Iran’s Election Charade
Early returns for Iran’s national legislature, or Majlis, indicate that “moderates” and “reformers” won big in Tehran. But “Downstate” Majlis outcomes are slower to appear. Significantly, returns for the Assembly of Experts (responsible for electing Iran’s Supreme Leader) were spotty. Even the reformers’ most enthusiastic spokesmen conceded, however, that control of the new Majlis remains unclear.
In the West, many immediately saw these initial numbers as vindicating last summer’s Vienna deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. And, indeed, the voting may demonstrate the relief felt in Iran for the lifting of international sanctions that squeezed their lifestyles and businesses for almost a decade. All of this enthusiasm, however, is badly misguided.
The real issue is whether changes in the membership of the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts will translate into a different policy on Iran’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The answer is far less certain than early Western media reports (some of which verged on propaganda rather than reporting). More fundamentally, Iran’s elections should not be confused with elections in real democracies. They confer camouflage, not legitimacy.
First, the foreign media are concentrated in Tehran, making it harder for the hard-line ayatollahs to steal the elections right under their eyes. If there is fraud, it will take place in constituencies far removed from international scrutiny. And make no mistake, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election “victory” demonstrated, the regime’s control over election mechanics, from voting procedures to counting and announcing the outcome is total. And the potential for manipulation and outright fraud is enormous.
Second, many winning candidates are described as “independents” rather than reformers or hard-liners, which could simply mean, euphemistically, “for sale to the highest bidder.” By carefully screening and rejecting thousands of potential candidates, Iran’s authorities had already dramatically limited actual voter choice. In any bidding war, the capacity and willingness to use force and coercion that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and their subordinate Basij militia have shown can definitely change individual legislators’ price points.
Moreover, in Iran and elsewhere, citizen voting does not necessarily mean we are witnessing an actual working democracy. The elaborate rituals of casting and counting votes can be nothing more than charades, elements of Tehran’s international grand strategy.
Of course, Iran could be playing with fire here, risking that its people are more aware of the game being played than Western “experts.” The obvious danger is that substantial elements of the population will demand real representative government, thus disrupting the regime’s artful play-acting. That is where authoritarians are put to the test: would they use force against their own people? Willingly, said the ayatollahs in 2009.
Efforts to distinguish Tehran’s moderates from hard-liners have a long historical record of failure, as have similar precedents in analyzing Moscow and Beijing. Today in Iran, while there are disagreements over economic, social and religious policies among the elite, there is no disagreement over the objective of mastering the difficult science and technology required to achieve nuclear weapons deliverable on ballistic missiles. There is simply no credible evidence that the ayatollahs and other key Iranian leaders have ever diverged on that goal. Moreover, the nuclear and ballistic missile programs are firmly controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, which is about as likely to cede responsibility to the elected Majlis as to America’s Congress.
Where they have diverged is on optics and tactics. Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, and others despaired of Ahmadinejad’s in-your-face approach to the West. They recognized that open contempt and belligerence simply provided credibility to Westerners who argued that Iran’s nuclear threat was both very real and all too close to ultimate success. Far better to smile and flatter, and make agreements costing Iran little in terms of its nuclear program, but which provided some measure of relief from international economic pressure.
Scamming the West, in the moderates’ view, is far better than provoking it. The ayatollahs have read their Shakespeare: “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain,” said Hamlet. Too bad our Ivy League-educated leaders were apparently reading Herbert Marcuse and Saul Alinsky instead.
John Bolton is a former US ambassador to the United Nations.This article was originally published by the Boston Herald.