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With Iran’s presidential contest taking place May 19, many are asking what the 2017 election means for the country's future. Is the election a referendum on change or a tool to achieve the appearance of legitimacy while reinforcing the status quo?
The ultimate power in contemporary Iran resides with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who effectively controls the courts, police, military, and all other organs of the state, including the ministry of foreign affairs.
The 1979 Constitution enshrines Tehran’s center of gravity in the concept of “absolute rule by the clerics” (velayat-e-faqih). Any candidate that emerges in Friday’s contest will become responsible for enacting the directives of the Supreme Leader.
Through his Guardian Council the Supreme Leader controls who can stand for election and even whether parliamentary legislation is enacted.
Though the regime has long seen value in cultivating internal opposition, it does so by approving individuals that advocate nominal reform without questioning fundamental power structures. This gives the regime the benefit of appearing to value diversity and pluralism while at the same time not threatening their own continuance.
A new study making the rounds in scholarly circles finds that in the past eleven presidential elections the only criterion for qualifying as a candidate for election in Iran was an unshakeable allegiance to the Supreme Leader. The president is therefore, for all intents and purposes, an appointee of the Supreme Leader and not an official elected by the people.
A close look at the biographies of six main presidential candidates in the May 2017 election reveals that each is committed to preserving the regime’s ruling theocracy. Consider the leading contenders, Hassan Rouhani and Ebrahim Raissi.
Under the so-called “moderate” incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani, executions – including those of teenagers, pregnant women, and political prisoners – surged while promised reforms went unrealized.
While securing sanctions relief and a nuclear deal with Western powers, Rouhani presided over more than 3,000 executions at home and ballooned his defense budget by 145% over that of his “hardline” predecessor.
Human rights organizations the world over denounced the escalation of civil and political repression under Rouhani’s watch but the shaming did little to stem the regime’s human rights situation, which worsened on his watch.
The leading challenger to the incumbent president, Ebrahim Raissi, is a cleric of the faction loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader. Raissi is well known for his decades long role in the judiciary where he was responsible for the executions of thousands of dissidents in the 1980s, including the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners where supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) were targeted.
As along as dissent is not tolerated and the regime is left without credible opposition, so-called elections give up any pretense of legitimacy.
In the 2017 contest Iranians have again been denied an opportunity to choose from those who represent a meaningful departure from the status quo, they have been denied access to information from credible news outlets, and journalists, activists, and scholars have been denied basic freedoms widely considered staples of liberal democracy.
Ever the masters of manipulation, the regime’s leaders know well what they are doing.
The ruling elite in Tehran has always feared internal dissent more than they fear external threats. Consider that just nine days before the presidential elections – while addressing cadets of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at the Imam Hossein University in Tehran – Iran’s Supreme Leader indicated that any citizen that disrupts the elections will receive a "hard slap in the face.” He went on to say: “If we prepare to confront attempts to create insecurity and sedition, we can neutralize them.”
He issued similar warnings against protests in advance of prior elections.
Without fundamental change in Iran the world will see more terrorism exported abroad and more violence directed at Iranians at home. Without real change in Tehran the world will get more ballistic missile tests, more covert arms transfers, more illicit nuclear activities, and more human rights abuses.
If the best indication of future behavior is past behavior, Washington must not fall victim to the false narrative of Iranian reform. A regime that champion’s extremism, instability, and violence, suppresses its own citizens by jailing political dissidents, and props up a Syrian leader responsible for slaughtering his own citizens with chemical weapons, is not positioned to reform itself from within.
Increasingly apparent in bipartisan forums is the realization that the regime in Iran is irredeemably criminal and unable to police itself. The best course for U.S. officials is to encourage peaceful protest on the Iranian street by denouncing the facade of democracy thereby putting regime change from within on the ballot.
The Iranian regime’s rogue status and lack of legitimacy will leave whomever emerges on Friday vulnerable to a Persian Spring. As one prominent former U.S. official at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies concluded in the Wall Street Journal: History contradicts the dream of Iranian moderation so long as the existing regime is left intact.
Tehran has long embraced a siege mentality to distract from persistent calls for good governance. But the tactic underscores a little-known truth: Tehran fears internal dissent more than they do external threats – even the credible threat of preemptive force.
The alternative to prolonged engagement with whomever emerges in Friday’s so-called election is not a U.S. led war but a soft revolution by the regime’s opposition. Credible regime change in an Iran context involves empowerment, not occupation. Regime change from within constitutes a third path between military confrontation and appeasement, without the cost American boots on the ground.
Growing signs of unrest on the Iranian street – including reports of growing desperation by young Iranians – indicate cracks in the clerics' grip on power and an opportunity to pursue regime change from within by reaching out to the Iranian people and their organized resistance.
U.S. officials should reject the 2017 Iranian “elections” as constituting yet another “selection” and thereby signal the global community that the regime is irredeemable and in need of wholesale replacement.