Radical chic

Iran's presidential election: Whoever you vote for, the clerics win.

Khomeini 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Khomeini 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Presidential elections are set to take place in Iran on June 12. One consultant to a presidential candidate billed the race the "most significant poll so far since the revolution." The same source said that the elections "rank in significance on a global scale with November's American election." But behind the rhetoric, the picture is rather different. Iran is ruled by the system devised by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini known as vilayet e-faqih, which affords supreme executive power to a Supreme Leader, or 'rahbar,' appointed for life. The Supreme Leader has responsibility for foreign policy - including for the administration of the country's nuclear program. The president has no control over such matters. In addition, the presidential candidates are subject to a vetting process, which restricts the range of options available to the voter. And while the office of the presidency does possess some executive power on internal affairs, the holder of this power must take account of more general trends within the ruling oligarchy. In recent years, the trend in the regime's organs of power has been toward the growing influence of radical conservatives. Even a victory for one of the "reformist" candidates in the June election would not have a decisive affect on this ongoing process. Current President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is the representative of a radical conservative element within the ruling elite, known as "Osulgarayan" (principalists) - who see their goal as reviving the flame of the 1979 revolution. This is a generational as much as an ideological group, representing those men for whom the 1979 revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War were their formative experiences. Since his election in 2005, Ahmedinejad has done his best to advance the interests of this group. He has purged suspected liberals from jobs in the diplomatic corps, in government service as a whole and in the universities - replacing them with individuals closer to the views of the principalists. He has reintroduced harsh measures of domestic repression, jailing scores of dissidents. He has lavishly rewarded the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a key element of the radical conservative forces, with lucrative government contracts. Mohammad Khatami, who has withdrawn his candidacy, won the presidency in 1997 because of his ability to draw in elements of the population who might not otherwise have turned out to vote - seeing no chance of change. His subsequent failure to implement far-reaching reforms during his term in office, made it questionable as to whether he would have been able to repeat this success. His replacement as the main "reformist" candidate, Mir Hossain Mousavi, is even less likely to be able to do so. Mousavi is a pragmatic conservative and technocrat - not the type to attempt a frontal challenge to the growing radical conservative camp. The radical conservatives are much stronger in all organs of the state than they were in 1997 - the last time that a reformist president failed to implement reform. They now control the Majlis (legislature), as well as the security services, courts and the state broadcasting monopoly. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has generally been seen as leaning toward this bloc, rather than toward the traditional clerical leadership. So even a victory for Mousavi or the other "reformist" candidate, former Majlis speaker Mehdi Karroubi, would not represent the breaking of the advance of the radical conservatives - but rather a modest shift in the current internal balance of power. Among potential conservative candidates, meanwhile, Ahmedinejad and Teheran's mayor, former IRGC air force general and National Police Commissioner Muhammad Bagher Ghalibaf, are both representatives of the advance of the principalist trend, though they differ in terms of style. Ghalibaf is considered a more sophisticated operator than Ahmedinejad, and might avoid some of the latter's more superfluously provocative statements. But there are no differences in terms of content. Both are for a repressive Islamic stance at home, and an aggressive drive for regional hegemony abroad - all in the name of a return to the spirit of 1979. There is little enthusiasm among the broad mass of Iranians for this revolutionary revivalism. With inflation at 31%, a huge budget deficit exacerbated by the current president's populist economic policies, and collapsing oil revenues, the concerns of the principalists have a slightly other-worldly feel to them. At the same time, there is a general sense of public apathy because of the feeling that "reformist" candidates can do little to stem the advance of this trend. The predictable result of all this is a growing indifference toward the elections, particularly in areas of natural support for reformists. Turnout in recent polls has rarely exceeded 30% in Teheran - center of Iran's large, educated middle class. In the rural heartlands of the conservatives, meanwhile, it regularly exceeds 60%. Thus, no matter who wins the presidential race in June, the key results are already known: the Islamist regime will remain, the advance of the radical conservative element within it will not be broken, the Iranian nuclear drive will not be slowed, and the Iranian populace will continue, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to acquiesce to this situation. In short - whoever you vote for, the clerical government wins. The writer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs center, IDC, Herzliya.