On February 20, the
seventh legislative elections under the Islamic Republic were held in Iran.
In spite of the row on the event, and in spite of a call to postpone the
elections by the so-called reformists in the regime, the ballot was held
without much difficulty. Counting all other "elections," this was the 24th
overall election in the life of the Islamic Republic, and there seemed to
be nothing peculiar about the elections except the low turnout. Yet it was
very meaningful for the regime.
The Islamic Republic had undergone, up to this election, two main internal
surgeries. The first one, in 1981, was when the first president of the regime,
Abolhassan Banisadr, elected with a ballot of 11 million votes, was stripped
of his position and obliged to join the clandestine opposition, later to
leave the country and enter exile. He was accused of being "deceived" by
the "Monafeqin" (hypocrites: regime's term for the armed opposition group)
Mujaheedin Khalq, which took up arms against the new republic after Banisadr
was dismissed. Having resorted to open repression of all legal opposition
inside the country as well as being engaged in a bloody external war with
Iraq, Khomeini was not capable of tolerating a president not obedient enough
to carry out what he was asked to do.
The second surgical operation came in 1988, when Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri,
Khomeini's heir apparent, fell from grace when he protested against the massacre
of "thousands of political prisoners overnight," as he mentioned in a letter
to Khomeini in protest against the exercise. Not able to stop the executions,
Montazeri was dismissed quickly, and was later put under house arrest, only
to be relieved recently, years after Khomeini's death, when authorities were
obliged to end his house arrest because of public opinion. Strangely enough,
Montazeri also was labeled as being "deceived" by the MEK. Again, in his
weakest position, and after having -- in his own words -- sipped the "poison
of accepting a cease-fire" in the war with Iraq, Khomeini was unwilling
to let his second in command criticize him for what he purposefully did to
save his own neck, and his regime's.
Friday's election, in spite of its banal appearance, was in fact the third
big surgery of the regime. Seven years ago, Mohammad Khatami found his way
to the regime's presidency amid high hopes for a rather quick process of
normalization between the Islamic Republic and the West, in general, and
the United States, in particular. In 1997, a few days after Khatami's election,
CNN's Christine Ammanpour went all the way to Tehran to interview the newly-elected
president long enough to give a clear picture of a true moderate to the whole
world. But Khatami never was nor wanted to be a real moderate, and a real
moderator of change in Iran. He cared more for the existence of the regime
than for reforming it from within. Yesterday, Khatami was seen on CNN, criticizing
himself for preaching a reform movement which was now dead, and about to
be "buried," after the recent elections. During his seven years in office,
the internal balance of power, as well as the regional and international
parameters, allowed Khatami and his so-called reformist faction, to keep
pace with Khamenei, the supreme leader, and his hardliner gang. Khatami's
faction even won the sixth legislative elections four years ago, but nevertheless
failed to bring along substantial change. The part of the population deceived
by the myth of reform slowly began to leave his camp. And then with the recent
changes in the region, notably the installation of several pro-western regimes
on its borders in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with international pressure against
it to curb its lust for prohibited arms of mass destruction, the regime began
to realize that internal schism and infighting could be no longer tolerated.
The last thing the mullahs in Tehran wanted was a disobedient parliament
and a foot-dragging government during visits by inspectors of the International
Atomic Energy Agency, or the nerve-crashing maneuvers against the United
After the regional whirlwinds that changed two regimes in their neighborhood,
the mullahs in Iran count on two footholds to keep themselves in place: first,
try to "go nuclear," as they call it, as a preemptive measure and for extra
leverage in their regional blackmail; and, second, interference in Iraq,
a country they consider to be the United States' soft belly exposed to their
export of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. Though strategically, nothing
can replace the "bomb" for the mullahs, tactically -- especially in a US
election year, and when there seems to be a certain level of criticism against
the Bush administration for its engagement in Iraq -- they give priority
to developments in Iraq in order to gain precious time back home.
In order to proceed full speed towards these two goals, the mullahs needed
first to put their house in order. "Never go out looking for trouble if you
already have trouble inside your own house," says an old Iranian proverb.
The mullahs could have opted for continuing the show of "pluralism," or rather
"dualism," to keep at least willing Europeans behind them as a counterweight
to the American pressure. But unlike the pre-Iraqi war, the Europeans have
seemed to act fairly in concert with the United States in pressuring the
mullahs for their lust for the "bomb." Khatami and his reformists' show of
"pluralism" was not enough to stop that pressure. So the mullahs decided
to get rid of them, and gain some time by pretending to abide by the Non
Proliferation Treaty of the IAEA. They took the risk of the third surgery.
It might prove fatal:
-- The population turned a cold shoulder to the mullahs' infighting during
the election. They did not even care for the sit-in of pro-Khatami members
of the mullahs' parliament after they had been dismissed and kept out of
the election game.
-- The unprecedented low turnout, put by the regime at around 50% of those
eligible to vote, but as low as 6% by the opposition, means that for any
elections to be meaningful in the future, the opposition must come from outside
the mullahs’ regime and the poll must have the form of a referendum to determine
the fate of the regime in its totality.
-- Given the above, much of the mullahs' remaining power should be devoted
to curbing internal discontent and unrest, as seen even during the two days
after Friday's sham elections, when unrest spread to various towns.
-- The third surgery is different from the two earlier ones in one very important
aspect: it comes at a time when somebody of Khomeini's stature is not heading
the regime. Already, after having eliminated hundreds of so-called reformist
candidates from elections for reason of non-compliance with the laws, Khamenei
came under fire by more than 70 members of the current parliament whose applications
for a new round were dismissed by organs under Khamenei's power. The disillusioned
members of Majles even publicly accused Khamenei of hypocrisy. He chose not
to respond. Maybe he was right. The regime is much weaker and more vulnerable
after this internal feud, and the upcoming weeks might stand as proof.
Abedian is an Iranian engineer based in Germany, and a former lecturer at
Tehran University. He writes from time to time on Iranian issues and politics.