Should Iran’s Election Really be Discounted?

by Farideh Farhi

I read with great interest the writing of Washington’s new Iran expert, Dennis Ross. With a title like “Don’t Discount the Iranian Election”, I thought, wow! Iran’s contested and improvised politics are finally being taken seriously. What else could that mean other than an acknowledgment that there is politics in Iran, including strategizing by the significant players and the organized and even unorganized forces within the power structures that impact policy choices?

But Ross’s piece is not about competing views of how to run the country, nor is it about Iran. It is all about us.

Iran’s June 14 presidential election has already been engineered by its master designer, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to send the message that “he has little interest in reaching an understanding with the United States on the Iranian nuclear program.” This, Ross states, “If [Saeed] Jalili does end up becoming the Iranian president.” But he fails to tell us what message Khamenei will send if someone besides Jalili is elected and doesn’t even entertain the possibility that the ballot box results may not be pre-determined — that people might, just might, have something to do with this.

After all, Iranian politics is either about big changes or no changes at all. It is also apparently shaped by one man who knows what he wants, but has to wait for an election to send his message to the US.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani failed in his attempt to challenge Khamenei’s authority and now there are no individuals or forces independent of Khamenei remaining. To boot, Khamenei is so independent that he is not moved by anything in society. Everything is generated from his head and his head alone. Like all imagined Oriental despots, Khamenei alone now holds agency in Iran.

The possibility that this election may involve a degree of competition among factions or circles of power, with a good part of the population still undecided about whether to participate or which candidate to vote for, is not even permitted. After all, the “freedom-loving people of Iran” also only have two modes. They either move in unison to protests in the streets or are cowed, again in unison, by the dictates and batons of one man and his cronies. In the first scenario we love them all and in the second we pity them; but in both cases we view them as a herd that occasionally may — at least we hope — stampede toward the goal of what we have.

You’d think that after more than a decade of disastrous policy choices based on the belief that Middle Eastern countries are run by one intractable man, Washington experts would have developed some humility in forwarding their Orientalist presumptions as analysis. But not even ten years of disastrous policies following repeated declarations of so-and-so must go — the last one uttered by President Obama against Bashar al-Assad nearly two years ago — has resulted in any qualms about reducing the complex politics of a post-revolutionary society, which from the beginning has been shaped and reshaped by factions and factional realignments, to a clash of titans invariably moving towards despotism.

What Happened Last Time

Yes, I am aware of what happened in 2009 and even before, when the creeping securitization of the Iranian political system was already well under way, based on both the exaggerated pretext and real fear of external meddling. And yes, I know there is an intense debate among the critics and opposition, be they the reformists or the Green Movement. Activism does not only take place in the streets, it also happens in conversations regarding whether to vote or not.

Given the dynamic state-society relations of the Islamic Republic and societal demands that clearly remain unfulfilled, it would be quite unnatural if at least some parts of Iran’s vibrant, highly urbanized and differentiated society did not debate the legitimacy, role and weight of the electoral system as an integral institution of the Islamic Republic’s identity after what happened in 2009.

This election is deemed important by some and meaningless by others depending on the assessment of the extent to which the masterminds of the 2009 so-called “electoral coup” have managed to consolidate power. But even on the issue of what voting means and whether it will legitimize the Islamic Republic there exists a mostly reasoned debate and conversation. It is a debate and conversation because many people are trying to convince both themselves and their interlocutors that they’re making the right choice. Whatever they decide, they want their action to have political meaning.

Why The Presidential Debates Matter

Another debate also exists within the frames of the available competition. Is there a difference among the candidates in terms of proposed policies? In this conversation, the cynics don’t think that a decision not to vote will undermine the Islamic Republic. Like their counterparts in many other countries, they believe that despite the different rhetoric and promises, the candidates will all end up the same; nothing will change.

But there are also those who are watching for a reason to vote. For some perhaps because a candidate appeals to them. For others, because a candidate scares them.

Iran’s state television recently announced that about 45 million out of a population of 75 million have been watching the presidential debates, the third of which on politics and foreign policy was just held. The interest-level was so high that state TV announced a potential fourth debate.

Perhaps the viewership number has been exaggerated to give the impression of a heated election, but given the conversation I am following on blogs and websites with different viewpoints, it is hard to dispute that many people have been watching.

I’ve always wondered why Iran’s presidential debates have attracted so many viewers. I was in Iran in 1997 when the first debates were held among only four candidates. I had been to Mohammad Khatami’s rallies and knew about his ability to woo through words. What made him difficult to resist as a candidate was precisely the different way he spoke to attract voters. In a country where — in both the monarchist and Islamist eras — what the voter must or should do has always been uttered in every other sentence, a presidential candidate with the art of conversation was something to behold for me. People told me I was crazy and Khatami had no chance. The system would not allow it. But when Khatami came on television and began to talk, things changed.

This isn’t romantic nostalgia. The fundamental changes that have occurred in the relationship between politicians and citizens in Iran can be detected in the way they talk to each other. Iranian clerics have always been good talkers; they know their flock. But finding a language to woo voters is something different.

What’s Happening Now

Just consider what happened in the first presidential debate last week. The highly stilted and child-like format — designed to ensure that the conversation did not spiral out of control — was immediately challenged by the reformist candidate, Mohammadreza Aref, and a couple of others who followed him.

Afterwards the debate was criticized by all the participants and became a subject of both scorn and delicious humor everywhere. The integrity of the institution that held the debate came under question, some said. Others declared the nation had been insulted, the office of the president as a whole denigrated. We are not in kindergarten; treat the audience like adults, the critics shouted.

Iran’s state-run TV effectively was forced to change the format by the second debate, but it was in the third debate that the dam broke and real conversation began on no less a topic than Iran’s handling of its nuclear dossier.

People were somewhat expecting this. Two secretaries of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and nuclear negotiators — one former and one current — are, after all, running.

Current negotiator Saeed Jalili has nothing in his portfolio other than his handling of Iran’s nuclear file in negotiations with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), so the framing of his candidacy in terms of his handling of the talks could not be avoided.

But Jalili had to face someone who could not afford to accept his narrative — former negotiator Hassan Rowhani — since Rowhani’s own record is also somewhat tied to nuclear diplomacy. It was an intense conversation with little held back — not about whether Iran should enrich uranium or not, as the discussion is framed in the United States — but about which nuclear negotiating team has been more successful in its interactions with the West. Both played offense and defense.

During Friday’s debate, however, it was not the two nuclear negotiators who broke the dam. It was Ali Akbar Velayati, the former foreign minister and Khamenei’s current senior adviser on foreign affairs. Reacting to Jalili’s certitude over his conduct and disdain for the appeasement of Rowhani’s team, Velayati let loose his criticism of Jalili’s performance by saying, “reading statements does not make diplomacy.” Then Velayati explained to the audience that twice in the past 8 years, attempts to resolve the nuclear issue through negotiations were sabotaged by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the foreign ministry. Other candidates followed him, pointing to the lack of success of the current nuclear team.

This is not to say that Jalili demurred. He defended himself and also attacked, rejecting Velayati’s portrayal of his negotiating skills and telling the audience about the shabby way Rowhani’s team was treated by its Western counterparts, egged on by the United States. To prove his point, Jalili even read from Rowhani’s book, which details his negotiations with the EU, UK, France and Germany. Iran gave in and suspended, and the Westerners became louder in their demands, said Jalili. More significantly, Jalili did not talk like anyone’s man; he talked like a believer.

Rowhani did not run away from the conversation either. He’s a believer in his own approach too and disdainful of Jalili’s way — as is Velayati.

Keep in mind that the debates’ audiences don’t watch with a unified eye. Iran, like elsewhere, is not a country with only two abstract actors: “regime” and “people.” There are many people who agree with Jalili regarding the failure of Rowhani’s nuclear team and continue to rally together around this issue. There are also some who identify with his representation of himself as remaining true to being a basiji, or dedicated and lowly soldier of the system.

Then there are those who are genuinely fearful of a Jalili presidency. But even this fear is not expressed in a unified fashion.

Some are petrified by the potential for another 8 years of inept management. I make no claim in knowing who supports Jalili’s candidacy — and would be skeptical of anyone claiming to know. But I can read the websites that support his candidacy. And his potential cabinet ministers look awfully like Ahmadinejad’s ministers.

Sure, some of them were fired by the temperamental president, but their complaints were not about Ahmadinejad’s policies. They were about the bad or “deviant” person he hung around with (Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie). These ministers did get some superficial nods for being fired. But besides a few exceptions, even the bureaucracies they headed don’t consider them particularly good managers and would be worried if they came back.

Just to make a point, perhaps, on Rowhani’s flank, stands his campaign manager, Mohammadreza Nematzadeh, who is considered one of the most able state managers the Islamic Republic has produced (he was removed from his various National Iranian Oil Company posts by Ahmadinejad).

Also making a point is Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who has completely framed his campaign around his managerial and leadership abilities. Qalibaf is only 4 years older than Jalili, but was a commander during the Iran-Iraq war in his early 20s when Jalili remained a soldier. Qalibaf was in the war from the beginning to end while, according to his bio, Jalili joined sometime after 1984. Qalibaf even refuses to declare a campaign slogan. He says his past performance is his slogan.

The Fear Factor

But worrying about Jalili’s abilities is only one side of the story. After carefully listening to a man who has rarely talked inside Iran or said anything beyond the nuclear issue, some are terrified of his ideas about the cultural and social arenas. Oh no, not again. Or, oh no, he seems exactly like Ahmadinejad without his sense of humor, or, without his opportunism, like a collective reaction to at least a good part of more secular northern Tehran and surely some other cities and provinces too.

Jalili is even scarier than Ahmadinejad precisely because he’s deemed a believer and not an opportunist populist. If these secular folks vote — and so far they have been deemed least likely to vote — it will be out of a fear similar to that experienced by unhappy Obama 2012 voters who would not have voted had the alternative not been so frightening. They worry that Jalili may be Khamenei’s man; but they are even more worried about the possibility that, with him, Jalili will bring a group of righteous believers to power who even Khamenei cannot control. To them, Jalili represents the nightmare of continuity plus.

Jalili’s Strategy

Jalili understands this fear and frankly doesn’t give a hoot about it. Like his Christian conservative counterpart in the US, he has a lament. He and his support base think the previous presidents have not allowed true believers to express themselves sufficiently through their press or art. They think that capturing the executive branch will make a difference. Jalili knows that what limits the spread of his cherished ideas is not the state but a society worried that some of those ideas may take Iran to more dangerous places against a powerful enemy: the United States. I suspect he knows this because his campaign strategy suggests he is aware of the limitations faced by his co-believers.

In his campaign commercials, Jalili has explicitly tried to sell himself as Khamenei’s favorite and in doing so, adeptly used the Western press, which declared him the “frontrunner” on the same day (May 21) the Guardian Council announced the qualified candidates!

Jalili achieved this frontrunner designation through an understanding of how foreign press and Diaspora punditry work their way back into Iranian politics. After his qualification he gave his first interview to a Western reporter and later used the interview in a commercial. His strategy compelled his competitors and their supporters to publicly state that the pretention of having Khamenei’s support is just that: pretension.

What The Polls Say

Also working against Jalili are the announced polls, sometimes daily. Unlike the Western press, even hardline websites are not calling Jalili a front-runner, a situation completely different from 2009 when hardline newspapers such as Kayhan, as early as May, were announcing — without explaining the methodology, numbers polled, etc. — a 63-percent preference for Ahmadinejad, which turned out to be the eventual announced result.

Today, across the political spectrum, Qalibaf is acknowledged as the frontrunner. The most Jalili supporters are claiming is that he will be one of the two going to the second round. Whether this is a wish or a plan, no one knows. But there is little doubt that the belief in a predetermined outcome reduces one’s desire to vote.

But going back to Jalili, his problem is compounded by the fact that the polls have him way behind Qalibaf. Polls are notoriously politicized in Iran, but one of the interesting aspects of Iranian electoral politics is that despite the 2009 disaster, some rather serious pollsters are still taking fluctuations in voter thinking seriously.

One particularly interesting site with a daily tracking poll can be accessed here. Hossein Ghazian, a well known sociologist/pollster who was arrested for releasing polls that some authorities didn’t like, is one of the site’s masterminds. It specifies the number of people who are called on a 4-day rolling basis, as well as margins of error. Apparently, 35-percent of the people who were called refused to respond. Ghazian told me that he is not going to spend time defending the spread, but does think his approach can reveal quite a bit about the movement of close to 60-percent of the people who are still undecided about which candidate to vote for (as distinct from the people who have already decided not to vote). In this poll, Jalili is in third place, although his numbers are slowly improving.

I do not know what to think of these numbers, but I find the mere fact of their public emergence (since polls existed behind the closed doors of the Intelligence Ministry before) — even if they are not totally accurate — an important sign, for now, that at least a good sector of the Iranian society is interested in a more differentiated understanding of Iran; an Iran in which its citizens are not mere tools of a despot’s engineering.

Why Iran’s Election Matters

Jalili may still get elected, but so far he has been unable to sell himself as a candidate for the majority. In fact, no one has — not even Qalibaf — making a second round on June 21 a real possibility. If one has any respect for the agency of the multi-voiced citizens of Iran, observing their decisions, including whether they vote or not, is the least that can be done.

Declaring a candidate a frontrunner based on a presumption may be a cost-free exercise for Dennis Ross, but it is not one for Iran’s contentious political terrain. Jalili’s attempt to get himself anointed as the favorite was intended to make his non-election look like a challenge to Khamenei’s authority while convincing the latter to support his candidacy out of a fear of the further erosion of his authority.

His opponents’ turn of the debate away from Jalili’s relationship with Khamenei towards his conduct as the Secretary of the National Security Council — and not merely a nuclear negotiator — was a counter to this strategy.

During Friday’s debate, Jalili was called upon to talk about other issues related to national security and the way he runs the SNSC since he, as the secretary of this body, is also the director of its staff. On Thursday, Rowhani’s representative, former deputy foreign minister Mahmoud Vaezi, did something more damning. When Ali Bagheri tried to say that Jalili was really the implementer of policies decided elsewhere, Vaezi thundered back and criticized Jalili for not taking his job as the Secretary of the SNSC seriously as others have in the past.

Yes, Khamenei is being cleared here as the real initiator of the past few years’ policies, but with intent. The reformists and centrists have learned that powerful institutions and people who are threatened can react with quite a bit of violence (Syria, anyone?) if the threat is deemed existential.

They understand that pulling the country toward the center and away from the securitized environment that has been imposed in the past few years involves focusing on the criticisms and failures of the policies pursued and not core institutions. In other words, their language must also stop being the language of purge.

This is at least what Abbas Abdi, one of Iran’s well-known reformist journalists, seems to be relaying when he blogs (in a highly unusual piece since he has been a harsh critic and openly stated that the man’s recent candidacy was a mistake) praise for former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

After telling his readers about the years he was in prison and how his livelihood had been repeatedly undermined by the authorities, Abdi said he will still vote without revealing his choice (the prospect of Iran turning into Syria after domestic splits scares him). He says:

Critics should learn from Mr. Hashemi’s behavior. The critical leaders not only failed to bring about reform through their own elimination, more than ever they also reduced their own impact on society. But Hashemi, after a disqualification that no one’s mind could even conceive, did not even change his tone and even more interesting called for the creation of a political epic and last Saturday went to [a meeting of] the Expediency Council and ran the meeting next to [the Guardian Council Secretary] Mr. Jannati. And he will be one of the first people who will vote. It was from the same angle that I also participated in the last parliamentary election. From this [vantage point] my main issue under the current conditions is opening this path and returning critics to the official arena of the country and the person I vote for is of secondary importance. Of course, I have a preference between Rowhani and Aref. But because of the importance I give to reformist unity, I do not like to state my preference before this unity… I cannot say for sure but my feeling is that, despite what is imagined, the situation after the June 14 election can help improve societal trends.

Iran’s election should not be discounted, but not because of Khamenei’s message to us. It should be given attention and appreciated — no matter the result — as part and parcel of Iran’s multi-layered, vibrant politics and because some people are refusing to give up hope for gradual change, even if those changes don’t seem particularly grand at the moment. 

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.