What’s at stake in Iran’s elections

By Pepe Escobar – Parliamentary elections this Friday in Iran are far from being free and fair. Well, at least that’s a step beyond those paragons of democracy – the election-free Persian Gulf monarchies.

In Iran, this time the problem is there’s no opposition; it’s cons (conservatives) against neo-cons.

The Green Movement leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Dr Zahra Rahnavard, as well as Mehdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest for over a year now; echoing Myanmar’s Aung Suu Kyi, but more vocally, they have repeatedly stressed they will not “repent”.

Virtually all key opposition leaders, including university activists, almost 1,000 people, are in jail; not because they’re criminals but because they’re very canny organizers of popular anger.

The most influential opposition groups have in fact been outlawed – and that even includes groups of clerics and the Islamically correct Association of Teachers and Scholars in the holy city of Qom. No fewer than 42 influential journalists are also in jail.

The absolute majority of the reformist press has been shut down. Non-government organizations such as the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, founded by Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, have been outlawed.

A short definition of these elections would be something like this; a byzantine scheme of power sharing between political groups representing a very small elite, while large swathes of the population – and their representatives – are totally sidelined.

Essentially, this will be a fierce battle between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. So why do these elections matter so much?

Welcome to the Islamic UFC
Khamenei-Ahmadinejad is now a cage match. Stripped to the bone, it’s the fight between the ayatollah and the man with a halo over his head that will set the stage for the next presidential election, in June 2013 – when in the best of possible worlds there will be an Obama II, and the specter of war might have been averted.

Whenever lazy, prejudiced and nuance-adverse Western corporate media refer to Iran, it’s all about “the mullahs”. No; it’s infinitely more complicated than that.

Khamenei is betting on an “epic event” of an election involving a turnout of at least 60%. That’s far from a given – and that’s why the regime is pulling no punches. This Wednesday, the Leader himself laid out his view of what’s at stake: “Thanks to divine benevolence, the Iranian nation will give a slap harder than the previous ones in the face of Arrogance [as in the US] and will show its decisiveness to the enemy so that the front of Arrogance understands that it can’t do anything when confronting this nation.”

Yet this is more about the internal front than the “front of Arrogance”. At this supremely delicate stage, Khamenei badly craves legitimacy. He needs to show that he is in charge, widely respected, that most Iranians still believe in the current Islamic Republic system, and thus ignored the opposition’s call to boycott the elections.

The economy is a disaster, to a certain extent because of Western sanctions but most of all because of the Ahmadinejad administration’s cosmic corruption and astonishing incompetence. The Khamenei camp is actively stressing the point, while positioning the Leader above it all.

Finally there’s the “front of Arrogance” – the non-stop threats of an attack by Israel, the US or both. Khamenei needs the graphic proof – in the polling booth – the country is united against foreign intervention.

The role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is also key. We should not forget: this is now a military dictatorship of the mullahtariat. The IRGC badly wants to control the Majlis – for their own reasons.

This would allow them, simultaneously, to monopolize the tools to impeach Ahmadinejad if they need/want to and/or eliminate a president elected by popular vote and reinstate the position of prime minister – who would be picked by the Majlis. The undisguised IRGC position is essentially that they need to control the Majlis, otherwise the “sedition” – as in the Green movement – will return.

Meet the players
So on one side, we have the so-called “principlists” – let’s call them the Khamenei party. They are – in theory – led by Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Kani, the chairman of the Council of Experts. But in practice, whatever powerful, former IRGC commanders say, goes.

A key candidate in their list is Gholam Haddad Adel, the father-in-law of Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba. He’s running for a Tehran seat. This means, crucially, that the IRGC positioned the election in Tehran as a de facto referendum on Khamenei. That’s something to watch closely.

The principlists boast a “United Front” that actually became seriously disunited (scattered in at least four groups). They fear the Ahmadinejad faction will manipulate the vote – via the Interior Ministry; it’s an open secret in Tehran that the Ahmadinejad people have been furiously bribing blue-collar workers and peasants. The principlists know if Ahmadinejad controls the Majlis, he can’t be impeached, and will confront Khamenei even more forcefully.

On the other side, we have an outfit called the Durable Front of the Islamic Revolution. Let’s call them the Ahmadinejad faction. They claim to be the real principlists – and essentially are disciples of the mega-reactionary Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. Now that’s a tough cookie; many times I visited his hawza in Qom, but Mesbah Yazdi refuses to talk to foreign journalists.

Ahmadinejad used to be an adoring Mesbah Yazdi worshipper. But then a theological bomb exploded; Ahmadinejad started to publicly boast that he was directly linked to the hidden Imam Mahdi – and not to the Supreme Leader, in thesis the Mahdi’s representative on earth. Mesbah Yazdi was mildly horrified. He then started saying he is not the party’s leader – but people hardly believe it. If they capture a lot of seats, Mesbah Yazdi will be even stronger among the neo-cons.

A third faction is led Mohsen Rezaei, a former head of the IRGC between 1981 and 1997, and the current secretary-general of the Expediency Council, the body that mediates between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians and also advises Khamenei. Among conservatives and neo-cons, this faction is not exactly very popular, even though Rezaei’s game is to position himself as a viable third way.

And then there are the conservatives and neo-cons who are not aligned with anyone, with a major group led by two fierce Ahmadinejad critics, and at least 200 smaller groups.

To give an idea about the tortuous nature of the system, the major group presented a lot of current Majlis representatives, as well as other regime figures, as candidates. In the initial screening, run by the Ahmadinejad-controlled Ministry of Interior, they were rejected; but then the Guardian Council said they were OK …

So no one should expect a Kim Jong-ilesque turn out this Friday. Expectations for Tehran are a paltry 15% – and that may be even less. A crushing majority of university students will definitely follow the boycott.

Anyone interested in examining the extraordinary impact of the aftermath of the 2009 elections in Tehran should read Death to the Dictator: A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran’s 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price, by Afsaneh Moqadam (Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

In small town Iran and faraway provinces, the Leader – as well as the “man of the people” with a halo over his head – may still be popular. But no one, anywhere, really knows for sure whether the absolute majority of Iranians would do anything to support them.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His most recent book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

He may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com

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