Dictatorship and ‘democracy’
Yassamine Mather reports on the final days of the presidential election campaign
In the last few days, as Iranians prepare to vote in the country’s presidential elections on May 19, the atmosphere in Tehran and the main cities has changed dramatically. Security forces - some in civilian clothes - have once again appeared on the streets. Supporters of ‘reformist’ president Hassan Rouhani are warning people that if the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi - preferred choice of supreme leader Ali Khamenei - is elected, or the vote is close and Raisi can be declared president (implying cheating in the electoral process), these forces will become a permanent feature.
The question to ask is, why is the current president not doing anything about the threatening behaviour? Is he incapable of confronting them? In which case, why should people bother re-electing him? Or does he not want to confront them? Which again poses the question, what is the point of a ‘reformist ‘ president if he cannot stop the worst aspects of repression?
When the elaborate process of electing Iran’s next president started a few weeks ago, it was assumed that Rouhani would be in for another four years. After all, with the exception of the Islamic Republic’s first president, Abolhassan Banisadr, who fled to France after just over a year in office, and Mohammad-Ali Rajai, who was killed by a bomb within a month of his election in 1981, all other presidents have served two terms. The controversial former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been told by the supreme leader that he should avoid standing and the conservatives did not seem able to unite around a viable candidate.
That assumption changed once Raisi - known to be a close ally of the supreme leader - joined the electoral campaign and now, a few days before the first round, the incumbent, Rouhani, claims he is facing a difficult task in winning a second term.
Although the Iranian constitution makes it clear that the supreme leader has overall control, the president does play a role in defining aspects of the country’s economic and foreign policies in a system that should not be confused with a straightforward dictatorship. The political system is ‘pluralist’ - but within the confines of the Islamic Republic order, and the elections are real and combative within the same limitations.
In a country facing severe sanctions, the internal economy and foreign policy are important issues and to a certain extent they have dominated the last two elections - the one Rouhani won against isolationist Saeed Jalili and Ali Akbar Velayati in 2013, and the current one. On the face of it Rouhani has moved the country’s international policy of direct confrontation with the world’s 5+1 powers regarding Iran’s nuclear programme on to a deal. The problem is, however, that the deal and the subsequent lifting of European sanctions has yet to produce tangible results for the Iranian people.
The rate of inflation, which rocketed to 40% during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, has dropped to 7.5%. But the country faces a major issue with mass unemployment, while new sanctions imposed by Donald Trump make a mockery of the nuclear deal. Now Rouhani could be in trouble, as many of the voters who supported him in 2013 (when he won more than 50% in the first round) are disillusioned both with the president’s foreign policy (the failure of the nuclear deal to deliver economic improvement) and broken promises of liberalisation. The Rouhani administration’s record on press freedom, tolerance of political opposition and the number of executions (mainly for criminal offences, but also including some political cases) is no better than that of previous administrations. He has also failed to deliver on another promise - lifting the house arrest of ‘green’ leaders Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi: he has not even managed to lift the ban on the portrayal or naming of former president Mohammad Khatami in the official media.
Ironically all six presidential candidates who participated in three live debates lasting three hours were adamant they would uphold the nuclear deal. However, there can be no doubt that the strident language of a more conservative president, such as Raisi, could play into the hands of a US administration which under Trump has already decided on confrontation with Iran.
If the winners of the first debate had been Es’haq Jahangiri and Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, by the second debate it had become clear that in the end this would be a race between Rouhani and Raisi - the two prime contenders used every opportunity to attack each other personally.
During the second debate Rouhani called his opponents within the conservative factions of the Islamic Republic power-hungry pawns of the Revolutionary Guards - he was relying on what he and his team believe to be popular amongst younger voters: avoiding confrontation abroad, more freedom inside Iran.
The tone of the second debate was fierce, with both sides exposing each other’s shortcomings - to such an extent that the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, subsequently asked the candidates to tone down their language - after all, the “enemy” was “preparing a plot” against the Iranian people. Khamenei’s comments were seen as a warning to Rouhani in particular, who had levelled accusations against not only his rivals, but also the Islamic judicial establishment and the Revolutionary Guards.
Addressing Raisi, Rouhani said: “You can slander me as much you wish. As a judge of the clerical court you can even issue an arrest order. But please don’t abuse religion for power.” He added: “Some security and revolutionary groups are bussing people in to your campaign rallies - who finances them?”
The attacks on the Revolutionary Guards were noticed beyond Iran’s borders - in particular in the United States and Israel. The Israeli paper Ha’aretz reported:
Rouhani pointed to the March 2016 launch of a ballistic missile bearing the words “Israel must be wiped out” in Hebrew, accusing the Guard of trying to sabotage the nuclear deal. Rouhani kept up that criticism during a campaign visit this week to Iran’s western city of Hamedan: “Tell the extremists and those who use violence that your era is over,” he said.1
For his part, Raisi attacked Rouhani’s economic record as president, claiming that 250,000 small businesses had closed down and demanding that cash payments to the poor should be raised. Rouhani responded by accusing Raisi of failing to pay taxes and, in a reference to the Revolutionary Guards, he said: “If we want a better economy, we should not let groups with security and political backing get involved in the economy.”
When it came to repression, Rouhani has been even more forceful. He told a rally last week: “I am surprised. Those of you who talk about freedom of speech these days ... are those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut.” He was scathing about Qalibaf, who as mayor of Tehran is proud of his record of repressing the student movement, and Raisi, who was one of four judges who ordered the mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s. Of course, the problem for Rouhani is that his own minister of justice, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, was also a crucial judicial figure in the massacre of political prisoners. The conservative press and media were quick to publish a statement he made in 1980 calling for public executions: “Conspirators should be hanged at Friday prayers where people can see them, to have more of an impact.”
If the second debate was heated, the third and final debate, on ‘the economy’, became quite revealing - mainly because, contrary to the wishes of the supreme leader, the candidates showed no restraint in accusing each other of corruption, benefiting from their positions to enrich themselves and their relatives, as well as accusing each other of personal involvement in repression.
So what did we learn for this last debate? Well, all the candidates are in favour of helping the poor, yet their opponents exposed dubious aspects relating to their own personal wealth or that of their close family. They are all against the rentier economy, yet they all accuse each other of being beneficiaries of major income from ‘rent’. Documents flourished during the debate and displayed later on the candidates’ websites referred to wealth and privileges enjoyed by Rouhani, Jahangiri and Qalibaf, giving us a glimpse of the level of corruption engulfing the Islamic paradise that is supposed to be on the side of the poor and underprivileged.
All of them favour yet more privatisation to attract foreign investment, at the same time as supporting the ‘resistance economy’ - Khamenei’s version of nationalist third worldism.2 However, the reality is, contrary to the imagination of the supreme leader, that Iran’s economy is locked into the global economy. There is no doubt, and there never has been any doubt, about ‘reformist’ involvement in global economic deals, nor about industries and services owned by the Revolutionary Guards that engage in international dealings. These were affected by US sanctions and were a factor in causing the supreme leader to change his position on nuclear negotiations.
Apparently some even have dealings with Trump’s global empire. Referring to a five-star hotel in Azerbaijan which has Trump’s name emblazoned on it. According to Business Insider,
the Trump Organization signed off on the deal with the powerful Mammadov family [which] has reported ties with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps … Azerbaijan’s transportation minister, Ziya Mammadov reportedly “awarded a series of multimillion-dollar contracts” to a construction company controlled by the IRGC in 2008, when development of the Baku Trump Tower first started.3
Raisi’s claims to defend civil rights, and be concerned for the poor and disenfranchised, is quite a joke when you consider the fact that that former ministers under Ahmadinejad are among his closest allies. Four years after the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency the Iranian people have not forgotten the astronomical sums mentioned in corruption allegations made against his administration and the money-laundering carried out by a financier ally of Ahmadinejad, Babak Zanjani, who was subsequently sentenced to death for corruption. Zanjani played a key role in helping Iran get around sanctions to sell oil abroad during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. This billionaire controlled a global network of more than 60 companies - the kind of ‘resistance economy person’ our supreme leader approves of.
While, of course, elections carried out under a dictatorship - even a multi-faceted dictatorial system as in Iran - can always be falsified, nevertheless I have no doubt that participation in the presidential elections will be high. It is possible that the first round will determine the outcome - if no candidate wins 50% of the vote on May 19, a second round run-off will be held a week later.
Irrespective of who wins, we can be certain that the new president will not keep his promises. Rouhani has no intention of confronting the Revolutionary Guards or the supreme leader, while Raisi has no intention of emancipating the poor and underprivileged. What has been said over the last few weeks has been election propaganda and nothing else.
2. See ‘Predictions amidst uncertainties’ Weekly Worker March 16 2017.