Consider the agony of Iranian voters as they contemplate their dismaying options ahead of the June 18 presidential elections. They face a limited set of choices, even by the already dismal standards of the Islamic Republic.
Over the last quarter century, Iranians have devised a variety of strategies in attempts to bring about peaceful political change in the country. But they have repeatedly failed.
The de facto coalition of the middle classes, women, youth, and minorities – which make up the nation’s silenced majority – flooded polling stations at the 1997 and 2001 presidential and 2000 parliamentary elections. Turnout was 80% in 1997, and 67% in 2001.
But it was mostly for naught. Hardline extremists embedded within the institutions of Iran’s deep state thwarted the agenda of the reformist president Mohammed Khatami and the like-minded Second Khordad Front, which dominated the parliament that voters had elected.
“The middle class was empowered in the early years of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency [in the late 1990s]; they thought they could have a say in the country’s structure, and they could reform the system by voting for competent politicians,” said one writer based in Tehran. “But as the crackdown intensified and the hardliners did all they could to silence the voice of reformists, and after Khatami’s inaction and weakness in his second term in office, the voters got frustrated.”
Those same Iranian voters largely stayed away from the polls in 2005, disgusted by the prospect of electing Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani into office once more. Turnout dropped to 59%. But the result they wound up with was even worse. Not only did President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intensify repression, roll back freedoms, and torpedo the economy, he also badly sullied Iranians’ reputation abroad with toxic speeches and gestures.
In the weeks before the 2009 elections, Iranians waving the green colors of candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s campaign took to the streets filled with civic pride, hoping to oust Ahmadinejad. Turnout on election day was reported at 80 percent. And after regime stalwarts blatantly rigged the election to grant Ahmadinejad an improbable, lopsided victory, citizens peacefully took to the streets again, only to be met with teargas, truncheons, and live fire.
Defying their own skepticism, they rallied around the moderate pragmatist Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and 2017, granting him two tremendous victories over hardliners, each time with turnout above 70%. Rouhani has never been a reformist; he is truly a man of the system. If the collection of murky regime enforcers, IRGC commanders, intelligence officers, and fanatical supporters of velayat-e-faqih grouped around the clergy in Qom and the supreme leader’s complex of institutions could not countenance Khatami (who also considered running in the 2013 elections), perhaps they would allow the centrist Rouhani to open up political space, repair relations with world powers, and bring a measure of the rule of law to the country?
No, the voters’ show of political maturity and temperance was met by cold indifference. Khamenei and like-minded apparatchiks in the judiciary and the security establishment tightened repression, refused to open the county’s books to any standard of transparency, and generally halted Rouhani’s modest, reformist-lite agenda.
They were aided by Donald Trump, whose policy of maximum pressure and sabotage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action discredited those within the establishment arguing for rapprochement or at least a measure of peaceful coexistence with the United States.
All of which brings Iran to this election. It was no surprise to Iran watchers that the outspoken Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was hounded out of the race with leaks of an audio interview and a smear campaign propagated through hardline media. It was also not a shock that the reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh, who spent time in prison following the 2009 uprising, was rejected by the Council of Guardians.
That body of 12 clerics and jurists has become an increasingly blunt instrument of regime hardliners, its agenda clearly reflective of the extreme elements within the Islamic Republic’s elite. With Khamenei over 80 years old, hardliners likely see the election as a high-stakes opportunity to anoint a successor and shape Iran’s future.
But by excluding even former parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, ostensibly on the grounds that his daughter Fatemeh Ardeshir-Larijani lives and works in the United States, the regime has made it crystal clear that even a dull, pragmatic conservative to the right of President Hassan Rouhani is no longer acceptable.
The candidates palatable to the middle class who were allowed to run – Central Bank governor Abdolnasser Hemmati and former Khatami youth and sports maestro Mohsen Mehralizadeh – lack not only charisma but also popular support and knowhow. Mehralizadeh would be a weaker, less enlightened version of Khatami; Hemmati, an even more toothless Rouhani without his institutional savvy and backing. Iranians know it.
“The people I know won’t vote,” said one reformist journalist in Tehran. “They don’t want their vote to give legitimacy to the election. We all know it’s phony numbers. We know what’s going on here. It’s a facade for the outside world.”
State television is scheduling a series of pre-recorded debates for the first days of June and has allotted 30 minutes of airtime to each of the seven approved candidates. Broadcast outlets have been devoting heavy coverage to the elections.
Hemmati, in a television interview, promised to create 1 million new jobs in his first year in office, even as he oversaw one of the steepest economic declines in Iran’s history. In his interview, Mohsen Rezai, a former Revolutionary Guard commander and regular presidential contender, promised a five-fold increase in monthly cash subsidies, a scheme that would almost certainly exacerbate inflation.
But strong criticism and loud calls to boycott the vote have emerged even from within the establishment, including from Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, as well as from former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“The disgruntled middle class wants to see change and improvement in various spheres, especially in the economy,” says Mohammad Hashemi, a researcher and writer in Tehran. “But the main problem here is the absence of a strong and charismatic candidate. If [the middle class] doesn’t vote, a hardliner or conservative politician will become president, just as happened in the latest parliamentary elections.”
There is a brash, spiteful arrogance in the way that the Council of Guardians rejected the candidacies of regime stalwart Larijani or well-known reformist Tajzadeh. They are trying to tilt the playing field to clear the way for Khamenei’s apparent anointed successor and fellow Mashhad native Raisi to win the elections. And they’re not being particularly subtle about it.
The brazenness is in part born of the upcoming succession struggle. Hardliners will need someone to rally around once Khamenei passes, and Raisi, a black-turbaned, ultra-conservative cleric and true believer in velayat-e-faqih, meets the job requirements.
But after surviving a marathon of challenges that included several rounds of nationwide anti-regime protests, four years of Donald Trump and his maximum pressure campaign, an oil price slump, and the devastating and ongoing impact of the coronavirus, Khamenei and those around him must feel rather strong.
The 2009 protests and their aftershocks revealed the chasm between the regime and the middle class. And the protests that began in late 2017, in which mostly lower- and lower-middle-class demonstrators from far-flung provinces that they considered the base of the regime chanted against the supreme leader himself, revealed the profound anger harbored in the hearts of the Iranian public.
“Economic problems, lack of freedom, human rights violations, and international isolation are what have destroyed the expectations of the middle class,” said a writer in Tehran. “Not a glimmer of hope for change has remained in Iran.”
Khamenei and his adjutants may no longer labor under the illusion that the Islamic Republic enjoys much popular support. That may be why he and his allies are so aggressively promoting Raisi just four years after voters handed him a humiliating landslide defeat against Rouhani. Hardliners within the clergy and the security apparatus are mobilizing around Raisi, a 60-year-old jurist who has served for the last two years as head of the judiciary.
Iran’s election could yet yield a surprise. Voters could rally around Hemmati at the last moment, though he does not appear to have even Rouhani’s full-throated endorsement. Mehralizadeh, the sole reformist among the seven candidates, could also outperform expectations. It was in the closing days of Iran’s 2013 elections that a social media blitz drew supporters to Rouhani.
If Iranians do end up voting for Hemmati or Mehralizadeh, they are unlikely to do so out of support for their agenda or hope for change. More likely it would be a vote solely out of spite for Khamenei. Just as the supreme leader thwarted their hopes of bringing a measure of democracy or even good governance to Iran, voters may decide to sabotage his aspirations to elevate Raisi, an alleged human rights violator who is on the sanctions lists of the United States, and who was named as one of the jurists responsible for the mass executions of thousands at Evin Prison in the late 1980s.
Khamenei’s arrogance and blithe disregard for voters’ aspirations shows that the masks are off in the Islamic Republic. Khamenei, flanked by the uniformed armed forces and hordes of shadowy pro-regime paramilitaries, is sneering menacingly at Iranians. At the very least, Iranians can sneer back.
Borzou Daragahi is an Istanbul-based journalist who has been covering the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe since 2002. He is an international correspondent for The Independent and a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. He resided in Tehran from 2002 to 2007.
On Twitter: @borzou