A tale of two elections: Iran versus the US

In both the US and Iranian elections, the focus should be on the hidden social forces that are let loose.

A Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, last September [Getty]
A Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington DC last September [Getty]

As fate would have it, this year both Iran and the United States are the scenes of two historic elections. In Iran, the state is getting ready for two crucial elections on February 26: one to elect the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the other the Assembly of Experts for the Leadership.

At the same time, the US is in the full grip of the early primary elections leading to the nominations of two candidates from the two top political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, competing to become the next president of the US. 

On the surface, comparing Iran and the US might be a bit ludicrous: Iran is a fully functioning clerical theocracy in the tight grip of the Shia clerical class, while the US is the seat of one of the oldest enduring democracies in the world.

Inside Story – A new era for Iran?

At this suggestion, you might raise an eyebrow and wonder what in the world is a “super delegate”, evidently an unelected delegate free to support any candidate for the presidential nomination at the party’s national convention. You might say those octogenarian members of the Assembly of Experts are Iran’s “super mullahs”, as it were. In this case, I have nothing to offer to lower that raised eyebrow.

Oligarchical machination of money and power

While the control of the elections in Iran is a matter of crude and blatant engineering by the ruling factions, in the US the oligarchical machination of money and power limits the choices that people have, habitually setting one faction of the ruling elite against the other.

READ MORE: Why Obama fails the leadership test in the Middle East

Hillary Clinton gives a speech at Goldman Sachs and receives astronomical money in exchange, anticipating the mega millions more that “Super PACs” raise and spend to get her elected. Here, the same eyebrow might tic and suggest that the unfrozen assets going back to the ruling mullarchy in Iran are a kind of “Super PACs”, too.

While the ruling regime in Iran uses everything in its power ... to narrow the field of political spectrum, in the US the rise of Bernie Sanders ... has opened this spectrum to unprecedented historical dimensions.


Be that as it may, during this particular election we are witnessing two diametrically opposed electoral scenes. While the ruling regime in Iran uses everything in its power systematically and consistently to narrow the field of political spectrum, in the US the rise of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic platform has opened this spectrum to unprecedented historical dimensions, even allowing for the taboo term of “democratic socialism” to enter the US political vocabulary.

Not so in Iran, where the political field has been consistently narrowed down among the contending factors and forces of the status quo – so much so that President Rouhani looks like Ernesto Che Guevara compared with his nemesis on the opposing side. 

With one comment about Henry Kissinger, Bernie Sanders has opened up the old wounds of the Vietnam War all the way back to the 1960s: That is more than 70 years ago and decades before the Iranian revolution.

Compare that to the suffocating hole the ruling Islamic republic has sought to create in the historical memory of the nation, with a band of senior clerics systematically erasing the historical memory of a nation so that it has to choose between one faction of the ruling regime and another. 

To vote or not to vote

Against this background, and whether they opt to vote or not to vote, what is important about the Iranian elections is the resolute ingenuity of Iranian people to outmanoeuvre a deeply corrupt and illegitimate ruling regime and their kindred souls among the treacherous expat oppositions trying to mobilise a US or Israeli military strike against Iran.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders [AP]
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders [AP]

The only measure of enduring change that remains to Iranians is what they can manage to devise inside their homeland, ruled as they are by a deeply corrupt and categorically illegitimate theocratic state. 

With increasing evidence, the democratic process of going to the polls and voting (both in Iran and the US) is less and less relevant in the actual outcome and more consequential in the hidden social forces that are let loose in the course of these elections.

Bernie Sanders has unleashed such a force, not in his person alone but by virtue of the denied and hidden social forces of the Occupy Movement or Black Lives Matters movement that have now successfully gathered around him.

READ MORE: Why I will vote for Bernie Sanders

He is performing in the US what Mir Hossein Mousavi did during the Green Movement in the course of the 2009 residential elections.


It is not really that important that Mousavi is now under house arrest or that Bernie Sanders may not really have a chance to take on the entirety of the US political establishments, without he too becoming yet another Obama.

What matters is the use to which such electoral practices are put to reveal the otherwise hidden forces of the nations at large: the fact that democracy as a political ideal does not dwell in its already compromised outcome but in the social forces it unleashed for a nation to get to know itself.    

In Iran, the ruling regime seeks (in vain) systematically to erase the historical memories of even the last election, let alone its very foundation on ruthless clerical tyranny. In the US Sanders is successful in reawakening the memories of the 1960s Antiwar and Civil Rights movements.

This is comparable to the presidential election of 2009 in Iran, when the rise of the Green Movement not only exposed the merciless roots of the Islamic Republic in Shia clerical tyranny but also invoked the inaugural moments of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran of 1906-1911. 

What is common and important to both nations is the fact that these periodic elections occasion the denied, repressed, and violated subterranean forces of a troubled society to have an opportunity to reassert their presence and reclaim their rightful and empowering history. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.