The Middle East Channel

On the sidelines of Iran's election

Former President Mohammad Khatami made a statement last December about the upcoming parliamentary elections in Iran, "When all the signs indicate that we should not participate in the elections, participation will be meaningless."

Now, just hours before the polls open on March 2, Khatami and many other Iranians for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution will stage a boycott. This is the only election in which a major political faction will remain on the sidelines. All the "signs," as Khatami put it, are there -- the only candidates allowed to compete are largely from three conservative factions among the regime's shrinking cast of political elites. All others were banned from running candidates.

But what is more significant than the rigged vetting process is what the election sadly reveals for many -- a changed Iran. Gone is the euphoria that energized millions of Iranians before past presidential elections in 1997 and 2009 and parliamentary elections in 2000. Instead, this week's elections will take place under the watchful eyes of 50,000 election "monitors" nationwide, thousands of basij fighters designated just for Tehran, and the heaviest police presence since after the disputed presidential election of 2009.

The regime is taking no chances the election will turn into a standoff between the opposition and the security forces or become a national expression of all the pressures Iranians face from the state's economic mismanagement to sanctions and the looming threat of war with Israel. Security officials have repeatedly warned the population ahead of the election that no protests will be tolerated.

The scripted election also illustrates a political realignment that has occurred since 2009 and the consolidation of power around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In addition to ensuring the reformists' -- and even quasi-reformists, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani -- departure from politics, Khamenei's loyalists have also paved the way for the demise of the "deviant" faction, as it is called, which represents President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Khamenei wants to cleanse the next parliament of Ahmadinejad supporters who have fought on the president's behalf over the last two years in a fierce battle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei -- one in which the president lost out. Ending this faction's political career will also guarantee that no Ahmadinejad loyalist will have enough support inside the regime to run in the next presidential election in 2013.

After this election, assuming Khamenei will succeed in eliminating Ahmadinejad's faction, only two political trends will remain relevant inside the political system. One is the conservative traditionalists who are members of the old guard, such as Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani. The other is the far right, comprised of hardliners, grouped around Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, an aging revolutionary figure who proclaims to be committed to the ideological purity of the Islamic republic, at last as he interprets it.  

In order to achieve a complete electoral victory, the regime faces a significant challenge the morning after. There is likely to be a low voter turnout, particularly in large cities such as Tehran. And even if the voter turnout is significantly higher in rural areas, as is often the case, it is urban public opinion that gives the regime a seal of approval in the eyes of the West. Historically, the regime has tried to convince the world and its domestic audience at home that large participation in elections demonstrates Iranians' belief in the system and the legitimacy of the regime. Proving the worthiness to govern is more important to Khamenei now than ever as Western nations continue to impose sanctions on Iran and place it in the category of a rogue state.

With the reformists' boycotting and a general malaise hovering over the country, it appears likely the regime will have to figure out how to deal with a poor showing at the polls. If officials try to inflate the voter turnout, they could face humiliation. No doubt the untruths will be played out on opposition websites and social networking sites.

The Coordination Council of the Green Path of Hope, the political group close to Mir Hossein Moussavi, the Green movement leader, issued a warning to the public, "The authorities are trying to use all their propaganda, political security and police forces to force the people into participating in the elections," in order to avoid a low voter turnout.

From the regime's perspective, elections have been unkind. In 1997, Khatami, a figure who opened Iran to the West in ways that rattled the conservatives and freed society, albeit it so briefly, from the chains of repression, was allowed to run for president only because Khamenei and his loyalists were convinced he would never win. In 2009, the regime helped return Ahmadinejad to the presidency only to then live through three years of contention, instability, and international humiliation. This time, there is no doubt little will be left to chance.

In fact, as time goes on, Khamenei is tolerating less and less any challenge to what is quickly becoming authoritarian rule. Recently, he reportedly warned the Assembly of Experts, the only body which maintains the right to remove the Supreme Leader, that he has ultimate power over the Assembly and the Assembly has the right only to make a general assessment of his leadership. The Assembly of Experts, a council of 86 clerics popularly elected to eight-year terms, elects the supreme leader from their ranks, according to Article 107 of the 1979 Constitution.

If Khamenei has his way, this parliamentary election could complete his marginalization of most of his foes and seal the conservatives' hold over nearly all branches of the state for the foreseeable future.

Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation. Reza Akbari, research associate for the program, contributed to this article.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

The U.S. and France propose new draft resolution on Syria amid continued violence

The U.N. Security Council is working on a third draft resolution -- presented by the United States and France -- to address the escalating conflict in Syria, this time focusing directly on humanitarian concerns. It calls for an immediate ceasefire, for government troops to withdraw from cities and towns, and for the Syrian regime to release all detainees. The U.N. General Assembly adopted a similar resolution two weeks ago, but unlike the Security Council, the assembly's resolutions are not legally binding. According to United Nations political affairs officer Lynn Pascoe, "well over" 7,500 people have been killed in the 11-month violence in Syria. Meanwhile, according to Syrian activists, the bodies of 64 men were found near Homs in what appears to be the worst single incident of mass killing during the uprising. The details are unclear, but activists suspect the men had been trying to escape the besieged city with their families when they were stopped and shot by Syrian regime forces. An unknown number of women and children who were accompanying the men are also missing. After fierce shelling of Babo Amr, the Syrian military then began a ground assault on the neighborhood of Homs. Syrian troops reportedly clashed with opposition forces at a football field held by the opposition at the area's outskirts. This conflicted with reports from sources close to the Syrian government stating the army had nearly cleared all opposition fighters from the neighborhood.

Headlines  

  • As the U.S. and Egypt are in "very intensive discussions" to avoid the prosecution of U.S. NGO workers, three judges in the trial of all 43 NGO workers have pulled out of the trial.
  • Doubts have arisen over the identity of Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi, a man detained at Cairo airport who was believed to be Saif al-Adel, a senior Al-Qaeda leader.
  • A Dubai bank said it will take "pre-emptive action" in cutting ties with some Iranian banks on which the U.S. plans to apply sanctions; meanwhile, Iran said it will "accept payment in gold for oil."
  • Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is set to meet with U.S. President Obama on March 5 to discuss options on Iran, and is expected to push for a harder line from the United States.
  • Israeli troops raided two Palestinian television stations owned by local NGOs that broadcast news and cultural programming, seizing equipment and forcing them off air.
  • At least three people were killed and nine injured in a car bomb during rush hour in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Arguments & Analysis

'How SCAF is seeking to resolve corruption cases behind closed doors' (Shereen Zaky, The Arabist)

"On January 3rd, SCAF discreetly passed an amendment to the Investment Law essentially permitting the settlement of economic corruption crimes via financial reconciliation, as well as designating an extra-judicial process for the settlement of disputes regarding government contracts. Published only a few days before parliament was due to convene, the timing is significant both in terms of circumventing parliament's assumption of legislative power and because the amendment could escape scrutiny, overshadowed as it was by greater events. Law 4 of 2012 permits the General Authority for Investment and Free Zones, the regulator of investment and companies in Egypt, to settle with investors who have committed either in person, or as an accomplice of a government employee, embezzlement, theft, illegal acquisition or misuse of public funds and property, harming the public welfare, and similar offences, while undertaking any of the investment activities covered by the law, provided they restore the disputed amounts or reimburse the state for their approximate value at the time the offence was committed."

'Jassim Buhejji, a life for Bahrain' (Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Open Democracy)

"Jassim Buhejji's passing comes at another time of trial for Bahrain. The island is today in need of such level-headed voices that identify themselves as members of an inclusive nation rather than according to sect. His life is emblematic of a noble Bahraini reality: that this nation led the region in popular activism, gave birth to movements such as the National Unity Committee which offered solidarity to Egypt during the military attack against it, and supported the political rights of citizens of different religious affiliations. This inheritance, which sets Bahrain apart from the neighbouring Gulf monarchies with which today it is sadly compared, is the achievement of Jassim Buhejji and his generation." 

'In heavy waters: Iran's nuclear program, the risk of war, and lessons from Turkey' (International Crisis Group)

"There are more than enough reasons to be sceptical about a diplomatic solution. Mutual trust is at an all-time low. Political pressures on all sides make compromise a difficult sell. The West seems intent on trying its new, harsher-than-ever sanctions regime. Israel is growing impatient. Tit for tat acts of violence appear to be escalating. And Iran might well be on an unyielding path to militarisation. One can imagine Khamenei's advisers highlighting three instructive precedents: Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, which had no nuclear weapon and the U.S. overthrew; Muammar Qadhafi's regime in Libya, which relinquished its weapons of mass destruction and NATO attacked; and North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons and whose regime still stands. There remains time to test whether Tehran is determined to acquire a bomb at all costs and to consider whether a military option -- with all the dramatic implications it would entail -- truly would be the best way to deal with it." 

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images