Why Iran’s June Election Will be Different

Traditionally, a few months before a presidential election in Iran, the government opens the public sphere, giving more freedom to the press, more space for activists to speak out and even loosening social restrictions like the one on women’s clothing and hijab. But less than two months before Iran’s June 14 election, the situation feels very different in Tehran. In fact, the opposite is happening.

In mid-January, Iranian intelligence forces arrested more than 16 journalists and questioned many more. All of them were released after a few weeks. Iranian intelligence also summoned the managing editors of major publications and warned them against criticizing the government during the election season.

A number of political activists linked to the reformists’ camp, including former MP Hossein Loghmanian, have also been arrested in the last few weeks. And just months before the election, instead of experiencing more freedom, three major publications — Mehrnameh, Aseman and Panjareh — have shut down voluntarily to avoid likely censure and official closure. A reporter from one of these publications told me, “We all thought we were going to have a similar environment like in the past, and that the government would be more tolerant regarding the media’s performance, but the monitoring and censorship imposed by the intelligence is intensifying day by day.”

It’s not just about the media or activists anymore either. On April 30, Reuters reported that Bagher Asadi, a prominent Iranian diplomat — well-known and respected in UN diplomatic circles — had been arrested in mid-March. The government kept the arrest quiet for more than six weeks, but once the family leaked the news to the media, they confirmed it.

Former diplomat Mohammad Reza Heydari told me on Thursday that he believes the arrest occurred because Asadi was critical of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy and challenged the government’s performance on a number of occasions — something Tehran does not tolerate, especially when it comes from Iranians.

These are just a few examples of how the Iranian government is getting ready for June. Remembering the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election, the widespread protests in the streets and the massive number of arrests, the government has chosen to preempt any possible challenge to the regime’s narrative on a wide range of issues, from the government’s policies, to the candidates’ qualifications, to the ongoing crackdown on dissidents.

By now, two presidential candidates in the last election, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, as well as Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard, have spent well over two years under house arrest. These two were beloved politicians in the eyes of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Khomeini. Even so, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can’t tolerate them. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Khamenei supported unconditionally in his first term, now won’t pass up any opportunity to criticize the establishment.

So if the regime can’t trust a former prime minister and a former head of parliament, or even it’s current president, then whom can they, or rather, the Supreme Leader, trust? The answer is basically no one. And if you don’t trust anyone, from veteran revolutionaries to the younger generation of political figures, then what do you do with a presidential election?

The regime’s extreme sense of suspicion and distrust, and the level of squabbling amongst the political parties, who, regardless of ideology or revolutionary ideals, are all greedy for a piece of the pie, point to an unsettling future for Iran’s political sphere in the months to come. The Supreme Leader will do whatever it takes to make sure one of his loyalists ends up in office.

As Khamenei strives to keep his stranglehold on power, we should expect intensifying censorship and control over the media, civil society and political activists in the coming months. No matter who is nominated for Iran’s presidential election in the coming days, the regime is ready to avoid any surprises, regardless of the cost.

Omid Memarian

Omid Memarian is a journalist known for his news analysis and regular columns. He writes for the IPS (Inter Press Service) news agency, regularly contributes to the Daily Beast and has published op-ed pieces in The NY Times, The LA Times, The WSJ, The SF Chronicle and Time.com. A World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism from 2007-2009, he received Human Rights Watch's highest honor in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award. He is the author of the Persian-language book Communication Skills (2004), and in 2013 he edited Sketches of Iran: A Glimpse from the Front Lines of Human Rights. Throughout his career, Memarian has often consulted for think tanks and research institutions regarding Iran policy, and continues to play an active role in various policy and advocacy circles on the topic. He can be reached at [email protected].


One Comment

  1. Several facts that the author omit to mention:
    (1) The law of the land stipulates that candidates for the presidential elections should start campaigning after the Guardian Council has vetted them (usually around one month before the election.) Although this is the rule, early un-official campaigning has vibrantly begun in Iran since at least 2 months ago and this has been tolerated, as usual, by the authorities.
    (2) Anyone checking the web media inside Iran (Mehrnews.com, Farsnews.com, Rajanews.com etc…) can easily access and read the point of views of each and every one of the potential candidates.
    (3) These presidential hopeful have every possibility to present their views to the public. They have started traveling around the country for pre-campaign positioning, to explain their point of view and to challenge their opponents’ programs etc…
    (4) A huge variety of the political spectrum is presented here. From reformists a la Khatami, interested mainly in the political reform of the system, like Dr Mehralizadeh; to centrist technocrats with liberal economic agenda and pragmatic approach, like Dr Rowhani, or to some extent Dr Velayati; to “Principalists” who are more inclined towards social justice and the original promises of the revolution like Dr Lankarani, to mention only fewl of the positions.
    (5) The case of Mr Asadi is probably a state security matter not directly related to the campaign. A diplomat is bound to a certain gag rules because of his or her state-bureaucratic functions. Rules that Mr Asadi has likely failed to comply with.
    (6) The author offers no substantial facts to back his main claim that the election is being manipulated by the Leader. He obviously mixes-up with political manipulation what is no more than a common practice (in any political system even in Western Democracies) between spheres of power and legitimacy. The reality is that the Office of the Leader has historically tried to stay above the presidential fray and is sticking to this rule so far. This is based on a theoretical reason more than anything else: the separation between day to day politics run by the Office of the Presidency and the legitimacy function provided by the Supreme Leader’s office is one crucial pillar for the legitimacy theory of the Islamic Republic worked around mainly by the current Supreme Leader. Therefore it is highly unlikely that the leader himself act in a way to undermine an intellectual construct that he believes being one of the foundations for the continuity of the State. On the other hand it’s more than likely that the ones seeking to weaken or overthrow the state will target that to muddy the legitimacy issue and promote regime change.
    (7) This is the most important national suffrage and no sovereign state can and should tolerate any external forces tampering with her internal affairs. Since, obviously, this goes against the international law but furthermore having a foreign powerful entity(ies), non-elected , put leverage on one or several of the candidates as his favorite is in fact one of the worst deprivation of the freedom of choice for the citizens of that country, particularly for an oil and Gas rich nation like Iran.

    This article is full of non-verified claims and assumptions and unrelated facts. It clearly sounds like a propaganda column. It doesn’t try to provide any view close to the reality nor a minimal understanding of the situation and the possible outcomes, instead it utilizes all known PR tools against the Iranian State to promote regime-change agenda. And in its core it uses the now decade old tactic of the direct attack at the office of the Leader with the obvious intent of weakening the foundation of the state in Iran. Although it fails to achieve such a goal due to its structural weakness but it give rise to an interesting question: Is it worth for a respectable site like yours to publish this kind of article?

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