Posted by Hamid Yazdan Panah on March 3, 2016
Last week’s so-called elections in Iran were met with much fanfare from both the regime and some in the West. Despite the predominant narrative focusing on the factional split within Iran, the elections themselves underpin a much deeper issue within Iranian society. Namely, the legitimacy of the regime, and its efforts to compel its citizens to continue to exist within its institutional framework.
The famous linguist Noam Chomsky once remarked: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
The regime has done everything in its power to limit the discussion on the elections in such a way that the fact that they are neither free nor fair is left out of the narrative.
Leading up to the election, Khamenei repeatedly attempted to invoke the threat of Western imperialism as a means to encourage participation in the process. In fact, the supreme leader went so far as to state that those who boycott the regime are actually opposed to the Islamic Republic as a whole, a sentiment not only containing a degree of truth, but one that is indicative of the stakes at hand regarding the legitimacy of the regime.
Many Iranians continue to call for a boycott of the regime in its a totality, arguing that the current system leaves little room for change with the existence of a “supreme leader,” and an electoral process that is hardly pluralistic. The regime itself has desperately sought to cast this election as a meaningful choice for Iranians and their future, and has referenced the fact that the vote on the Assembly of Experts may determine the future supreme leader of Iran. Khamenei is not wrong to point out that the Assembly does have that role. However framing the debate in this manner serves a specific purpose.
Within this particular context, the issue of actual democratic elections, without the disqualification of candidates, is not even part of the discussion. There are no parties that do not swear allegiance to Khamenei as the supreme leader, let alone advocate serious institutional reform. The discussion leaves no room for the idea that institutions such as the Assembly of Experts are simply incompatible with notions of modern democracy or pluralism. These points are moot.
Instead, what is left is intense debates by so-called reformists or moderates about how bad things could get if they boycott the election. Setting aside the fact that the “moderates” in Iran continue to pursue the same ultimate goals as the “hardliners,” what begins to emerge is a picture of desperation and distorted reality that only serves the government’s interests.
For example, one of the reformist candidates elected to the Assembly in last week’s vote was Mohammad Reyshahri, who served as the head of the intelligence ministry during the 1988 massacre against political prisoners during which thousands were put to death for their beliefs.
The logic behind voting for such a candidate was articulated by reformist professor Sadegh Zibakalam, who stated: “Unfortunately, we had to choose between bad and worse … I agree Reyshahri has killed a lot of people … He has no democratic background, but he is also not against democracy and freedom. And also, what other options do we have? To let [Guardian Council chairman Ahmad] Jannati and [Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi] Mesbah-Yazdi, who are openly against any freedom, get in?”
Zibakalam appears to be willfully ignorant of two very simple facts. The first is that the entire regime, much like Reyshahri, is against freedom and democracy, a fact not only evidenced by 37 years of repression, but by its disqualification of 6,000 candidates from this election. Zibakalam, secondly does have another option, and that is to boycott the process altogether.
The simple fact that Khamenei and the regime have gone out of their way to urge ordinary Iranians to participate in this archaic system speaks volumes about who the real winners are in the Islamic Republic.
One need look no further than the words and actions of the regime to understand that it has taken its own people hostage in order to compel them to vote and legitimize a brutal, corrupt, and undemocratic system. Voting out of fear and desperation are not hallmarks of a healthy democracy or an open society. Ideas put forth by individuals like Zibakalam are not only disturbing, but show just how successful Khamenei has been in manufacturing his desired outcome — one that forces ordinary Iranians to participate in the elections, lest they be punished by threats from both at home and abroad.
Hamid Yazdan Panah is an Iranian-American human rights activist and attorney focused on immigration and asylum in the San Francisco Bay Area. The views expressed here are the author’s own.