The Electoral Politics and Legitimation Crisis in Iran

Photograph Source: Azadi68 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Last week, Iran’s Guardian Council disqualified an entire class of politically diverse candidates from running in the next month’s presidential election. The Council certified only seven candidates, one of whom, Ayatollah Ibrahim Raisi, the current Head of the Judiciary, is unmistakably designated to be the next president of the Islamic Republic. The Council axed all the candidates who could even remotely jeopardize Raisi’s chances, including the three-time speaker of the Parliament, former two-term president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current vice president, and many other influential politicians and political activists. The Council’s intention to secure a victory for Raisi, was so evident that even the Ayatollah himself pleaded with the Council to “make the election more competitive.” The general feeling in the country is that the Council has appointed Raisi, whose original claim to fame was his membership in the infamous “death commission” in late 1980s that carried out the execution of thousands of political prisoners, as the president, rendering the election pointless.

Ever since Ayatollah Khomeini first spoke of his desire to establish an Islamic Republic in Iran, a critical mass of the high-ranking clerics, whether openly or discreetly, have expressed their displeasure with the concept of republicanism. They have remained suspicious of any attempt that recognizes the sovereignty of the people as the foundation of the legitimacy of state power. The following interview published in Le Monde on November 13, 1978, laying out his vision, gave rise to deep discontent among members of the clergy who considered themselves to be either the guardians of the constitutional monarchy or the advocates of its overthrow to be replaced by a theocratic religious state.

Le Monde: Your Excellency wishes to establish an Islamic Republic in Iran. For the French people this is ambiguous, because a republic cannot have a religious foundation. Is your republic based on socialism? Constitutionalism? Would you hold elections? Is it democratic?

Ayatollah Khomeini: Our republic has the same meaning as anywhere else. We call it ‘Islamic Republic’ because the conditions of its emergence are embedded in Islam, but the choice belongs to the people. The meaning of the republic is the same as any other republics in the world.

Republicanism, as Khomeini elaborated in a number of future occasions, was about granting sovereignty to people and recognizing their right of self-determination. The idea that teachings of Islam and its divinely inspired politics guided the republic did not register to Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers as an inherent contradiction in a system in which the primary source of state legitimacy was considered to be electoral politics. For them, there existed no contradiction between Islamic teachings and popular will. They argued that a “true” Islamic practice cannot contradict the will of the people, if it does, then it is not Islamic. For more than forty years, the Islamic Republic has been grappling with this very singular predicament–how to reconcile the sovereignty of the people with Islamic foundations of governance.

Since 1979, every presidential election in Iran has drawn an average of 65-70% of the eligible voters to the polls, and generated an intense carnivalesque atmosphere in the entire country. People use to celebrate their candidates for weeks prior to the election day in rallies, marches, and dances in the streets. The whole country became colorful and festive. More than supporting one candidate over another, what people celebrated every four years was the right of self-determination. They desired their candidate to win, but more importantly, they wanted to reiterate the significance of the office of the president and one of the pillars of the postrevolutionary state.

The Guardian Council’s mass disqualification of presidential candidates is the outcome of a forty-year-long project of gradual but systematic encroachment of the theocratic institutions of power in Iran against republicanism and the democratic impulse of the 1979 revolution. These kinds of disqualification are by no means new. But this round of intervention, both qualitatively and quantitatively, was exceptional. With the announcement of the Council’s decision came a series of coordinated sermons and statements to redefine the very meaning of legitimacy and sovereignty. Friday imams and commentators close to the Council desperately tried to delink the question of legitimacy from public participation. “Low participation,” said Mr. Kadkhodai, the Guardian Council’s spokesperson, “has nothing to do with the legitimacy of the election.” Another member of the Assembly of Experts opined that “elections are means by which the people express their allegiance to the existing order.” Those who do not fulfill this obligation, that is participating in the election, asserted the influential Friday Prayer Imam of the holy city of Mashad and the father-in-law of Ayatollah Raisi, “could no longer be regarded as Muslims.”

Those inside the Iranian polity who had believed the internal transformation of the political order still feasible, would now face a seemingly unresolvable conundrum. For more than four decades, they endeavored to highlight the democratic potential of the republic by mobilizing around parliamentary and presidential elections. They offered a viable alternative to those who advocate regime change and toppling of the Islamic Republic as the only path toward democratization of Iranian political system. The reformists are now shut out of the electoral politics. They no longer see themselves as part of a state they had played a crucial role in building. By eliminating the reformist factions, the Guardian Council terminated the strategy that one of the key figures in reformist politics in Iran, Said Hajjarian, had formulated as “bargaining on the top, pressuring from below.” What is now left for the loyal opposition is pressure from below— the expansion and strengthening of the institutions of civil society. Whether such pressures will eventually lead to the kind of political transformations the reformist desire or that transformation could only occur through the overthrow of the Islamic Republic is yet to be seen.

Political transformation in Iran has always been intertwined with American policies in the region. What might not be known in the outside world is that there exists a vibrant civil society, publishers, women’s groups, human rights organizations, public intellectual forums, mass and social media communities, growing labor organizations, environmentalists, etc. These groups became increasingly more vulnerable to the state security apparatus amid escalating external pressure and the imposition of draconian sanctions under Trump administration. Not only did the Trump-Pompeo doctrine of “maximum pressure” failed to sway Iran’s regional and international positions by forcing the Islamic Republic to accommodate American and its allies’ interests in the region, more importantly, maximum pressure also afforded justification to the state security apparatus to impose more repressive measures against civil society actors. The maximum pressure led to a minimum gain in the U.S. and the intensification of security state in Iran. The Trump administration’s exist from the nuclear agreement wrecked political processes of rapprochement in Iran similar to George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” State of the Union address in 2002. With their belligerent positions, Bush and Trump undercut Iranian reformists by discrediting their policies of appeasement and reconciliation. Bush called Iran an axis of evil as the Iranian government offered logistical and political support to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement despite Iran’s full compliance and the hope that the agreement could usher in a new chapter in Iran-U.S. relations. In both cases, the results were catastrophic for the Iranian state politics—an open invitation to the hardliners to extend their political and popular base.

What is at stake today, the dominant factions in the state argue, is the territorial integrity of the country which is now threatened by hostile Western interventions and their domestic collaborators. Maximum pressure has produced a uniform, securitized, state of exception in Iran the latest manifestation of which is the Guardian Council’s attack on the very institution of the presidential elections. For all practical purposes, the Council has appointed the next president by barring others to compete in the race against Ayatollah Raisi. The hardliners in Iran incessantly warn the opposition that undermining the state authority will inevitably lead to the “Syrianization of Iran.” The Guardian Council’s decision Asadized Iranian presidency, elections without electorate.

Whether the June election will set the precedent for future of electoral politics in Iran is yet to be determined. Much depends on Raisi, how he performs in the office, how successful his administration is in checking dissent and the demands of the civil society, and finally how the Biden administration will redefine the misguided American Middle East strategy and pay heed to the voices of change from inside Iran rather than fulfilling the demands of Iran’s regional adversaries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi is an Iranian-born American historian, sociologist, and professor.