Iran’s Elections Are Magic
By Eli Lake
February 29, 2016
If you are following the Iranian
elections, prepare to be dazzled. According to major news outlets from the BBC
to the Associated Press, the reformists beat the hardliners.
But wait. Didn't Iran's Guardian
most of the reformists back in January? Of course it did, but thanks to the
magic of Iranian politics, many of yesterday's hardliners are today's reformist.
Take Kazem Jalali. Until this
month, Jalali was one of those hardliners whom President Barack Obama had hoped
to marginalize with the Iran nuclear deal. Jalali has, for example, called for
sentencing to death the two leaders of the Green Movement, who are currently
under house arrest. And yet, he ran on the list endorsed by the reformists in
Two former intelligence ministers,
accused by Iran's democratic opposition of having dissidents murdered, Mohammad
Mohammadi Reyshahri and Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, also ran on the list
endorsed by Iran's moderate president for the Assembly of Experts, the panel
that is charged with selecting the next supreme leader.
The initial Iranian reform
movement of the late 1990s sought to allow more social freedoms and political
opposition of the unelected side of Iran's government, such as the office of the
Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council. Over time however, the changes
supported by the reformists like Mohammed Khatami, who was president between
1997 and 2005, were stymied by these unelected institutions. When the next
generation of reform politicians ran for office in 2009 under the banner of the
green movement, the unelected part of the state arrested their supporters when
they demonstrated what they saw as a stolen election. On Friday, many of the
hardliners that opposed the reformists in the late 1990s and in 2009 are running
under this banner.
As Saeed Ghasseminejad, an expert
on Iranian politics at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, recently
said: "Putting a reformist or moderate label on hardliners does not
make them reformist or moderate."
In some cases, the transformation
happened so quickly that the candidates themselves were surprised. Caitlin
Shayda Pendleton, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute's Critical
Threats Project, wrote last week, two of the candidates on Rouhani's list for
the Assembly of Experts told reporters they weren't asked to be included among
the alleged reformists. These include Ayatollah Ali Movahedi Kermani, who
defended the Guardian Council's vetting process against the reformists; as well
as Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Taskhiri, who told
reporters "I believe that the correct way is Principalist, and the way
of others, like Reformists or moderates, is the incorrect way.”
As Pendleton wrote on Sunday,
"Many (but far from all) candidates described as Reformists in both the
parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections are actually Moderates who were
endorsed by Reformist leaders as a fallback after the Guardian Council
disqualified most of the Reformists trying to run."
The headlines however tell a
different story. The Guardian, for example, says: "Iranian
elections deal blow to hardliners as reformists make gains." The BBC
concludes: "Reformists win all 30 Tehran seats." And on it goes.
Headline writers should be given
some slack on this. After all, President Hassan Rouhani -- a moderate, but no
reformer -- himself has celebrated the preliminary results in the elections as a
major victory. After criticizing the disqualifications, he has held his tongue
and tried to make the most of a bad situation, encouraging Iranians to vote
The same is true for many of the
marginalized reformists. Khatami, who the state has decreed an unmentionable
figure for Iranian media, took to the social network Telegram to urge his
countrymen to vote. The logic here is that at the very least, voters could
protest the most reactionary hardliners in favor of the slightly less
reactionary hardliners. This is hardly a victory for democratic change in Iran.
And that is what is important for Westerners trying to make sense of Iran's
elections. While Iranian politicians have to make the best of a bad hand, we
don't. Western journalists and analysts don't need to confer legitimacy on
illegitimate elections, nor should we call hardliners "reformists." At
the very least, it's important to hold out a higher standard for the day real
reformers are allowed to compete fairly for power in Iran.
And yet many of Iran's alleged
supporters in the West have gone along with the spin. Trita Parsi, an
Iranian-Swedish activist whose U.S. organization played a key role in lobbying
for the Iran nuclear deal, wrote
on Sunday evening that critics of Friday's election didn't misread what he
euphemistically called the "flaws in the Iranian political system."
Rather these critics "misread the strength of the Iranian society and the
sophistication of the Iranian electorate, who once again have shown that they
have the maturity and wisdom to change their society peacefully from within,
without any support or interference from the outside."
It's quite something when an
Iranian who claims to support the opening of Iran's society praises the
"maturity and wisdom" of an electorate offered "reformists"
who support the disqualification of reformers.
But this is the magic of Iran's
elections. In the end, Iran's supreme leader doesn't need to defend their
legitimacy. He has plenty in the West eager to do it for him.
This column does not necessarily
reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.