Iran’s Surreal Elections

by Shireen T. Hunter

Following debate in Iran ahead of its June 14 presidential election is like watching a movie by Luis Bunuel — think the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie — or looking at a painting by Salvador Dali; everything opposes reality.

Indeed, while the candidates of various political stripes vigorously and energetically discuss issues ranging from the country’s monumental economic problems to the threat of cultural aggression, no one refers to the underlying cause of these problems.

That’s because they’re operating from within the straitjacket that the Islamic Republic’s ideology and Khomeini’s legacy has imposed on the country. Even worse, there seems to be no escape, at least not without undermining the interests of one group or another or, more fundamentally, for the system itself to be replaced or transformed beyond recognition.

Ironically, in averting the discussion of the basic cause of Iran’s national crisis — and it is a full-fledged national crisis — both the so-called reformists and various shades of conservatives are complicit; they all have a stake in the system and its survival. Others who are not part of this conspiracy of aversion, such as important elements of the so-called Green Movement, have such extreme ideas that implementing them would lead to the end of Iran as we know it.

Even Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, coming out of the shadows and declaring his candidacy at the last minute, was in his own words doing so in order to save the system — meaning the Islamic Republic with all of its ideological trappings.

Admittedly, Rafsanjani and the moderate reformists, such as Muhammad Khatami, have a more gentle interpretation of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI) ideology, which allows some room for other Iranians who might not share that ideology to participate in society. But make no mistake, the survival of the system — and with it the privileged position of the clerical establishment, their offspring and other coteries — is Rafsanjani’s main goal as well.

The ideological trap into which Iran has fallen is also manifested in the twenty year-long dispute over Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision. The reformists portray him as a real democrat who believed in the right of the people to decide on the country and its fate. The conservatives see him as the creator of the Velayat-e-faqhih (the leadership of the Islamic Jurist) even in its absolute form. They argue, if only Iranian politicians had done as the Imam (Khomeini) had told them, everything would have been perfect. All Iran’s problems, according to this line of thought, occurred because Rafsanjani and Khatami, and, recently, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, deviated from Khomeini’s teachings.

Nevertheless, anyone who has read Khomeini’s writings going back to the 1940s and his interviews in later decades, as well as the current Iranian Constitution, would realize that what Khomeini wanted was an Islamic government, which is an essentially religious construct, and that’s what the IRI is. His republicanism was extremely weak and his view of the role of the people — as far as deciding the character of the country’s culture and politics — was extremely narrow. People could decide where to build a highway or what crops to grow, but not change Islamic law or deviate from Islamic morality. But none of the presidential candidates or most others in Iran’s political life will agree with this; doing so would be tantamount to admitting that they had been fooled from the beginning and/or tried to fool others. Or, that the whole revolution was a colossal mistake.

So in addition to the ideological straitjacket Iran is wrapped in, it’s also caught in what one could call the Khomeini trap.

The most damaging aspect of Khomeini’s ideology was that it was essentially anti-Iran and anti-Iranian. As he admitted, Khomeini had no feelings for Iran as a country. He seldom referred to the Iranian nation. Everything he did was in the name of Islam and the community of Muslims (Umat-ul-Islam). Khomeini saw Iran as a base and headquarters for a revolutionary movement to revive Islam and to achieve Islamic unity, no matter the cost to Iran. Hence the disastrous war with Iraq and the unrelenting quest to “liberate” Palestine. If this meant massive destruction for Iran, lost development, international isolation, sanctions and now the real threat of disintegration, then so be it.

Lest some people think this is not the case now, they should recall that when two years ago President Ahmadinejad came up with the idea of an Iranian School, based on ideas that Iranian civilization is self-contained and even has its own version of Islam, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi and several other senior clerics said that Iran has no value without Islam. Yazdi said whatever honor Iran has is because of Islam, and Iranians’ accomplishments came after the dawn of Islam. He added that Iran is a mere vessel without value until the “substance,” namely Islam, is poured into it. For him and his followers, if Islam were to triumph, Iran’s destruction in the process would be more than worth it. Of course, Yazdi’s personal and class interests are closely linked to the predominance of the Islamist discourse, even if sustained through force.

This means that no matter who is elected as Iran’s next president, as long as a critical mass of Iranian politicians fail to clearly state that Khomeinism and Iran’s survival and interests are incompatible and an Iran-centered discourse should replace the current Islamist ideology, it will be impossible to alter Iran’s current predicament.

An Iran-centered discourse does not mean old-fashioned, ethno-centric or chauvinistic nationalism and does not ignore the role of Islam. Nor does it require a return to past political structures. It simply means putting the interests of Iranians and Iran ahead of some utopian Islamist quest.

The problem with the more extreme reformists and the Green Movement has been that they replaced Islamist utopianism and ideology with a vague version of liberalism and human rights discourse. Although laudable, mere liberal values cannot create national cohesion and provide policy guidelines. Moreover, some of these extremists have had views regarding Iran’s minorities that, if implemented, would inevitably lead to the country’s disintegration. Ironically, as recent experiences in Iraq and elsewhere have shown, such a process would not benefit anyone in Iran.

The idea of an Iran-centered discourse is not far-fetched. There is a growing fatigue with Islamism and any kind of revolutionary adventurism in Iran, as well as growing anxiety regarding Iran’s survival in the future. For example, in the last two years, both reformist and moderate conservative figures have stressed the need to put saving Iran ahead of factional disputes. The fact that, after attacking Rafsanjani brutally, reformists agreed on him as a consensus candidate proves this point.

Still, as of now Islamists of all stripes are not willing to abandon the discourse that propelled them to power, though some are prepared to make some adjustments to it. As a result, whoever is elected president, a dramatic change in Iran’s prospects and behavior is unlikely.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.