Iran’s War on ‘Other-Thinkers’

By Sohrab Ahmari

Wall Street Journal

February 25, 2016


For much of Iranian history the Persian word for “politics” had two meanings. Siyasatreferred to the emperor’s art of preserving his dynasty against rivals and invaders. Or it referred to the cruel and unusual punishments the emperor meted out to officials who displeased him, ranging from flogging and blinding to beheading.

Keep this in mind as the current emperor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stages an election on Friday, the first since last summer’s nuclear deal with the great powers. At stake are the Majlis, or Parliament, as well as the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that will select and nominally oversee the ailing Mr. Khamenei’s successor.

There will be ballot boxes and voter lines, and Western journalists will be granted rare access to cover an event the regime is keen to portray as a legitimate democratic exercise. Yet every candidate has been screened by layers of security men and hand-selected by Islamic jurists.

Half of the original 12,000 or so candidates for the 290-seat Majlis were disqualified ahead of the election. As were 75% of the 801 candidates for the 88-member Assembly of Experts—including Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of regime founder AyatollahRuhollah Khomeini. That leaves a ratio of candidates to seats in the Assembly of Experts of less than two.

Most of the disqualified belonged to the so-called reformist and moderate factions of the regime. Even if every single disqualification were reversed, however, it wouldn’t matter a wit, since the regime’s popular branches are subservient to its unelected institutions. Above them all sits the supreme leader, and the pre-election purge means whoever succeeds Mr. Khamenei is likely to share his views on all important matters.

Herein lies the perverse genius of the Islamic Republic. It encourages outsiders to treat the regime as something other than a theocratic dictatorship. Western officials, and many Iranians themselves, hope that the regime’s periodic elections and plebiscites might finally empower men who will moderate Tehran’s behavior. It’s been 37 years since the regime’s founding, and liberal Khomeinists remain elusive.

The hard-liners—the men who run the armed forces, the repressive apparatus, the nuclear program, the judiciary and the state-run media—are tightening their grip and flaunting their enduring primacy.

On the domestic front, the regime has launched a fresh crackdown against degar-andishan, dissidents or “other-thinkers”—poets, film makers, journalists and novelists who question its rule. Tehran is also warning off Iranian-Americans eager to cash in on their commercial connections now that international sanctions have been lifted. Security forces in October arrested Siamak Namazi, an American energy consultant who had long advocated for the removal of sanctions and a Washington-Tehran opening. On Monday, Mr. Namazi’s U.S. citizen father, Baquer, was arrested after apparently being lured back by the regime.

Restrictions on women’s rights remain as tight as ever. “Day by day the women’s conditions get worse, contrary to Western expectations,” says Darya Safai, a Belgium-based activist who campaigns against the ban on Iranian women entering sports stadiums.

Two ballistic-missile tests since the nuclear deal, plus the seizure and humiliation of 10 U.S. sailors in January, suggest the ayatollahs are stepping up their regional bullying. A group of regime-linked media outlets this week announced they had donated $600,000 to the bounty for Salman Rushdie, raising to $4 million the total prize pool on the British novelist’s head for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Still, the dream of reforming the system from within remains alive. Regime elites wrangle over the tone of Iranian foreign policy. And some have technocratic pretensions when it comes to domestic administration.

But they agree on the most fundamental questions—the sanctity of the nuclear program, an anti-Western foreign policy and the theocratic character of the regime. As an exiled reformist recently told me: “The reformists won’t ever drill a hole in the hull of the Islamic Republic boat because they are passengers on that boat and would drown without it.”

If past is precedent, the reformists inside the system may be thrown overboard even if the vessel doesn’t draw water. Indeed, that may already be what’s under way with the current purge. Many of the same figures, after all, presided over the period of supposed moderation and reform that stretched from Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989 until 2005, when the reformist President Mohammad Khatami lost power.

Then, too, the reformists darned Iran’s tattered relations with the outside world in ways the hard-line core found useful. But all the while, the hard-liners maintained a deep state—built on secret detention sites, extrajudicial serial killings and the like—that targeted Mr. Khatami’s middle-class, urban base. Eventually the deep state undid most of his mild domestic reforms, and many reformists found themselves in jail.

Iranians hungry for change nevertheless think their only chance is to channel their aspirations into these factional disputes. The reformists are a little less stern. They afford the people more personal freedom at the margins.

Can you blame them? The bloody crackdown against the 2009 postelection uprising, followed by the cataclysms in Syria, led them to conclude that mass protest is hopeless. One reason the mullahs sponsored Bashar Assad’s slaughter was to teach their own people how far they would go before relinquishing power.

Other Iranians have become apathetic—or worse, they’ve embraced Persian chauvinism as a substitute for the pro-democracy spirit of that summer. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the regime would shut off even the release spigot offered by its own sham electoral system. Having secured a nuclear deal on favorable terms, they don’t even need the veneer of respectability offered by the reformist project.