Highlights of ‘democracy’

Not only are the candidates useless: the pundits are worse. Yassamine Mather reports on the presidential election campaign, as it enters its closing straight

The most depressing side of watching the third TV debate between the remaining candidates in Iran’s presidential elections on June 18 and the analyses and comments both inside and outside the country is not the absence of any trace of democracy. It is not the fact that royalists and supporters of Donald Trump are the least qualified to talk about elections anywhere in the world. It is not the fact that those who had previously called for support for ‘reformist’ candidates have suddenly realised that in Iran’s Islamic Republic parliamentary and presidential elections are not democratic at all, even by bourgeois standards - as they are ‘managed’, with candidates vetted by an unelected combination of senior clerics in the Guardian Council and the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

What is depressing are the illusions of not just the contenders, but mainly the pundits. They clearly believe all the propaganda coming from western media outlets and do not read or listen to anything beyond the superficial assertions made by the latter. That is why they think corruption, nepotism and economic incompetence are exclusive to dictatorships in the third world. Even when it comes to the Middle East, they buy wholeheartedly into the propaganda coming from imperialist, Saudi and Zionist sources - probably an inevitable consequence of their distrust of the regime.

Candidates and pundits all blame president Hassan Rouhani and his team for the lack of contingency plans to deal with a possible withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA - the ‘Iran nuclear deal’) under Donald Trump and his subsequent efforts to impose new sanctions. Yet they seem to be oblivious to the fact that in the next four years - the duration of the term of the future president of Iran - we will witness far more uncertainty than during Trump’s presidency. We are entering a very dangerous and unpredictable time for the third world and the Middle East.

First and foremost will be the issue of the unjust but predictable distribution of Covid vaccines, as the recent G7 meeting acknowledged. Then we have the drive by western states, led by the Biden administration, to espouse neo-Keynesian economic policies - spending huge sums on post-war like reconstruction inside their own borders, but ignoring global poverty. It goes without saying that no developing country can match such expenditure, thus increasing the already huge gap between advanced industrial countries and the developing world. Given the political and economic uncertainty, exacerbated by Covid, investment in the third world will be the last item on the agenda of global capital, even if a rightwing, pro-west government (led by royalists, pro-Saudis or pro-Israelis) were to come to power in Iran.

The majority of Iranians - young and old, pro-regime and anti-regime, have been indoctrinated by the western propaganda of recent decades: there is no alternative and only one solution: neoliberal capitalism. That seemed to be true until recently, but now it seems that the major western economies have no alternative but to follow Keynesian policies. However, in the third world, major debt, the lack of reserves and in the case of Iran severe sanctions leave very little room for manoeuvre. Yet in the midst of this election/boycott fever that has engulfed the country no-one seems to be paying any attention to the dramatic changes in the current global situation.


The last TV debate - apparently the most ‘exciting’ of the three that have been held - took place on Saturday June 12 and I managed to watch all of it, as well as noting many of the subsequent comments by pundits from both inside and outside Iran.

First, on a generally agreed position: all the candidates bar one, as well as ‘analysts’ and commentators, agree that Iran’s future relies on the US lifting sanctions and returning to the JCPOA, thus ‘paving the way for better relations with the US and the west’. Ebrahim Raisi, who is said to be the preferred candidate of both the supreme leader and the Guardian Council, reiterated his commitment to ensuring a return to the nuclear deal. I might be wrong, but the current stalling of the talks in Vienna could be due to the belief of the US administration that a more lasting, reliable deal is possible with Raisi (however close to the supreme leader he is) than with current foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his deputy, Abbas Araghchi, who are currently heading Iran’s negotiations in the nuclear talks in Vienna, but have always had considerable difficulty inside the country convincing conservative factions of the necessary measures. US secretary of state Antony Blinken has made it clear that the ultimate decision about the nuclear deal is down to the supreme leader. He and Biden might prefer talking with someone closer to the organ-grinder - hence the current stalling.

During Saturday’s debate the ‘reformist’, Abdolnaser Hemmati, pointed out that Iran’s trade partners, including China and the Shia state in Iraq, cannot pay Iran what they owe, as they are fearful of US sanctions and the subsequent penalties. Ebrahim Raisi and the other conservative candidates (with the exception of Alireza Zakani (a supporter of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who no-one takes seriously) did not disagree with Hemmati on this issue. Raisi also confirmed he will pursue a policy aimed at rejoining the Financial Action Task Force (on money-laundering). These measures will apparently help fulfil his 50 economic promises, which include creating one million jobs per year and reducing inflation to single figures by 2025.

However, while Raisi claims he will end the corrupt relations deriving from a rentier state structure, his opponents point out that as the current chief justice, who heads the judiciary, he has been in a position to deal with the matter, but has so far failed to do so. Abdolnaser Hemmati’s own programme talks of downsizing the government, the expansion of capital markets and independence for the Central Bank of Iran.

During the third debate all the candidates accused each other of covering up, and therefore being implicated in, massive corruption cases. Hemmati displayed an envelope containing the names of a group of 11 major stakeholders who regularly interfere in the economic decisions of the country to support their own corrupt interests. He challenged Raisi to read out the names, but the latter did not respond.

As of June 16, the official ‘reformist’ camp has not endorsed either of the two candidates associated with their tendency, although senior ‘reformist’ figures have issued statements or tweets on the elections. They fall into two categories: those who say that these are not elections worthy of any participation; and those who have endorsed voting for a particular candidate. Ayatollah Mehdi Karroubi, one of the leaders of the ‘green’ movement, says he will vote for Hemmati, while Gholamhossein Karbaschi - general secretary of the centre-right Executives of Construction, of which Hemmati is a member - has also urged voting for the former central bank governor.

Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, the first ‘reformist’ president, is urging Iranians to vote to defend the ‘republic’ element of the Islamic regime. While Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was prime minister for most of the 80s, has contented himself with issuing a very unclear general statement, his comments have been interpreted as a call both to vote and to boycott the election. As in 2009 - when he failed to give any clear leadership to the tens of thousands who were on the streets of major Iranian cities, protesting against the results of a presidential election they believed he had won - he is incapable of giving a straight answer to any question. We can sympathise with the fact that he has been under house arrest for many years, but many of his supporters have suffered long jails sentences, some have lost their lives. Yet even 11 years after the 2009 election he contested, Moussavi cannot come up with a clear statement on this Friday’s poll.

Former leftwingers who now support the ‘reformist’ factions of the Islamic Republic have also picked up the argument about saving the ‘republic’, as opposed to the ‘Islamic’ in the state’s name even though it is absolutely clear that electing a president in a Shia state, where the main authority is called the ‘supreme leader’, has nothing to do with republicanism. Of course, if Raisi wins there will be an uproar by ‘human rights activists’ and western governments about his role in the mass execution of political prisoners in the 1980s.

They will be right to condemn him. But let us not forget that those western governments have very selective memories when it comes to those responsible for executions of political opponents. It all comes down to whether the person responsible is a friend or a foe.