June 23, 2005

June 23, 2005 | Commentary on

Iranian Elections

The world has been shocked, shocked to learn that Iran's presidential elections, of which the first round took place on June 17, were a sham. Did anyone really, seriously believe they would be anything but? Real power in Iran resides with the Mullahs, who did not hesitate to use that power to ensure that whoever is the next president of Iran, it will not be someone who attempts to challenge them.

Even as the promise of democracy has seen tender shoots emerge in the Middle East with elections in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, it is real a question how far this trend goes. At this time, it clearly does not extend to Iran, where an aging gerontocracy of theocratic leaders increasingly find itself at odds with a very young population, straining towards greater political and individual freedom. So far, though, the mullahs still have the upper hand.

The case of Iran reminds us again that while elections are a crucial element of democracy, they are not a sufficient condition. This point was hammered home during her current visit to the Middle East by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been forceful in her criticism of the lack of democracy in the region.

At a speech at Cairo University Monday, she criticized the leaders of the region for "fear of free choices" and a "denial, of liberty." Further, she pledged American support for the democratic reformers in the region, and significantly bemoaned decades of American policy that have failed to produce any progress.

A fear of free choices has certainly characterized the Iranian election. As many as 1,000 presidential candidates were disqualified before the vote by Iran's religious Council of Guardians. In fact, the situation was very much a replay of the 2004 parliamentary elections, when almost all of the reformist candidates were disqualified by the Council of Guardians in accordance with Iran's constitution, which is designed to prevent enemies of the Islamic revolution from coming to power.
Massive election fraud is being alleged in Friday's vote. Shortly before the polls were to close, just seven million people had voted ? out of an eligible pool of 51 million. Voting, however, was then extended for several hours, which amazingly produced another 29 million ballots.

Though reform-minded candidates had been expected to do well, the two frontrunners ended up being reactionaries. Of the eight candidates on the ballot, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful political figure who ruled from 1989-1997, got 21 percent. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, mayor of Tahran and a former Revolutionary Guard commander and a big supporter of the ruling theocracy, got 19 percent.

As one Iranian voter wrote to the BBC from Tehran, "We're caught between a rock and a hard place; to choose from the bad and the worse. Rafsanjani's just getting away with everything since in the current situation he's become the 'less bad.' But how can we convince ourselves to write down the name of someone we disapprove of just because the other is worse?"

Now, the Iranian presidency is not a particularly strong institution under the best of circumstances, as current President Mohammad Khatami discovered after this landslide election victory in 1997. Coming into office on a wave of optimism and a hope for liberalization and reform, he soon found his efforts thwarted by Iran's theocracy under Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Council of Guardians, who have no notion of giving up power. Since then that promise of reform has faded.

President Bush has made freedom and democracy promotion fundamentally important planks of American foreign policy, and in fact denounced the Iranian elections before they had even taken place as lacking in real choice. This is a point that needs to be continuously pressed home.

We should certainly respect cultural differences when we talk about democracy promotion, but there are certain elements of democracy that are indispensable. Former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick has offered a definition that serves as a very handy yardstick: "Democratic elections are not merely symbolic," she has written. "They are competitive, periodic, inclusive, definitive elections by which the chief decision-makers in a government are selected by citizens who enjoy broad freedom to criticize government, to publish their criticism and to present alternatives."

On Friday, voters in Iran will go back to chose "between a rock and a hard place." It is an unenviable choice, and whatever it represents, it is not democracy.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation. 

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times