What a difference a week makes. Only a few days ago, Iranian politics seemed to be teetering on the precipice of historic uncertainty. The decision to exclude from the upcoming presidential ballot the iconic figure who once held that office, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and a close confidante of the mercurial incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, provoked speculation about what the fall-out might mean for the embattled theocracy. Would Rafsanjani finally overcome his intrinsic pragmatism, embrace his status as an outsider, and definitively break with the system that he helped to create? Would the unpredictable Ahmadinejad make good on his threats to incriminate the political establishment in response to his protégé’s disqualification for the election?
We are all still waiting, but thus far Iran is not delivering on the much-anticipated electoral drama. Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad have both held their powder, releasing conciliatory statements but refraining from escalation – for the moment at least. Meanwhile, much of the external media has already declared a victor in the contest, while the first televised debate among the candidates demonstrated the regime’s peculiar talent for utilizing the trappings of democratic politics to produce an outcome that is not simply undemocratic but absurd.
That Iran’s brief burst of elite agitation has been contained, at least temporarily, isn’t surprising of course. Managing the precarious balancing act of its manifold contradictions has been part of the Islamic Republic’s modus operandi since its inception. And all of its players have a stake in preserving some measure of equilibrium, as they are all invested in ensuring the perpetuation of the Islamic Republic.
The tenor of the campaign to date makes it tempting to dismiss the election as mere farce, as some of those who know the system best have already done. “What is happening now is not an election but a form of theater and the candidates should really be called actors,” opposition leader Mojtaba Vahedi said in an interview with Wall Street Journal. “The regime couldn’t care less who the people prefer.”
Vahedi should know – he was the campaign manager for Mehdi Karroubi, regime insider turned critic who contended credibly that his two successive losses in presidential elections (2005 and 2009) were the product of a system rigged on behalf of Ahmadinejad. As Vahedi’s remarks make clear, the fallout from that episode remains painful for many Iranians – especially Karrubi himself, who along with the other reformist who ran in 2009, Mir Hussain Mousavi, remains incommunicado under house arrest today.
As much as I respect Vahedi and the countless other Iranians like who have suffered so much since 2009, I’m not so sure things are quite that simple. The Iranian regime is an ugly one, no doubt, and its institutions are incurably skewed toward authoritarian control. However, the regime itself has a keen appreciation of its own vulnerabilities, and has succeeded in retaining its legitimacy with a subset of the population, and in persuading the disaffected majority that its alternatives are no better. This requires leaders who can command some measure of public appeal, and elections that are not purely Potemkin exercises.
In other words, Iranian elections are not pure theater, but perhaps the political equivalent of reality TV – a tightly-scripted spectacle that follows a predetermined narrative, performed by complicit amateurs. (Iran even has a panel of judges and, based upon the free-association photo gambit in Friday’s debate, sophomoric challenges presented to each contender.) But the thing about reality TV that apparently makes it popular and lucrative is that the players sometimes go off script.
That is what happened in 2009, when Mousavi and Karroubi violated the most basic tenet of the Islamic Republic by openly defying the Supreme Leader’s announcement of Ahmadinejad’s reelection. Khamenei managed to prevail, but the repression narrowed the base of the regime and paved the way for a dramatic intensification of external pressure on his regime.
It seems unlikely – though not impossible – that this current election will see a recurrence of the intense popular mobilization and subsequent unrest that took place in 2009. But it is not just possible, but increasingly likely, that someone in this carnival of a campaign will go off script once again. It may be Ahmadinejad, whose recent docility is suspiciously uncharacteristic. Or it may be one of the candidates, such as Hassan Rouhani, the former nuclear negotiator and long-time power broker whose rallies over the past few days were punctuated by chants on behalf of Mousavi and Karroubi. Despite his clerical garb and sermon-esque speaking style, Rouhani is a figure to watch. His blunt reproach of Iran’s current circumstances has a certain resonance even among a cynical population. And while the reformists have suffered tremendous setbacks, they (together with Rafsanjani) retain a national political machinery, which is why the regime responded to the bout of brazenness in the Rouhani campaign by arresting his youth advisor and other members of his team.
This is Iran, and so the half-life of predictions is the blink of an eye. So there can be no certainty around the election and its dynamics. Rafsanjani may choose to live out his retirement in a well-appointed disengagement from politics. Ahmadinejad may be successfully blackmailed (or intimidated) into silence. Rouhani may play the game to stay on the outside of a prison cell. However, because it is Iran – because it is a free-wheeling reality show and not a perfectly orchestrated totalitarian state – someone will eventually, inevitably go off the script. And when that happens, the Islamic Republic will find itself in a much weaker state to survive the repercussions thanks to the events of the past four years.
On that note, it seems appropriate to close with a few words about another Iranian who went off the script. The death of Ayatollah Jalaladdin Taheri was reported in today’s Iranian press. Taheri served for many years as the Friday prayers leader in Isfahan and was an influential member of the senior clerical establishment. He resigned in 2002 via a public letter that blasted the regime for “deception, unemployment, inflation, the daily rising of prices, the diabolic gap between the rich and poor, bribery, the cheating, the growing drug consumption, the incompetence of authorities and the failure of the political structure.” He denounced the 2009 electoral fraud and defied the regime’s ban on mourning ceremonies after the death another opposition cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hussain-Ali Montazeri, once selected to serve as Khomeini’s successor. It will be interesting to see how Taheri’s death will reverbate in Iran’s itchy election season.