realclearworld Newsletters: Mideast Memo
It would be easy to dismiss this week's elections in Iran as little more than well-orchestrated Kabuki theater. After all, it is widely understood by most outside observers that the Iranian government is, in all reality, ruled by a tiny class of theocrats -- or "mullahs," as some prefer -- and militant ideologues. Indeed, while a great deal of media attention has been paid to Friday's twin elections -- one to fill the majlis, Iran's 290-seat parliament, and the other to fill the 88-person clerical body known as the Assembly of Experts -- one might be forgiven for disregarding both votes as a mere sideshow.
While Iran most certainly has resembled a vibrant democracy in recent weeks, it's crucial to note that the threshold for participating in Iranian elections is remarkably high, and that most reformers and liberals are often disqualified from participating well before the first vote is even cast. What this leaves behind is a monochrome collection of candidates ranging from conservative to even more conservative -- what Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour described in an interview with the Washington Post as a spectrum ranging "from pitch black to dark grey."
Analysts, moreover, must be careful not to confuse process for genuine participation. Iran is a self-proclaimed Islamic republic, and the two features often find themselves in conflict. The result is a Byzantine-like system with competing power bases, but all ultimately beholden to the diktats of one man: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Furthermore, while the Assembly of Experts is indeed a powerful body comprising many of the country's most influential clerical figures, it remains unclear just how much influence it possesses. And though it is ostensibly tasked with the all-important job of selecting the country's next supreme leader, it has arguably never truly fulfilled that responsibility. The Islamic Republic has had just one succession of power in the supreme leader's office in its 37-year history, and experts believe the Assembly had a rather muted, if not entirely ceremonial, role in that selection process, which followed the death of the regime's revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"Whenever Ayatollah Khamenei passes from the scene, his successor will almost surely be determined by another back-room deal among the gray eminences of the Islamic regime," argues Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution. "Their position in the Assembly of Experts is likely to be largely irrelevant to that outcome."
Beyond the systemic ennui in the country's halls of power looms the shadow of the 2009 presidential election. For many international observers, the taint of that vote -- one widely believed to have been stolen by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- still lingers in the mind. The crackdown and persecution of protesters and reform-minded Iranian political figures that followed that election has likewise contributed to the rather small crop of reformists participating in this year's polls, compelling some to cry foul.
"None of the [Assembly] 'experts' are atheists. None of them are secularists. None of them are agnostic. None of them are liberals under any conceivable definition of the word liberal. Certainly none of them are Christians, Jews, or Baha'is," writes journalist and foreign affairs analyst Michael J. Totten. "They're all Islamic theologians or they wouldn't even be in the Assembly of Experts."
While such criticisms are not entirely without their merit, they also miss an important point about Iranian politics post-Ahmadinejad. Although some in Western media and policy circles lament the 2009 protest movement as a missed opportunity to overthrow the current Iranian regime, the Green Movement in truth resembled something more akin to a civil rights movement than a revolutionary one -- a culmination of public dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad's economic mismanagement and combative behavior toward the West.
The 2013 presidential election was a repudiation of that legacy, and a signal to the country's various power bases that sanctions and isolation were taking far too heavy a toll on Iranians of every political persuasion. Ahmadinejad left office a diminished figure, and in 2015 his successor, centrist cleric Hassan Rouhani, reached a once unthinkable nuclear agreement with the United States other world powers.
Though those aforementioned hues of grey may look dissimilar to most Western observers, to Iranians they make a world of difference, and they represent the choice between a decent life full of economic and social opportunity, and one without.
Should Rouhani and his allies within the establishment achieve electoral success this week, it could set the tone for Iranian leadership for years to come, and more importantly, enable the current president to fulfill his campaign pledge to improve the economy heading into the 2017 presidential election. An even friendlier parliament would go a long way toward helping the 67-year-old Rouhani -- who may have bigger political ambitions than just the president's office -- to do just that.
"These elections will not change Iran's foreign policy, nor will they jeopardize the nuclear deal," writes Al-Monitor's Arash Karami. "A cooperative parliament can, however, allow Rouhani's ministers to focus on the difficult challenges ahead of them rather than being constantly summoned to parliament, as they have been in record numbers."
So is Iran a real democracy? Perhaps that is the wrong question. What continues to plague Iran -- and indeed much of the Middle East -- isn't a deficit in participation and process, but rather one in accountability and opportunity. While it may assuage our liberal sensibilities to outright dismiss Iranian democracy, our objections do little to improve the daily lives of Iran's young and ambitious population.
For most Iranians, citizenship since the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- and even prior to that -- has meant compliance, or, at best, quiet speculation. One man, to paraphrase English philosopher John Stuart Mill, managing the affairs of a mentally passive people.
That is why these elections matter. Although most of the predominantly aged males elected this week will, at least outwardly, espouse a rigid range of conservative principles, their views on Iran's proper place in the world -- isolated vs. engaged, successful vs. insolvent -- will depend largely on Rouhani and his cohorts' freedom to continue their agenda. To achieve that, they must have the numbers.
Do Iran's Elections Mean Change? -- The Iran Primer
Hope Goes Hand in Hand with Pragmatism in Iran -- Al-Monitor
No, Iran Is Not a Democracy -- World Affairs Journal
And be sure to check for all of the latest news and analysis on the Middle East at RealClearWorld.com.