Every four years, it’s déjà vu all over again. Pundits, the press, and Iran-watchers indulge in horserace analysis of the Iranian presidential race. Will incumbent Hassan Rouhani win a second term? Could a more conservative candidate like Ebrahim Raisi, the Astan Qods Razavi Foundation head and Assembly of Experts member whose name is also often floated as a potential successor to the Supreme Leader, unseat Rouhani? What about a populist like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
The problem with such analysis is that it assumes an even playing field to Iranian elections. The issue is not simply the Guardian Council, an appointed body which vets candidates for commitment to the Islamic Republic’s principles as defined by the unelected Supreme Leader; this is one of the reasons why only one or two percent of declared candidates are allowed to run. Those whom Western pundits see as ‘reformist’ or ‘moderate’—Rouhani, for example—are actually fringe hardliners if considered against the broader spectrum of the Iranian public at large.
Too many American pundits and politicians are inconsistent with how they read the Iranian political competition. Mohammad Khatami and Rouhani won in 1997 and 2013 respectively as a reflection of the Iranian people’s desire for a more modern, pro-Western future? Then why did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win in 2005? Because the Iranian population had shifted their perspective 180 degrees? In reality, shifts in Iranian administration are a mechanism by which the Iranian supreme leader keeps his own power by preventing any rivals or power centers from sinking roots too deeply.
Ahmadinejad appointed many Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) veterans and the IRGC gained greater power. Rouhani’s election was less a victory for “progressive” forces than an opportunity to clean house. Indeed, Rouhani, whose campaign commercials bragged about how he was the first official to call revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini ‘Imam’ in the messianic sense, fired many of the IRGC veterans and replaced them with their counterparts from the intelligence ministry. In both 2009 and perhaps even in 2013, Khamenei showed his cynicism, in the first case by apparently fudging the results and in the second case, according to Tehran-based diplomats, by boosting Rouhani over the 50 percent mark to spare him and Iran the second round of voting.
In short, each election is not a popularity contest in its own right, but a mechanism by which power rotates.
Another irony of American press treatment of Iranian elections is its uncritical acceptance of Iranian election statistics. While papers and political analysts will pore over polling statistics and participation rates in U.S. and other Western elections, they accept Iranian statistics uncritically. Never mind that Iranian authorities have an incentive to inflate participation rates, which they associate with political legitimacy. If European officials and the American left truly wish the Islamic Republic of Iran to join the family of nations as an equal member, perhaps then it’s time to treat Iran equally and fund NGOs and other groups who can do professional polling and exit surveys across Iran. If Iranian authorities won’t allow this to happen, then the statistics they provide should be put where they belong: in the trash.
Iranian power remains with the supreme leader and Iran’s security services. Projecting notions of American or European electoral politics on the Islamic Republic reflects not reality, but ignorance. When only one percent of candidates pass an ideological litmus test, when women and sectarian minorities are disqualified before the campaign even begins, and when the eventual winner wields little real power, it’s time to call Iranian elections what they are: a farce.