In old Hollywood, the word “chestnut” denoted a formula which though lacking originality could still provide the kernel for a moderately successful B-movie.
Anyone following the latest presidential election campaign in the Islamic Republic in Iran is bound to notice stark similarities between this Islamicized chestnut and those of old Hollywood.
Every four years, Iranians and others interested in Iranian affairs are invited to participate in or at least observe what is presented as a dramatic quest for power by rival factions defending sharply different programs. Thus a few weeks of excitement are created out of thin air to give the impression that the peculiar system created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini is an Islamic version of the cursed democracy promoted by the “Infidel”. The show is also used to blame all that is wrong in the country on the president in charge for the past four years and, almost always, end up re-electing him for four more years.
The “chestnut” script provides for the presence in the election of at least three candidates representing “the bad”, “the worse” and “the worst”.
This is important for confusing not only Iranians but also foreign powers interested in or bothered by Iran.
In 1997, quite a few Iranians fell for the fiction that Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, represented “the bad” option against Ali-Akbar Nateq Nuri, another mid-ranking mullah, who was cast as representative of “the worst”. Khatami won and Iran ended up with eight years of a presidency that witnessed the chain-killing of intellectuals, mass arrests of regime critics, strict censorship, increased support for terrorist groups and, finally, the massive expansion of Iran’s clandestine nuclear project.
In the 2005 presidential campaign, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, branded “the worst” candidate, emerged victorious. Paradoxically, in some important cases, he turned out not to be as bad as Khatami. He overlooked corruption that was spread like wildfire, but toned down the crackdown organized against critics and dissidents. His clownish performance amused some and revolted many more but it did not translate into a substantial increase in the Islamist regime’s repressive measures.
Four years ago, US President Barack Obama bent backward to help Hassan Rouhani, then believed to represent “the bad” for fear that Saeed Jalili, identified as “the worst”, might become Iran’s president. Rouhani’s four-year stint has been even worse than that of Khatami’s first term. Iran is now the world’s number one in executions, number two in political prisoners and on top of the list of states sponsoring international terrorism.
To add more spice to the mix, the regime and its lobbyists in the West also urge support for the candidate supposed to be farther from the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. That was supposedly the case with Khatami, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani.
This year, the candidate supposed to represent “the worst” while being closest to Khamenei is Ibrahim Rais al-Sadat, alias Raisi, a mid-ranking mullah who was recently appointed as head of the Imam Reza Foundation in Mash’had, perhaps the most lucrative post in the Islamic Republic.
Barring a last minute surprise, Rouhani will remain in the race as “the bad” candidate, wearing his trademark smile and waving the cardboard key that symbolizes his promise to “open all doors”.
Not surprisingly the old chestnut themes are back.
Tehran lobbyists in the West are going around demanding support for Rouhani who is supposed to be determined to do in the next four years what he couldn’t or didn’t want to do in the last.
One US-based apologist, Abdul-Karim Sorush, alias “The Martin Luther of Islam”, invites Iranians to choose “the bad”, which he dubs “Aslah” (the most qualified), meaning Rouhani.
Others have identified Raisi as the candidate closest to Khamenei and thus deserving a thrashing from an angry electorate. The list of candidates this time may also include the same old Jalili, “the worst” of four years ago who, presumably will be only “the worse” this time.
However, the fact is that in 1997 Nateq-Nuri was not Khamenei’s favored candidate just as in 2005 “The Supreme Guide” did not particularly favored Ahmadinejad. The only time that Khamenei has indicated a personal opinion about any presidential candidate was when, in 2005, he made it clear he did not want his old friend and new foe Hashemi Rafsanjani to regain the presidency.
For Khamenei, the presidential election is nothing but a four-year endorsement of the Khomeinist system, a kind of referendum on the regime’s legitimacy rather than a choice of an individual president. In the current election, too, I doubt that Khamenei is particularly keen on seeing Raisi become president. True, Raisi is an old protégé of Khamenei, hailing from his native Mash’had and holding the same narrow view of things as the “Supreme Guide”. However, Khamenei won’t mind if Rouhani wins again or if any of the other candidates whom he has pre-approved end up victorious.
Though a protégé of the late Rafsanjani, Rouhani has a 30-year record of service to the security services controlled by Khamenei. He is also close to powerful elements in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard who provide the backbone of domestic support for the regime.
The only factor that might have concerned Khamenei as far as Rouhani is concerned would have been the latter’s tentative attempts at easing tension with the United States. However, with President Barack Obama no longer around to do the pas-de-deux, Rouhani, has quickly switched to Khamenei’s “looking East” strategy of alliance with Russia. In fact, Rouhani launched his presidential campaign with a flash visit to Moscow and a photo-op with Vladimir Putin.
Four years ago Rouhani, like Khatami before him, promised reform. Now, however, it is once again clear that the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed. In his time, Ahmadinejad promised to end corruption, discrimination, and poverty, exactly as Raisi did today. Eight years later, Iran ended with more poverty, discrimination, and corruption.
The problem is not about who plays the role of president in a charade of pseudo-democracy. The problem is about an atrophied system in which all paths to reform, development and progress are rundown.
Thus the question Iranians face is not about which of the various puppets is “aslah”. The real issue is whether they wish this broken system to continue. If they have no interest in taking part in this charade. Four years ago, the presidential election scored the lowest rate of voter participation and Rouhani won with the smallest margin in Islamic Republic’s history.
In its limited way, the last election was a slap in the face for the Khomeinists. Will we see another such slap this time, too?
By Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.