Seven are the doors to hell
Yassamine Mather reports on the new restrictions, the disqualifications and what passes for debate in the presidential election campaign
Looking at current developments in the run-up to Iran’s June 18 presidential election, one could easily come to the conclusion that the leaders and institutions of the Shia republic are either extremely confident of their regime’s continued existence - despite continued sanctions, rising Covid numbers and recurring economic crises - or they are determined to commit political suicide.
As I have written on a number of occasions during previous presidential contests, even by the standards of bourgeois democracies, Iran’s have never been free nor fair. The choice is between candidates of various factions of a single organisation, formally a single party, to act as figurehead of Iran’s ‘Islamic’ republic. They must accept the constitution of the religious state and the role of the supreme leader - the ‘Guardian of the imbecile’...
This year additional conditions were added by the Guardian council, which decides who may stand: candidates had to be between 40 and 75, with at least one postgraduate qualification and no prison record (it was not clear whether this was supposed to exclude political prisoners, but in practice it did). Over 40 candidates from the various political groups that are, broadly speaking, allied with either the ‘reformist’ or conservative factions of the regime put themselves forward. But the Guardian Council disqualified most of them, including current first vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri, the international advisor to the supreme leader, and Ali Larijani, the former speaker of the majles (parliament), leaving just seven candidates. By this stage the election had become even more of an appointment decided by a Council of Guardians that acts on behalf of the (unelected) supreme leader than on previous occasions, when a semblance of competition - at least between the two main factions - was on the agenda, fuelling some interest in the choice between bad and worse.
The assumption is that the Guardian Council wants an uncontested election, resulting in victory for its favourite candidate, the rightwing judge, ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, who by all account holds some responsibility for the execution of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of leftwing political prisoners in the 1980s. Even the said ayatollah appeared to be shocked by his allies’ decision, claiming he preferred a genuine contest. By early June supreme leader Ali Khamenei was also getting involved, trying to distance himself from the unpopular decision made by the Guardian Council, by proclaiming that some candidates disqualified were unfairly treated:
They were accused of untrue things that were unfortunately spread throughout the internet too. Protecting people’s honour is one of the most important issues. I call on the responsible bodies to restore their honour.
Given Khamenei’s age and poor health, there are inevitably rumours about the significance of this presidential election and the more important question of his successor. There is speculation that there are differences between the Guardian Council and the current supreme leader regarding the choice of successor.
Raisi remains a strong contender for that post too, but there are also rumours that the current supreme leader might favour his son, Mojtaba Khamenei. While I have no reason to give credibility to any of these rumours, the fact that a senior cleric is accused of favouring a royal-style inherited succession speaks volumes about the current state of the ‘republic’.
The seven approved candidates have so far had two televised debates. Iran’s state TV has produced a modern-looking set, but that is the only positive thing one can say. The first was allegedly about ‘the economy’, yet the candidates were forbidden to mention sanctions or Iran’s foreign and regional policy - one would have thought both crucial factors.
As a result we heard all seven complaining about too much state intervention - this in a country where more than 85% of the economy is in private hands and neoliberalism is the state’s ‘second official religion’, almost on the same level as Shia Islam. All candidates used every opportunity to blame current president Hassan Rouhani and his administration for the terrible economic situation facing the country.
Now I am no fan of Rouhani and no doubt corruption has reached new heights during his presidency, but to claim that the fall in value of the Iranian currency and the stagnation in foreign trade have only one cause - ie, the failures of the Rouhani administration - is absurd. The elephant in the room was the failure to mention Donald Trump’s sanctions, and the reluctance of the European Union and China to enter into trade deals with Iran as a result. All this must have made most viewers think they were living in a parallel universe to the candidates. Apparently international issues are to be addressed in the third debate, but it remains to be seen if the secretive organs of the state will allow any discussion on Iran’s nuclear programme, Tehran’s interventions in the region and the war in Syria.
Amazingly Abdolnaser Hemmati, who is one of the two ‘reformists’ allowed to contend, also blamed the current economic situation on the government! It just so happens that he held the crucial post of governor of the Central Bank from 2018 - until he was replaced after announcing his candidacy for the presidency last month.
The Rouhani administration duly complained about the bias shown by the national broadcaster and demanded time to respond. That dispute is still going on. On June 10, Rouhani used a recorded session of a cabinet meeting to take a dig at the candidates: “We now know which sections of the state work very well: the military, the parliament and the judiciary. It is only the executive power that has problems.”
All seven offered financial incentives to various sections of the electorate in what looked like a desperate attempt to get votes. Most claimed to be experts in economic matters, with Hemmati declaring himself to be a professional economist, yet none of them seemed to have heard a whisper about the dramatic post-Covid changes in the US and world economy. They obviously have not paid any attention to Biden’s Keynesian programme, they seemed unaware of claims by many western governments that Covid had changed the agenda as far as the global political economy was concerned, and they seemed oblivious to the fact that a return to state intervention had become a necessity in almost all the advanced capitalist countries.
The candidates accused each other of exaggerating and even lying - lowering the tone to the level of the first Biden-Trump debate in the US.
Perhaps the most amusing section was when they started comparing their educational achievements - an MA or MSc as opposed to a PhD … But, firstly, even in bourgeois democracies there is absolutely no reason to believe that university degrees or postgraduate qualifications help politicians to perform their role. As one political analyst said after the first debate, most European countries have no such requirement for leadership candidates, while one UK prime minister, John Major, never even went to university. Secondly, while Iran’s higher-education institutions (where most of these gentlemen obtained their degrees) have grown considerably in the last four decades, some of them are of very poor quality and many of their qualifications are not worth the paper they are written on (a bit like some in the USA). Of course, Iran has some universities that are internationally recognised for their excellence. But. given the abysmal standards of the candidates in the first two debates, one can assume they are not shining examples of the country’s higher-education system.
Some have blamed the national broadcaster for the fiasco of the first debate, where candidates were each asked different questions, and there was coverage of the candidates’ own lacklustre performance in the second debate. However, Iran’s national broadcaster is part of the repressive organs of the state and the country’s problems have deeper roots than particular formats or processes, such as the way questions were posed.
In order to judge how poor these debates were we should note that one of the main issues commented upon after the first was the change in appearance of Mohsen Rezaei, the conservative candidate who is a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. On social media Iranian women were asking for the name and address of his plastic surgeon or Botox expert. What happened to all his wrinkles (media outlets have been posting ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs)? The other ‘major’ event of last week was a TV interview with Hemmati’s wife. She is a better communicator than her husband, even though she was asked the usual family, personal questions.
Interestingly, all seven candidates claim to have women’s rights and gender equality at the forefront of their agenda, promising the usual bourgeois feminist crap about the number of women ministers who would be in their cabinet. And all claimed to be supporters of the rights of Iran’s national minorities: Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis … During Tuesday’s debates some of them attempted to say a few words in Turkish (the first language of Iranian Azeris), with varying degrees of success, depending on the candidate’s own origins.
In terms of both the format and the absurd claims and undeliverable promises, the debates have all the features of bourgeois presidential elections all over the world. Royalists and their ‘regime change from above‘ allies say the debates are at a low level and all candidates are very poor speakers, but, of course, they were unlikely to say anything else.
It should be noted that on such occasions it is easy to be nostalgic for past leaders, but many of us thought that both the timid young shah and the later arrogant older shah were terrible speakers. For his part, president Ruhollah Khomeini was an uneducated, ignorant man, who could talk for hours saying nothing of significance. Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s first ‘reformist’ president, was an unknown, insignificant cleric before his election. Prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi’s campaign took off because of growing support amongst Iranian youth, who were angry and frustrated by the first term of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. And Hassan Rouhani, who has presided over a corrupt and incompetent cabinet for the last eight years, is not exactly charismatic. He got elected in 2013 because Iranians were adamant they did not want Raisi as president.
In the current ‘election’ campaign Raisi’s ratings in a poll organised by the state media dropped considerably after the first debate and even further after the second. He did appear to be as calculating and ruthless as his reputation has led us to believe.
So far the main ‘reformist’ factions have refused to back either of the two ‘reformist’ candidates (the second being Mohsen Mehralizadeh), but this could change, as we approach June 18. However, irrespective of what happens, no-one in their right mind can justify taking part in that vote.