Are elections in Iran an exercise in futility?

The state may use the election to maintain its charade of legitimacy, but the nation will use it to air its voice.

Iranian Presidential candidate Hassan Rounahi election campaign rally in Tehran
Supporters of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani cheer during an election campaign rally in Tehran [Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA]

Once again a major election is approaching in Iran – a presidential election at yet another crucial turning point in the history of the beleaguered theocracy ruling over a restless and ambitious nation, trying by hook or by crook to curtail a rich and powerful political culture far beyond its limited imagination.

Once again, nagging questions are paramount among Iranians in and out of their homeland: Are such elections an exercise in futility? Will they make any difference? Do they have any tangible result in the life of the nation? 

Some respond to such questions in the affirmative and say they will vote, while others say they will not, for their votes are inconsequential and they do not wish to legitimise an otherwise deceitful and illegitimate state apparatus. It was only a few years ago on a similar occasion that they asked “Where is my vote?”, to which they received a response with clubs, bullets, arrests, torture, and even murder. Why should they bother? 

The fact, however, is that in every such electoral occasion in Iran we are witness to two elections and not just one – the diametrically opposed staging of two spectacles of the democratic game: one that the state plays and the other that the nation intuits. The occasion and instance of these two games are the same but their outcomes are entirely different. 

The state stages these elections for one simple reason: to declare itself democratic and therefore legitimate in order to strengthen its hand in the regional geopolitics, and thus to pose the Islamic revolution as final and the Islamic Republic permanent – for ever burying the tumultuous history of its foundation a little bit less than four decades ago.  

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The nation ruled by this state, however, uses the selfsame spectacle to stage an entirely different political pageantry: publicly to show and theatrically to declare itself. 

Whether they actually vote or publicly declare they will not vote, whether they vote for one or the other candidate, they are pouring into the streets and squares of their homeland to occupy what is theirs and ordinarily denied them. No doubt after each such election the state gets what it wants: a dubious claim to legitimacy. But the nation also gets what it wants: an opportunity to stage its existence, perseverance, presence, power, predominance and to show that it will not be denied its historic rights. 

The winning narrative of this nation is decided by its people and not by its rulers, writes Dabashi [Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA]
The winning narrative of this nation is decided by its people and not by its rulers, writes Dabashi [Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA]

Decoupling the Nation-State 

In two recent books – Iran without Borders (2016) and Iran: The Rebirth of a Nation (2017) I have sought theoretically to decouple the colonial concoction of “the nation-state” into two separate forces of the nation and the state, and then to demonstrate how once we separate this false coupledom we can understand their behaviours better. This and any other election in Iran is a clear example of how this decoupling works. 

If you were to watch and listen to the campaign commercials of the leading candidate, the incumbent Hassan Rouhani, you may immediately dismiss them as hypocritically catering to the most common denominator of a national consciousness. But you may also wonder where in the world did he get such messages and why does he so loudly broadcast them? Who wrote this prose, who strung together all these film clips and public speeches? To what constituency of sentiments and convictions do they appeal?  

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Let us take the most cynical scenario on Rouhani’s campaign and assume he is faking everything – from defending women’s rights to outlining the success of his nuclear deal, to defending the right of people to joy and happiness, to acknowledging the rights of ethnic minorities, etc. Suppose he is saying all those things just to get elected and he does not really mean them. But why this particular diction, why does he and his campaign think this particular narrative, appealing to important concerns of the middle class, will actually win votes?  

One should never mistake the rhetorics and politics of bourgeois nationalism for the dynamic effervescence of the layered consciousness of the nation at large.


Even if such political parlance does not win votes for Rouhani, which it does, it will certainly calm some seriously agitated nerves of a powerful national consciousness. The winning narrative of this nation, especially when spoken by the thoroughly vetted candidates of the ruling state, is decided by its people and not by its rulers.

If you want to know the narrative of its leaders, then just listen to Ebrahim Raisi and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the two leading candidates opposing Rouhani (Qalibaf has dropped out of the race on Monday and announced that he is now supporting Raisi).  Once you do so, you will realise that the ruling state, from left to right and top to bottom, knows what the middle class elite and its ideological prowess, loudly vociferous among the Iranians as a nation, want and what they detest.

Now remember Rouhani is not exactly God’s gift to the cause of civil liberties and democratic liberation in the Islamic theocracy. Quite the contrary. He is the ultimate insider – integral to the very core of the Islamic republic. And it is right from the very heart of that theocracy that the ideological establishment of the Islamic republic is fully aware of where the democratic aspiration of the nation they ruthlessly rule resides.  

It might be Khatami one day or Mousavi another. This time around it is Rouhani, and he knows it. 

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It therefore does not matter that Rouhani is far more committed to preserving the brutish apparatus of state power in the Islamic Republic than to delivering on his sweet talks about civil liberties and social happiness. What matters is the fact that the nation is using the state as a ventriloquist would a puppet to speak its mind. The most potent middle-class constituency of the nation demands and exacts that prose and politics, the very confession of guilt from the highest clerical officers of the state. Rouhani may or may not deliver on all he promises. But the language he borrows from the bourgeois nationalism of the nation is good for the health of its body politics – for although like running on a treadmill you are not going anywhere, you are still exercising your democratic muscles. 

Raisi and Qalibaf are the preferred candidates of the most nefarious segments of the ruling state, writes Dabashi [Abedin taherkenareh/EPA]
Raisi and Qalibaf are the preferred candidates of the most nefarious segments of the ruling state, writes Dabashi [Abedin taherkenareh/EPA]

The Nation versus the State 

“The nation”, however, is not a monolithic entity. It is a dialectical proposition. It is gendered, classed, racialised and ethnicised. One should never mistake the rhetorics and politics of bourgeois nationalism for the dynamic effervescence of the layered consciousness of the nation at large.  

Rouhani is a globalist neoliberal par excellence – the Hillary Clinton and Emmanuel Macron of the US and France put together. Building on the nuclear deal he made with 5+1, he can open the Iranian market to foreign investment, strengthen the middle class, reduce the rate of unemployment, categorically disregard the impoverished segments of the society, and preserve the ideological foundation of the Islamic Republic at one and the same time. His opponents from Raisi to Qalibaf are obscurantist, nativist charlatans. Just like Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump, they sing the song of the poor as they single-handedly collect the riches of the status quo.  

By this time in its short but troubled history, the ruling state in Iran has succeeded in creating serious internal strife within its own loyal ranks. Though all establishment candidates, there are serious and consequential differences among Rouhani, Raisi, and Qalibaf – as serious as between Macron and Le Pen, or between Clinton and Trump. But in the US, Europe, and in Iran what is systematically eliminated, in one way or another, is the real alternative – Sanders in the US, Jean-Luc Melenchon or Benoit Hamon in France, or Mousavi in Iran.

None of these examples is, of course, exactly similar to the other. But they do point to a simple fact. You throw a Marine Le Pen at the French so they run to Macron, as Americans threw Trump at the corrupt Democratic Party when Hillary Clinton was the best it could afford. It is the same now in Iran: throw corrupt charlatans such as Raisi and Qalibaf at Iranians and they will run to Rouhani. 

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Of course it will make a hell of a difference if Rouhani is elected as opposed to Raisi or Qalibaf, for it is the making of a robust middle class that is now by and large rooting for Rouhani, hoping for the expansion of the bourgeois public sphere that will come with economic prosperity. The other two, on the other hand, are the preferred candidates of the most nefarious segments of the ruling state, a deep-state mafia that wants to reap all the economic advantages of a rigged economics without yielding an inch to that bourgeois public sphere.

But both of these factions, from their different flanks, will do nothing but sustain the status quo and further repress alternative political discourses into oblivion.

The geopolitics of the region is an equally critical factor in this election, writes Dabashi [Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA]
The geopolitics of the region is an equally critical factor in this election, writes Dabashi [Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA]

The Geopolitics of the Region 

Had the Green Movement of 2009-2010, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is now under house arrest, not happened we could have concluded that the prospect of real change without manipulation for “regime-change” from the US and its Arab and Israeli allies (aided and abetted by the universally detested The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK)/Monarchist alliance and their minions) was lost for ever. But the Green Movement did happen. Mir Hossein Mousavi, a prime minister of this very Islamic Republic, did rise and lead a massive social movement against the entrenched power of the ruling regime in a manner that would not have changed the regime to the US’ liking, but created far more social space for far more radical civil liberties and social justice. The state, however, mercilessly crushed that movement and placed Mousavi under house arrest. Everything else after that fateful 2009 election will for ever be under the shadow of its political failure and moral victory.  

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The geopolitics of the region is an equally critical factor in this election. Under the heavy shadow of economic sanctions and constant threat of war, and with the ruling regime integral in the proxy wars on multiple sites, Iranians at large look around their neighbourhood from one end to another, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Turkey and Syria, and they see almost 80 million of them go to bed and wake up in the morning in peace next to their families and friends. Under these circumstances, if the state allows them a Mousavi they are not blind and they will vote for him and even risk their lives and go out and demonstrate for him. 

But caught between the murderous Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), or a diabolic expat opposition led by the treacherous MEK, or a US-led invasion and occupation of their homeland on one side and the ruling clergy on the other, they will take Rouhani any day of the week, and twice on any given Friday. This dialectic keeps the US and its regional and European allies out of excuses to initiate regime change and invade their homeland, while allowing the nation the democratic exercise of going to the polls, though in merely symbolic forms, and claim their historical struggle for those ballot boxes. 

Over the past almost four decades, Iranians have been engaged in this cat-and-mouse game with their ruling state. If it allows them an inch they pull a yard; if it pulls out its bloody daggers they crawl under its skin and tease a Khatami, a Mousavi, or a Rouhani out of the status quo. The result is a dialectic of mutual deception and defiance. The state remains in power and to preserve itself it must protect the nation in a dangerous neighbourhood, while the nation keeps asserting its democratic will in ever more powerful and robust terms, however limited and introverted. The outcome is neither a full-fledged democracy like the US, which now sports a delusional tyrant such as Donald Trump as its crowning achievement, nor indeed is it like Turkey, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia where the democratic aspirations of nations must wrestle with Ottoman Sultanism, military juntas, or else an archaic tribalism as their manifest political destiny.  

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.