency or in parliament, is nothing more than that of a ‘contractor’.

In the past few years, a number of respected academic institutions have published studies about the deep state, and the decisive role played by unelected and ‘behind the scenes’ elements in Iran. They illustrate the existence of an intricate ‘economic-security’ apparatus, whose clear objective is to keep power at any cost.

Many Iranians and – specifically – political and civil society activists, have recognised this undeniable reality for a number of years. But, for whatever reason, there is no evidence of any defined, calculated or credible challenge to the deep state, nor is there any organised and effective force capable of challenging this status quo.

'Heroic flexibility'

The question of Ayatollah Khamenei's succession is likely to feature prominently in the course of the next four to eight years. The deep state aims to engineer a situation whereby the outcome of the upcoming presidential election is able to ensure that its dominance continues.

With the expected victory of a hard-line candidate, the deep state will be in direct control of all three branches of government for the first time

Since many leading political personalities and organisations have directly or indirectly called for the boycott of the election on 18 June, turnout will most likely be limited to those who see their interests in one way or another aligned with the deep state.

With the expected victory of a hard-line candidate, the deep state will be in direct control of all three branches of government for the first time in the Islamic Republic’s 42-year history.

This means that it can no longer pass the buck but must take direct responsibility for any possible future national calamities.

Under such a scenario, Ayatollah Khamenei will have to perform multiple acts of “heroic flexibility” (a term he invented to justify his own climb-down in 2013 in allowing the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA] negotiations to begin). This means that the government will either achieve an acceptable compromise with the US to remove sanctions, or Khamenei will once again find himself vetoing any further talks.

In either event, in the absence of any ‘contractors’, the Ayatollah will be solely accountable to the Iranian people, and he will have to explain why he and his followers are powerless or incapable of meeting the basic needs of a nation straining under Covid-19 and other challenges.

Either way, what little is left of Khamenei’s credibility will come under unprecedented close scrutiny, not just by the suffering masses in Iran but also the global community.

Gradual ascent

The election victory in June 1997 of Mohammad Khatami over Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, the hand-picked candidate of the Supreme Leader, heralded the start of the ‘reform era’. More importantly, it exposed the divisions within the ruling establishment, which over time had also alienated the general public. Iranians had become increasingly resentful of the way the country was being led and administered.

Many saw the election of Mohammad Khatami as a turning point and the beginning of a new chapter in relations between the people and the state, a trend that was briefly evident.

However, the Supreme Leader made use of this reform movement by riding on its popular wave. Various reformist advocates, knowingly or unwittingly, allowed themselves to be used as ‘contractors’ in the service of the deep state.

It soon became clear that talk of reform would be permitted so long as it did not infringe upon any domains retained exclusively for the deep state.

Today, ‘hardliners’, conservative ‘principlists’ or ‘the hard core of the regime’, control all the key political and economic levers. Under the pretext of militant anti-Americanism, they have gradually directed the nation’s leanings towards Russia and China. Yet they represent only a small fraction of the constituency that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979.

Over time, the influence of many high profile ‘insiders’ has declined, due to widening differences with the ‘behind the scenes’ figures running the deep state.

A simple glance at the fate of two previous presidents of the Islamic Republic, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (whose children have alleged that their father’s death was not due to natural causes) and Mohammad Khatami (who was banned from public ceremonies in 2017), point to this reality.

Even Ali Larijani (former Speaker of ‘Majles’ or parliament) was humiliatingly disqualified from participating in the 2021 presidential election. Another previous Speaker, Mehdi Karroubi, and a former prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi, have been held under house arrest without trial for more than 10 years. All this points to a high level of dissent within the ruling establishment.

The safest option for promoting peaceful change is to embrace ‘national reconciliation’ similar to that achieved in post-apartheid South Africa in 1994

Eight years after the election of Hassan Rouhani, the real winner of the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections in which more than 70% of eligible voters participated (as opposed to a projected turnout of around 35% in the forthcoming election, notwithstanding regime manipulation of the figures) was in fact Ayatollah Khamenei and his cronies.

They skilfully distanced themselves from the disgrace and fiascos associated with the Ahmadinejad era. By deliberately blocking any new contacts with the US months before the Americans withdrew from the JCPOA agreement, they condemned the likes of Rouhani and foriegn minister, Javad Zarif, to inevitable failure, thereby inflicting serious and potentially irreparable damage to the credibility of all moderates or reformists.

National reconciliation

It is undeniable that until an effective opposition emerges, in line with the aspirations of the people and capable of challenging the deep state, there can be no hope of changing the status quo.

At the same time, most Iranians, having witnessed the terrible outcomes of so-called efforts to establish ‘freedom, human rights and democracy’ in some neighbouring and nearby countries, are reluctant to attach themselves to any spontaneous action that might lead to greater domestic instability, violence and conflict.

The safest option for promoting peaceful change away from revenge and violence (something that no election in the Islamic Republic can secure) is to embrace and promote ‘national reconciliation’. This involves progressive forces trying to replicate the reconciliation achieved in post-apartheid South Africa in 1994.

It is worth noting that what transpired in South Africa forced a much more cohesive government to remove itself from power when confronted by the will of the overwhelming majority of its people – an effort that was also supported by the international community.

For the deep state in Iran to achieve something similar, it is essential that all regime officials be offered assurances of immunity and guarantees that neither they nor their families nor their rights as Iranian citizens will be endangered after a peaceful transition of power.

In other words, they would never suffer the treatment they meted to those they vanquished since 1979, such as executions, pillaging and exile.

To achieve this outcome peacefully, it is possible to resurrect a proposal that was first put forward in 2005 by a number of respected political and intellectual personalities: hold a free, unmanipulated and decisive referendum on amending the current constitution and bringing its provisions in line with current realities (i.e. empowering the people and giving them the right to self-determination). This is similar to the recent suggestion made by leading reformist, Mostafa Tajzadeh, whose candidacy for the upcoming presidential election was rejected.

Moving forward beyond the election, no matter who the victor may be, adopting a national reconciliation movement would be the least costly antidote for persuading the deep state to step back and submit to the will of the overwhelming majority of disenchanted Iranians who seek nothing more than to reshape and enhance their future through peaceful change.

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