- Iran’s Peculiar ElectionWhat Should “We” Do Now?
The recent presidential elections in Iran are noteworthy for several reasons. To begin with, the integrity of the voting is gravely in doubt. Indeed, the conduct of these elections was the most suspect ever in the troubled quarter-century history of voting in the Islamic Republic. There was cheating in both the first and second rounds, and this came on top of the deeper structural problems that afflict all elections under the Islamic Republic, including the unelected Guardian Council's power to bar candidates as well as the capacity for electoral interference of such armed regime forces as the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij militia. Neither the official turnout figures nor the official returns can be trusted. The regime has probably inflated the former through deliberate undercounting of the voting-age population. The returns, meanwhile, reflect the vanishing of millions of votes cast for some candidates, while other contenders—notably the eventual winner, former Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad—had their totals padded with millions of fraudulent votes.
As usual, unelected supreme leader Ali Khamenei claimed that every Iranian who went to the polls had in effect cast a "yes" vote for the Islamic Republic, its constitution, and even for the supreme leader himself and his actions. Yet these results confer no legitimacy on anyone, and instead should be a source of extreme embarrassment for Khamenei in both Iran and the world at large.
As revealed even by the dubious official results of the first round, the biggest single group of Iranians are those who want to change the constitution [End Page 64] and hence the regime. At the very least, this group comprises somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of all voting-age Iranians—an estimate that I arrive at by subtracting from the roughly 40 percent of eligible voters who stayed home in 2005 the 17 percent who did not vote even in the presidential election of 23 May 1997, which drew a historically high turnout.
The faction that wants major change spans a spectrum which includes senior ayatollah and onetime Khomeini colleague Hossein Montazeri, such prisoners of conscience as Akbar Ganji and Nasser Zarafshan, the Nobel Prize–winning human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, Iran's longest-serving political prisoner Abbas Amir Entezam, and the Student Office for Consolidating Unity (the leading umbrella group for campus dissidents), along with nearly all those Iranians opposing the regime who now live outside Iran.
The 2005 first round may be thought of as a scale that registered the comparative weight of the various political orientations in Iran today. The "reform Islamist" current associated with weak outgoing president Mohammad Khatami, and led in the 2005 race by Mostafa Mo'in, performed poorly by winning (according to my best estimate) only about 8 percent of all eligible voters. The defeat of these Islamists was one of the election's best results. Speaking of freedom and democracy while in fact pushing a maximal reading of religion's political role and supporting the current constitution with its Guardian Council and doctrine of supreme rule by a single Islamic legal expert (velayat-e-faqih), these Islamists of meaningless talk and strange, erroneous theories have acted as obstacles to real democratic change. The only serious difference between these people and the other Islamist factions is that the others stand clearly against democracy and liberalism, whereas these people, while the results of their actions are the same, serve as window dressing to hide the true nature of the regime and its crimes.
Repudiated by voters in the wake of Khatami's poor record, the putative reform Islamists now face a choice. They can rethink their ideas and take up the cause of true democracy, they can cast their lot openly with the supreme leader and the absolutist faction, or they can say goodbye to politics and go home. Friends of democracy should hope that the first option wins, since so many Mo'in voters come from among the best-educated and ablest sectors of Iranian society.
Also picking up around 8 percent of all eligible voters was former Revolutionary Guards air-force commander and later...