Is it still interesting? This question concerns the forthcoming presidential election in Iran. Some believe that the decision to prevent “heavyweight” candidates from standing has emptied the exercise of whatever significance it might have claimed. This is specially the position of those who argued that former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani or presidential adviser Esfandiar Mashaei would have been able to implement a set of unspecified reforms.
However, a different analysis is possible.
The candidacy of both Rafsanjani and Mashaei was based on lies; cynical for the former and lyrical for the latter.
The two men lied to themselves by assuming they could be grandees of a regime while pretending to be its critics.
How could Rafsanjani, a man who played a key role in creating the regime that is shutting the door on him, suddenly be repackaged as champion of reform and change?
As for Mashaei, he must have been delusional to claim a mandate from the “Hidden Imam” while seeking approval from the Guardian Council, a 12-man star-chamber that vets applications for candidacy.
More than three decades after Khomeini seized power, it is important for Iranians to acknowledge the truth of their situation. The planned election provides an opportunity for doing just that.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a triple lie. It is not Iranian because its ideology denies the concepts of nationhood and nation-states. Nor is this regime Islamic because its ideology excludes anyone who does not share its slogan of “Allah, Koran, Khomeini”. Those who cannot accept Ali Khamenei as “Leader of the Muslim Ummah ” are also excluded. Here is how Commander of the Military Forces of the Islamic Republic, General Ahmadi Muqaddam, puts it: “Anyone who does not believe in our velayat (leadership) is an infidel and thus mahdur ad-dam, meaning his blood could be shed with impunity”. According to Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, unquestioning loyalty to “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei is “part of Islam.”
Obviously, the regime is not a republic either because it is the “Supreme Guide” that has the final say on all issues. This is how, in a recent speech, and with admirable frankness, Khamenei himself put it: “Whatever I say on public affairs is an edict of the state.”
The regime created by Khomeini is a peculiar beast.
The ayatollah accepted such concept as constitution, republic, and elections to hoodwink the middle classes and seduce leftist and Mussadeqist elements blinded by their irrational hatred of the Shah. However, it was obvious that he could not and did not want a Western-style democracy with a republican system.
The system that Khomeini created, with the help of such characters as Rafsanjani, could best be described as an “imamate” a version of which existed in Yemen until the 1962 coup d’etat. The Khomeinist system is also comparable to the “Islamic Emirate” created by the Taliban in Afghanistan where Mullah Muhammad Omar adopted the title of “Commander of the Faithful” (Emir al-Momeneen).
To be sure, the Khomeinist model has specific features reflecting the fact that Iran is neither Yemen nor Afghanistan. One such feature is the role of the military-intelligence elite that has acquired immense economic and social power under the banner of “velayat”. In that sense, the system also resembles Third World dictatorial regimes dominated by the military.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the three models have similar ideological roots. In all three, a single individual claims divine mandate and casts himself as arbiter of all aspects of public and private life.
In such a model, pretending to have an elected president is at best a conceit and an insult to intelligence at worst.
Two years ago, Khamenei addressed that issue, albeit in an indirect manner, when he suggested that the position of a directly elected president be replaced by that of a prime minister appointed by the ”Supreme Guide”.
Rafsanjani and Mashaei wished to ignore the true nature of the regime while acting within it. Before them other “children of the revolution” tried a similar gambit. Mehdi Bazargan deluded himself into thinking that Khomeinism would be like Christian Democracy in Europe. Muhammad Khatami toured the world marketing Khomeinism as an alternative to “the Western model” inspired by the Enlightenment and Renaissance while his police crushed the student revolt and assassinated intellectuals across the country.
Once they have acknowledged the true nature of their regime, warts and all, Iranians will face three key questions:
Do we want this regime?
Does this regime reflect our culture and existential reality as a nation?
Can this regime build a society in which we could live in relative peace and prosperity while enjoying basic human rights and freedoms?
If the answer to all three questions is in the affirmative, Iranians should try to help make it work or work better. If not, they should work for regime change no matter how long it takes.
Rafsanjani and Mashaei tried to avoid those questions, thus lying to themselves, to the system, and to the Iranian people.
By highlighting the true nature of the regime, their elimination by the Guardian Council clears the air.
The decision has created a moment of truth. And, for that reason alone, the council’s decision must be welcomed.
The caveat here is that the eliminated “heavyweights” may yet be reinstated thanks to intervention by Khamenei. But, even if that happens, which seems unlikely, the move will further underline the true nature of the regime.
In June, for the first time since Khomeini seized power, Iranians will know exactly what kind of regime they are voting for. This exercise is of interest because we will see how just many actually go to the polls.