The Iranian Election: Myth versus Reality by Tabatabai

June 18, 2013

In Blog

There was no real choice in the elections (or, alternatively, all but one of the candidates were conservative)

Given that the Islamic Republic is a religious republic, it is a truism that all its political participants will have to work within a religious framework. This already makes them “conservatives” by ‘Western’ political standards, for any policies they might support would be tailored to a majority-Muslim population living in an Islamic Republic. So, even that one reformist would be a conservative if he were to quit Iranian politics and stand for election in the United States of America.

This is because Iranian society is far more socially conservative than American society, and clearly the politics reflects this.
However, this does not mean that all social conservatives are equally conservative; it does not mean that two socially conservative candidates cannot meaningfully compete on various issues, including social issues.
So, the best thing is to stop viewing Iranian politics through an Occidental lens. Iran is best understood from within.
In the Islamic Republic, we do not have parties, we have oft-overlapping factions. Since 1989 until today, an evolution has occurred in Iranian politics, with factions growing, branching out into smaller, more sharply defined factions, so that today, I estimate, we have 5 main factions:
The largest is probably the Principlist faction, so-called because they wish to apply the principles of the Islamic Revolution at every stage of the Islamic Republic’s development; they believe those principles to be eternal, so to speak. They are often called ‘Conservatives’ by the ‘Western’ media. They believe in a firm but diplomatic foreign policy. The Principlists, in my opinion, serve better as principled (!) voice of opposition, and have been consequential in criticising all previous governments since 1989. It should be noted that no purely Principlist government has come to power. It came closest with Ahmadinejad during his first term (2005-2009), but Ahmadinejad wasn’t purely Principlist and has since gone his own way. On the other hand, they have been the more dominant Parliamentary force. Their detractors accuse them of upholding a problematic status quo.

Also large, is the Reformist faction, so-called because they wish to move beyond the revolutionary stage of the Islamic Republic, which was outward looking, and focus on state-building, which is inward looking. This does not preclude them from being the most openly diplomatic faction in foreign policy. The Reformists mostly focus on enhancing social, economic and political freedom. They support deregulation of the market. Their detractors accuse them of widening the rich-poor gap and liberalising culture.Arguably, equally large and perhaps larger than the Reformists, is the Moderate faction. They also cherish the principles held dear by the Principlists, but believe that this does not hinder open diplomacy with everyone, including the U.S. The Moderates‘ strength lies in their pragmatism, which means a deregulated economy and gentle social reform. Their detractors accuse them of widening the rich-poor gap or being too politically conservative.

The fourth largest faction is the Resistance faction. They are the least pragmatic, most idealist and most ideological in their adherence to the principles. Their foreign policy is strict: build friendships with oppressed or underdog nations and resist the oppressive intl. powers. At home, they believe in better social services, fairer distribution of wealth, and stronger government role in matters of culture. Their strength lies in their Robin Hood appeal. Their detractors accuse them of intolerance.
The fifth largest faction is nameless, I think, but consists of Ahmadinejad and his circle. Its detractors, especially the Resistance faction, have called it the Deviant faction. It may be possible to view them as sort of populist Bonapartists. There isn’t much information, since all we have is based on Ahmadinejad’s second term, which might not be fully revealing. They seem to have nationalist tendencies. A very centralised, powerful, decisive, uncompromising government has been typical of Ahmadinejad’s second term, which one suspects would continue under an ally of his.
Many individuals put forward their names for candidacy, either as one of the five or as independents. Out of the five factions, only one did not manage to get representation: Ahmadinejad’s allies.
The Islamic Republic political spectrum does not run from the same left as the French left and to the same right as the French right, i.e. French leftist would not correspond to Iranian leftist policies. In the Islamic Republic, the right wishes to retain its revolutionary principles, the far-right inflexibly so, the left wishes to move beyond them, whereas the centre wishes to adapt those principles pragmatically to contemporary conditions.

Now, here’s a spectrum for the 2013 elections:

Aref – Rouhani – Rezai – Gharazi – Qalibaf – Velayati – Haddad-Adel – Jalili

Aref was the only Reformist, i.e. the only Left.
Rouhani was the most left of the Centrists, and who identified himself as Moderate.
Rezai and Gharazi came as Independents. Rezai has ties to the Moderates, though both reject any partisanship.
Qalibaf is a pragmatic Principlist, which brings him close to the Moderate camp.
Velayati is a Principlist.
Haddad-Adel is a traditional Principlist.
Jalili is something between the Principlist and Resistance camps.

This should give the lie to any baseless accusation that the election was a one-sided match. In fact, let’s be clear: almost every faction was somehow represented and had a clear chance to win a majority and become president. This was not a simplistic Democrat vs Republican ping-pong match – this was a competition between different shades of a colour spectrum.

Every candidate got equal separate airtime to discuss their plans and visions. Additionally, there were three inter-candidate debates centering on economic, social and political agenda. Candidates were critical of one another: Jalili, the current Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and Rouhani, the previous Secretary and chief nuclear negotiator criticised each other over their handling of the issue. Velayati, an ex-foreign minister, clashed with Jalili over foreign policy. Rouhani chastised Qalibaf, now mayor of Teheran but ex-head of police, for what he saw as Qalibaf’s wish to crack down on a number of protestors about a decade ago, scoring a ‘freedom point’ for himself. Aref was criticised for the Reformist government of Khatami while he in turn criticised Haddad-Adel, who was then Parliament Speaker, for Principlist shortcomings. Gharazi seemed to reduce almost all issues to inflation and unemployment.
A huge number of Iranians watched these television and radio programmes. No candidate had to spend a penny to get his message across. No candidate had to attract lobby groups to get a chance to be elected. It was sufficient for the candidate to appeal to the majority of voters.

To be fair, the competition was not perfect. Perfect would be to have two slightly differing Reformists, an Ahmadinejad ally, and someone more directly representing the Resistance faction, i.e. 3 candidates were missing from transforming the elections from good to perfect. Why this did not occur requires a different article, one dealing with the controversial issue of Disqualification. Hopefully, my next article will treat this.

The things I hope a fairminded reader will have gleaned from this article are:
1. There was genuine choice in the Iranian elections – it wasn’t a one-sided match
2. There is a vibrant political spectrum in the Islamic Republic
3. Please don’t believe in mainstream media. They should be read, but they are not a source of knowledge – they are a source of gossip, some of which may be true, some of which may be false. Please step outside of mainstream media and do some independent research.