So many candidates, so little choice

The corrupt fight it out

Yassamine Mather reports on Iran’s election charade

The Iranian presidential election campaign started last week with a televised debate between the six male candidates who had been approved by the country’s Islamic Guardian Council. They are Mostafa Agha Mirsalim, Mostafa Hashemi-Taba, Es’haq Jahangiri, Hassan Rouhani, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Ebrahim Raisi.

Those who managed to watch the entire three-hour event should be given a medal for perseverance, since within the first few minutes it became clear how the debate would progress. The current president, Rouhani, and his deputy, Jahangiri, defended the administration’s record on the basis that they had averted a military attack, while their opponents, mainly from the conservative factions of the regime, talked of failed promises and raised issues like mass unemployment and ‘settlements’ (in reality shanty towns) around Iran’s major cities. This was one of three debates, supposedly on “social issues” - the next two will be on “politics” and “the economy”.

By all accounts the two main protagonists - Rouhani and the candidate said to be the supreme leader’s favourite, Raisi - were amongst the worst performers. Rouhani looked nervous - his hands were shaking - and he failed to come up with anything to catch the audience’s attention. Afterwards he made an official complaint about the conduct of the debate.

On the other hand, deputy president Jahangiri seems to have won the contest - this consummate technocrat with a grasp of statistics was able to attack the conservative candidates in a way that the current president could not or did not want to do. Ironically, this bureaucrat used his four-minute introductory speech to outline plans for “reducing bureaucracy in executive bodies”, but his popularity was down to the fact that he was quick to rebuff the man who has been Tehran’s mayor for over a decade: the conservative, Qalibaf, who claims to be a defender of the poor and the downtrodden, although he himself is facing accusations of corruption. For example, Jahangiri asked him why after so many years as mayor he had failed to deliver a basic refuse and recycling plan (he also claimed that bureaucracy would be reduced through the establishment of an e-government!).

In another part of his contribution, the deputy president claimed the man behind the attack on the Saudi embassy in January 2016, which led to the severing of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, was working for Qalibaf: “We did not attack the embassy and put people’s interests at risk. For which candidate are those who attacked the embassy working? Who gave them money and supported them?”

Of course, there has been a lot of speculation about why the reformist president and his deputy are both in the contest. The answer seems to be that Jahangiri is the fall guy - he is more aggressive and better prepared than his boss, who at times appears aloof; but, irrespective of the support he wins in these debates, he is considered likely to drop out at some stage in favour of the current president.

Then we have Raisi. The media have been speculating endlessly why the man thought to be in line to replace Ali Khamenei as supreme leader is standing for the lesser post of president. However, I have it from reliable sources that this was a rumour started by a group of media pundits at a broadcasting agency. Soon the story was taken as ‘fact’ - not just by the media, but by sections of the Islamic regime. Indeed it appears that some within its ranks are quite keen to go along with this charade. Fake news indeed (but the story would be even funnier if the Shia clerics ended up selecting Raisi as Khamenei’s successor).

Both Qalibaf and Raisi claimed they would create 5-6 million jobs in four years - a little tricky in view of Iran’s neoliberal market economy, be it with Islamic justifications for superexploitation. But, contrary to what economists tell us, bourgeois democracy would not be able to deliver either - just look at pro-western third-world ‘democracies’ like India. Qalibaf claimed he would treble the subsidies of the poorest in society, without explaining how this would be funded.

There were also clashes on the issue of foreign trade. The conservative candidates claimed that smuggling accounted for $25 billion in lost tax, but everyone in Iran knows that smuggling is part and parcel of the operations of the Islamic Guards, aided by elements within the regime, so it is not clear how candidates from the conservative faction could combat this without attacking their own financial base.

‘Champions of the poor’

As for Khamenei himself, he claims he has “made his choice”, but his vote will “remain secret”. But every comment he makes during the election campaign is scrutinised. For example, when he said, “Some say since they took office the shadow of war has faded. This is not correct - it’s the people who have removed it”, this was interpreted as a direct attack on the ‘reformist’ candidates. After all, Rouhani and Jahangiri have only one response when confronted with the failures and shortcomings of the current administration: “We averted war.”

The supreme leader added: “This approach, that we should wait for foreign investment and for foreigners to resolve our issues, is wrong.” He added that candidates should pay particular attention to the needs of the “poorer layers of society”. (Khamenei, unlike his predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, is familiar with Marxist terminology and deliberately avoids using phrases like ‘working class’).

But, as I have said before, our Shia imam is either deluded or a liar. His beloved Islamic Republic has been in existence for nearly four decades and all the time “foreign investment” has dominated every aspect of the economy. And, as for the plight of workers and the “lower layers of society”, it is getting worse every day. While all six candidates agreed that they were facing terrible hardship, they each blamed rival factions, of course.

The massive corruption scandals that dogged Ahmadinejad’s populist government have not gone away and Qalibaf asked Rouhani about the questionable funding for his first campaign. Far from being self-sufficient, Iran’s neoliberal economy has all the hallmarks of corruption: incompetence, astronomic wealth for a few, poverty for the majority ...

There are other issues overshadowing these elections. For instance, Raisi is known to many Iranians as one of the judges involved in the massacre of political prisoners in 1988. In fact in tapes released last year, Raisi was clearly identified as one of the judges who imposed death sentences on leftwing prisoners, even though they had already served sentences for their alleged ‘crimes’. But ‘reformists’ like Rouhani and Jahangiri are in no position to make use of this. Their minister for justice, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, is also identified in the same audiotapes.

In summary, these elections are currently wide open - the re-election of the incumbent is by no means a foregone conclusion.

But why is all this important for the rest of the world? Mainly because of the current conflicts in the Middle East. Iran is currently blamed in the west for much of the situation in the region - it is condemned not just for its nuclear programme, but also for the support it provides for the Shia-led governments in Iraq, for the Alawites in Syria and for its association with the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The new US administration, keen to find a war to improve its popularity ratings, is looking for any excuse to ditch the Iran nuclear deal - labelled by Donald Trump as one of the worst deals ever made.

No-one on the left should have any illusions about any of the candidates - it is a choice between bad and worse and in such circumstances a boycott of these elections remains the only correct tactic. Having said that, one has to distinguish between a principled boycott called by the anti-imperialist left and the position of groups supporting ‘regime change from above’ - opposition groups of the ‘left’ and the right which secretly hope a radical conservative warmonger in Tehran will lead to the collapse of the nuclear deal and allow them to return to the good old days of unlimited funds from European countries. Not like the humiliating situation they face now, where they have to take their begging bowls to Saudi Arabia, Israel or the Emirates.

For most of these groups, including just about every Kurdish opposition group, after nearly 40 years of exile, being oppositionists has nothing to do with politics. They are more like business agencies - in order to keep their publications and TV stations going they need funds and they do not care where they come from. No wonder that many in Iran, looking at this corrupt, unprincipled opposition, opt to vote for the devil they know - one or other faction of the Islamic Republic regime.