The Islamic Republic of Iran is holding its eleventh presidential election on Friday. It’s all very exciting — just as it was in 1979 when, right after the Iranian Revolution that brought down the Shah, Iranians first cast ballots. I was there — a reporter in Iran, working on a documentary film for Bill Moyers at PBS. Then, as now, the elections were the focus of considerable international attention. Then, as now, the elections were a total fiction.
Some people understood that then — others have never seemed to get it. For example, ten years ago, Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush, called Iran a democracy. In recent months both Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have said that Iran has an “elected” government. Hagel even added that it was “legitimate.”
The Iranian producer with whom I was working was enthusiastic about those first post-revolution elections. He regarded my skepticism as unjustified and unfair. Iranians were flocking to the polls. Surely that represents progress, he said.
What struck me was how much the system set up by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini resembled what I had seen as a student and journalist in the Soviet Union. There, too, people could vote. But the government officials they elected held no real power. That was reserved for the Communist party.
In Iran, the supreme leader wields supreme power. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the supreme leader; today it is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He does not answer to the people. He answers to a higher authority — indeed, the very highest authority. To insure that the supreme leader’s will is done, there is the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the roguish militia known as the Basij.
The twelve-member Guardian Council — appointed, not elected — also reports to the supreme leader, and together they decide who is and who is not qualified to be a presidential candidate. Under Iran’s Islamic constitution, only men and only Shia Muslims may apply. For the current election, there were 686 registered candidates. Eight were approved.
A few days ago, Khamenei made clear to the finalists that they are not to “make concessions to the enemies.” In other words, they are not to suggest that Iran might be better off refraining from developing nuclear weapons, pursuing a policy of peaceful coexistence with America and Israel, and focusing on the repair of an embattled economy.