Making lemonade out of lemons in Tehran?

While political elites battle it out in elections, the Iranian people remain the biggest losers.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani (right) has been disqualified from running in the upcoming elections [AP]

For many Western observers, perhaps the most confusing aspect of Iranian politics over the past 15 years has been the conflicting statements emanating from the Islamic Republic. On the one hand, some Iranian officials – best exemplified by former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani – have increasingly emphasised the need for greater pragmatism and tolerance. On the other hand, more zealous Iranian officials – including the Supreme Leader himself – have been far less compromising; now branding pragmatism as sedition. 

These contrasting views – and the host of positions that have fallen in between – highlight a long-standing predicament that has challenged Iranian officials since the revolution: over 34 years later, the very modus operandi of the Islamic Republic is still being contested by regime insiders. As a result, the height of confusion for the outside world is reached every four years when Iran’s presidential election comes to the fore. 

Why all the confusion? Sure, political parties and factions exist – but what they stand for is fluid at best, come election season. What is written about their positions today very likely will not reflect the reality on June 14 and beyond. In a climate where international observers want clarity, answers are in short supply because the electoral picture remains hazy. 

It has never been easy to categorise Iran’s political establishment along neatly divided lines, because after post-revolutionary purges in the 1980s, the remaining players were proven stalwart members. To that end, the contest playing out in Tehran on election day has been between rival factions of the same regime with a shared commitment to preserving the system – albeit with wildly divergent views of what that might entail. 

Outside observers can be forgiven if the lexicon of Iranian politics has been hard to follow. As the system has changed, so too has the ways to describe it. Since the landslide victory of President Khatami in 1997, ideological divisions have intensified to the extent that domestic political fratricide has increasingly shaped the trajectory of the Islamic Republic.  


Iran Elections

Political factions that once competed in the struggle for power and influence have been purged. Former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former Majlis Speaker Mehdi Karroubi – both presidential candidates four years ago, and both currently under house arrest – are prominent examples. Even pillars of the revolution have been relegated to the outskirts of the system. The disqualification of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani from this year’s race is a case in point. 

This begs the question: What’s a reformist if the system is not allowed to reform? What’s a pragmatist if pragmatism is equated with sedition? What’s a principlist if the system rejects fundamental principles that millions of voters demonstrably prefer? As factions within the larger conservative camp oscillate between coalitions and rivalries, so too will a homeostasis within the system. This game of elite competition will likely continue beyond election day, as regime tensions continue to affect the balance of power. As a result, it is not even clear how hard you have to be in order to be a hardliner. 

Of course, the biggest losers in all of this are the Iranian people. As political elites fight over who gets the big piece of chicken, Iranians must once again decide whether or not to hold their noses and vote. The dilemma they have long grappled with became crystal clear to everyone four years ago: if change within the confines of the system cannot happen through the ballot box, then what means are available to a population that prefers change to occur without bloodshed? 

In early June 2005 at a think-tank event in Tehran, I asked a senior Iranian official who he thought would win the presidential election. He smiled and told me that trying to predict Iranian politics can be a very humbling experience. Fast forward eight years, and I would argue that his premise still holds true – with one important caveat: given the trajectory of Iran’s politics over the past decade, things will likely get worse before they get better. To that end, this year’s election is more likely to affect the speed of Iran’s decline rather than its ability to reverse the trend. 

Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).