For weeks before the Iranian presidential election, much of the world media were playing a mood music designed to present the Islamic Republic as “a kind of democracy” and a model for developing nations. A number of Western pundits even claimed that the “Obama effect” was about to put Iran on the path of “peaceful change”.
By last Friday night, however, the mood music had changed.
The Islamic Republic was no longer “a sort of democracy” and President Obama was not about to conquer Iran with charming rhetoric. The new mood music was a mixture of anger and disappointment with a catchphrase, “massive electoral fraud”, emerging as the dominant theme.
The reason for this dramatic change of mood was simple: Mir-Hussein Mussavi Khameneh, the candidate that much of the media and possibly the Obama administration, had wanted to win, did not. Instead, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Washington’s nightmare for the past four years was returned with five times more votes than he had collected in the first round of the presidential election in 2005.
The idea that the Islamic Republic could change through internal evolution inspired by Obama’s cosmopolitan charm was shattered. Ahmadinejad was back, more defiant than ever; and determined to give the US, which he calls “a crippled creature”, the coup de grace.
So, what did really happen?
To start with, the very idea that Ahmadinejad might lose was fanciful.
All incumbent presidents of the Islamic Republic who stood for election have been re-elected. There was no reason why Ahmadinejad would be an exception. Whether we like it or not, Ahmadinejad is currently the most popular figure within the Khomeinist movement. It is natural that a Khomeinist regime should have someone like him as president.
But what about charges of massive fraud?
Despite all the outcry, the fact is that, so far, none of three defeated candidates has lodged a formal complaint backed by evidence. Mussavi and Mehdi Karrubi, the mullah who came last among the four candidates, have made declarations and written letters alleging all sorts of things, including demanding a recount of votes in some cities. On Monday, they got what they asked for as the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution, which must approve or annul the results of the election, agreed to organize a recount wherever the defeated candidates wanted.
What the defeated candidates did not, however, is to expose the entire exercise as a swindle.
The electoral system in the Islamic Republic is a peculiar beast.
In a sense, all elections in the Islamic Republic are fraudulent because an independent election commission does not organize them, as is the case in genuine democracies.
The authorities decide who could stand as candidate to begin with. They then dictate the modalities of the campaign and control every aspect of it. There are no independent observers or inspectors; and the organizers could announce whatever results they like. Even then, the Council of the Guardians, a “star-chamber” of 12 mullahs, has the power to change or even annul the results.
Last Friday’s election was no different from 30 other elections, including nine presidential ones, held in the Islamic Republic since 1980. If this one was fraudulent, all the others were too. As prime minister for eight years, Mussavi had his share in rigging at least five elections. As for Karrubi, for eight years he was speaker of an Islamic Majlis produced by successive rigged elections.
The “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has endorsed the election results as “a great achievement” for Islam. As men who have always claimed to believe in Walayat al-Faqih (The Rule of the Theologian), Mussavi and Karrubi cannot second-guess Khamenei who, according to the Khomeinist dogma, represents the “Hidden Imam”, and is thus “infallible”.
According to the Khomeinist constitution, Khamenei has the right even to suspend the basic rules of Islam. Therefore, when he says there was no fraud, no Khomeinist worth his salt would second-guess him.
The only way for Mussavi and Karrubi to be credible is to announce that they rely on their own reasoning rather than the say-so of the “Supreme Guide” in evaluating the outcome of the election.
However, if they say that they would put themselves outside the Khomeinist system. In that case, they would see that no free and fair election would ever be possible under Khomeinism.
Mussavi and Karrubi are problematic figures because they tried to have their bread buttered on both sides. They wanted to woo the Khomeinist by pretending loyalty to all the nonsense about the” Supreme Guide” and his “infallibility”. At the same time, they tried to court the urban middle classes, who want none of that nonsense, into believing that they would lead them out of the Khomeinist impasse.
Meanwhile, the outside world, having been desperate about any good news from Iran for the past 30 years, was prepared to indulge in all sorts of fantasies about Mussavi or Karrubi leading a kind of “velvet revolution” in Tehran.
So called “Iran experts” did not realize that Mussavi was a balloon that a section of the Iranian middle class inflated to show its anger not only at Ahmadinejad but also at the entire Khomeinist regime. Otherwise, there is nothing in Mussavi’s record , or Karrubi’s for that matter, to make them more attractive than Ahmadinejad. Mussavi was prime minister during the most repressive phase of Iran’s history under Khomeinism. It was under his watch that tens of thousands of political prisoners were executed, often without trial. Karrubi presided over a parliament at a time it passed some of the most repressive laws in the Islamic Republic.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a triple oxymoron.
It is not Islamic because it espouses a peculiar ideology based on Walayat al-Faqih, a bizarre concept rejected by 99 per cent of Muslims from all sects.
It is not a republic because in it power is exercised by the “Supreme Guide”, rather than the public. It is not Iranian either because it rejects Iran’s pre-Islamic history along with the very concept of nationhood as anti-Islamic.
These contradictions have formed the template of Iranian politics since 1979. Many people have tried to occult or minimize them; but all have failed.
Mehdi Bazargan tried, in his own peculiar way, as did Abol-Hassan Banisadr, the Islamic Republic’s first president.
More recently, Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah propelled into the presidency by Hashemi Rafsanjani, also tried to transcend the contradictions. They all failed not because they were bad men or incompetent politicians. They failed because they attempted something the impossible.
We do not know whether Mussavi and Karrubi would have tried as well, although some of their supporters hoped they would. In Ahmadinejad, the Khomeinist regime has its natural leader. Ahmadinejad has the merit of not pretending to be what he is not.
However, what Iran needs is not a “light” version of Khomeinism as Mussavi and Karrubi propose but a way out of the historic impasse created by a system that has led the nation to the brink of civil war, turned it into an international pariah, and attracted universal ridicule with a shameless electoral charade.
Amir Taheri’s new book “The Persian Night” is published by Encounter Books.