Facing the Iranian Elections

By Nir Boms and Elliot Chodoff
June 16, 2005

While Iran continues to play an ongoing nuclear ping-pong match with the European Union, risking the nuclear stability of the Middle East and a possible showdown with the West, it is also eagerly preparing for its upcoming elections Friday. Carrying the flag of Islamic democracy, the “rule of law,” progress and change, Iran is attempting to compete in two worlds simultaneously as it hopes to emerge victorious in both.

As a symbol of change and a brighter future for the flagship Islamic republic, Iran decided to introduce a new symbol of hope and moderation: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Mr. Rafsanjani, who served as president between 1989 and 1997, seeks to project an image of modernity in the Islamic republic founded on the vision of Ayatollah Khomeini. His candidacy, however, is a resounding vote for the past rather than the future.

To be sure, the president – Mr. Rafsanjani, or otherwise – is not a particularly powerful figure in the Iranian governing system – a complex and circular power structure that places ultimate power in the hands of the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Assembly of Experts consisting of 86 “virtuous and learned” clerics elects the Supreme Leader – but the Council of Guardians, whose members are mostly appointed by the Supreme Leader, approves the candidacies for Assembly of Experts. Using its authority under Article 98 of the Iranian constitution as the body that interprets the constitution’s meaning, the Guardian Council has interpreted its own power to supervise elections in a broad manner. The council vets all candidates who wish to run for the Assembly of Experts and must approve their eligibility before they can appear on the ballot for popular election. Previous elections in Iran created some havoc, particularly in light of the Guardian Council’s decision to disqualify over half of the candidates during the parliamentary elections last February.

President Mohammed Khatami, the hopeful “reformist” candidate who was supported by young Iranians in 1997, became the target of the recent student demonstrations following eight years of recession, human-rights violations and further alienation between Iran and the West. The students, of course, voted for Mr. Khatami in protest against the equally poor record of progress achieved by his predecessor Mr. Rafsanjani, who is now likely to regain his position following the Council of Guardians approval of only six of the more than 1,000 candidates who pursued the presidential nomination. The students went to the streets again by the thousands last week to express their dissent. Despite the passing years, they refuse to lose hope and continue to push for the change that will come one day, clinging to any hope that the day is near.

A recent report of the release of Hamid Pourmand – an Iranian Christian cleric who had been tried by an Islamic court for proselytizing and for the capital offense of apostasy – provided such a moment of hope. Mr. Pourmand was acquitted after international pressure and protests induced the Iranian government to intercede on his behalf. The trial judge remarked, “I don’t know who you are, but apparently the rest of the world does. You must be an important person, because many people from the government have called me, saying to cancel your case.”

While the good news is that protests can positively affect Iranian government decisions, the bad news is that Iran does not follow the rule of law but the rule of the regime – and one that is determined to promote political Islam with a new arsenal of nuclear power. The mullahs are too well-entrenched to be unseated by the mass student and protest movement alone. The student activists are now in the midst of a hunger-strike campaign to protest the incarceration of fellow student activists from Payam-Nour Yazd and Tehran Universities. More students are now incarcerated in numerous Iranian prisons, and they do not have a cadre to apply pressure on their behalf. International pressure, as witnessed in the case of Mr. Pourmand, can produce positive results.

It remains to be seen whether the Iranian decision was a true accession to international pressure or a tactic to give the regime more room to maneuver on the nuclear question. In either case, it is clear that the mullahs are not yet prepared to take on the world when the international community joins together and speaks with a clear, unambiguous voice.

Iran, whose leaders have recently announced that they are inclined to quit the negotiating process if the timetable is not to their liking (after having agreed last month to resume talks in August) should not get another nod of approval from the European Union and the international community.

Rather, it should get a harsh phone call and a timetable for a discussion in the Security Council along with a campaign loud enough to penetrate the walls of Iranian prisons. The heat must be applied now, before it is too late.
Nir Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Elliot Chodoff is a military political analyst for MidEast-On Target.


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