Iran’s presidential campaign is well under way. The unprecedented public attack by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, in which Ahmadinejad accused Larijani of trying to control Iran through a family-run mafia, attests to a deep divide within the Iranian regime. But unlike in most real democracies, the likely contenders for the presidency are not trying to woo reluctant voters with snazzy TV ads or get-out-the-vote drives. Indeed, many regime officials would prefer that many Iranians—especially liberal urbanites—not vote at all. The June election will not be about mobilizing the Iranian public. It is instead the culmination of a years-long evolution in Iranian politics: the transformation of the Islamic Republic from a mildly representative theocracy into a Revolutionary Guards-controlled kleptocracy. Ultimately, the election is meant to fulfill Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s ambition of wielding absolute authority. But far from strengthening his rule, the election could actually erode the credibility and legitimacy of a fading regime. Elections in Iran have never been a truly democratic affair. Sure, Iranians have had the opportunity to vote for president and parliament every four years. But the elections have always been held within the accepted “framework”of the Islamic Republic. Only candidates who adhere to the Islamic theocracy are allowed to run.
The 12-member Guardian Council, controlled by the Supreme Leader, has the authority to disqualify any candidate it deems anti-Islamic or counter-revolutionary. The existence of a body like the Guardian Council is a major impediment to democracy. Imagine if a similar group in the United States had banned Barack Obama or Mitt Romney from running for being “un-American.”
But for a while, Iranian elections allowed for some variety within the established framework. President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) was more conservative than President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005); nevertheless, both of them pursued relatively moderate policies. The provocative, populist, and messianic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been unlike any other president, but at least he depicted his 2005 campaign as a drive against Iran’s corrupt and avaricious elite. Rafsanjani was often accused of leading the country’s “mafia”at that time.
However, Khamenei has never had the stomach for electoral politics. Once a relatively weak president (1981-1989), the now powerful Supreme Leader resents having to compete with any elected official. After all, the Iranian constitution specifies the Supreme Leader as Iran’s ultimate political and religious authority. Khamenei’s authority is supposedly divine. According to some of his followers, his 1989 selection as Supreme Leader was an act of God rather than the perfunctory proceedings of the clerical Experts Assembly.