Iran's Elections Serve Mullahcracy, Not Democracy

Report Middle East

Iran's Elections Serve Mullahcracy, Not Democracy

June 17, 2005 4 min read
Visiting Fellow, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
James Phillips is a Visiting Fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Coverage of today's presidential elections in Iran has focused on the process and the outcome: is the poll rigged and who will make it into the likely runoff? However, this overlooks that the elections are primarily a public relations exercise. Iran's ayatollahs justify their rule based on their claim to be carrying out the will of God, not the will of the people. Iran's ruling theocratic regime is a mullahcracy run by Islamic clerics, not a true democracy. Regardless of the results of today's vote, it is unlikely to alter Iran's political landscape or dramatically shift its hostile foreign policy.


As current President Mohammad Khatami discovered after his landslide election victory in 1997, the real power in Iran remains firmly in the hands of unelected clerics, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Ayatollah Khomeini's successor as supreme leader. Khatami's plans for political and economic reform were enthusiastically supported by the parliament after reformists swept the 2000 elections, but the radical Islamic hardliners in the Guardian Council and other unelected bodies blocked them. Their inability to achieve long-overdue reforms through the ballot box has demoralized Iranian reformers and encouraged political apathy.


Iran's unelected mullahs have created a political system that serves their own interests, not those of the people. The Guardian Council blocked more than one thousand candidates for the presidency and initially approved only six finalists who could be counted on to sustain the present system. The Council prohibited women from running for the presidency, though women can vote and run for other political offices. Subsequently, Ayatollah Khamanei overruled the Guardian Council and two reformists were allowed to run. Khamanei was reportedly fearful that the lack of a genuine political choice would lead to a low voter turnout, which would undermine the increasingly questioned legitimacy of the regime.


The apparent frontrunner in the presidential campaign is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served two terms as president from 1989 to 1997. (The Iranian constitution forbids the president from serving a third consecutive term.) A former aide to Ayatollah Khomeini, Rafsanjani, at 70, is the consummate political survivor, a backroom dealmaker who has shrewdly skated through Iran's bitter factional feuds relatively unscathed. Although he was humiliatingly defeated in the 2000 parliamentary elections, Rafsanjani has resurrected himself as a political chameleon and now seeks to appeal to both the Islamic hardline and liberal reformist camps with the slogan "Let's Work Together." Rafsanjani has the support of 27 to 37 percent of Iranian voters, according to opinion polls.


Rafsanjani's chief challengers appear to be Islamic hardliner Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the former chief of the national police, and the relatively liberal Mostafa Moin, a former Minister of Education who resigned after the July 1999 crackdown on Iran's restive student activists. If no candidate collects more than 50 percent of the vote, which is likely, then the top two candidates will face each other in a runoff election on June 24.


Qalibaf is a former officer in the Revolutionary Guards, the shock troops of the Iranian revolution. He has gained ground in recent weeks, in part because of the withdrawal of another hardliner whose supporters are now likely to support him. Qalibaf also stands to gain politically from a string of mysterious bombings that killed ten Iranians just five days before the election. Although no organization has yet claimed responsibility for the bombings, which targeted the southwestern city of Ahvaz and the capital, Tehran, some hardliners have been quick to blame the United States, separatist Arabs in oil-rich Khuzestan province, and groups in neighboring Iraq. As a tough enforcer of revolutionary justice, Qalibaf is well positioned to exploit any backlash against the bombings.


Moin, the leading reformist candidate, draws his strongest support from women, youth, and non-Persian minorities, long treated as second class citizens despite making up almost 50 percent of the population. Moin has been hurt by the demoralization of Iran's once-strong reform movement. Many student leaders have concluded that significant political change is impossible to effect in the present system and have called for a boycott of the elections to underscore popular disenchantment with the regime. The lower the voter turnout, the less likely Moin is to win.


All of the candidates are courting Iran's huge youth vote. Half of Iran's 67 million people are under the age of 25, and the minimum voting age is 15. Even the hardliners have adopted reformist slogans popular with youth and soft-pedaled strict social regulations that are unpopular among them, such as rules requiring "chaste" women's clothing.


The campaign has focused on personalities, vague philosophies, and pressing economic issues, such as Iran's high unemployment rate and debilitating inflation. Foreign policy has not been a major issue. Most of the candidates favor improved relations with the outside world, even the United States, but all support the continuation of Iran's controversial nuclear program.


Any new president is likely to bring a change of style, but not of substance, to Iran's foreign policy. No matter who wins, Ayatollah Khamanei will have the final say on key issues such as Iran's military buildup, support of terrorism, opposition to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement, and the development of nuclear weapons.


In the long run, the identity of the winner probably will be less important than the number of voters who participate, which will be a useful barometer of popular support for Iran's dysfunctional political system. While 83 percent of eligible voters participated in the 1997 presidential elections that brought Khatami to power, turnout dropped to 67 percent in 2001. A further drop would signal declining popular support for the clerical regime. For this reason, the regime is likely to inflate the official figures.


Despite the elections, little change can be expected in Iran's policies until Iran's supreme leader is replaced or removed. Under the political system created by Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader's interpretation of the will of God counts for more than the will of the Iranian people.


James A. Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.


James Phillips

Visiting Fellow, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies