IRAN: the presidential election is just window-dressing

By Nader Nouri

France elected the president of its Republic democratically and by universal suffrage. A genuine head of state, the victor will, in his own words, "preside" over the country's destiny for five years with a head of government who will "govern". The defeated parties can hope to continue to democratically influence France's future by taking part in parliamentary elections. Things could hardly be clearer.

In contrast, the election of a president of the mullahs' regime in Iran has nothing at all in common with what happened in France.

In that major Middle Eastern country whose political and social upheavals have always rightly attracted attention, a medieval regime has governed for the last 38 years in a totalitarian theocracy disguised as a modern republic.

The keys of power, whether political, economic, diplomatic or defence- or security-related, are in the hands of a religious supreme leader chosen for life by an assembly of 88 mullahs. The current "Guide", Ali Khamenei, has wielded sole power for over 27 years.

It would be foolish to imagine that the "presidential election" in Iran could change anything at all in the country. Asked the question, many Iranians answer with a thoroughly Persian intelligence: "You only have to look at what has happened over the last 38 years and where we are now."

That contradiction or duality between power exercised according to archaic rules, with its litany of misogynistic laws, public executions, corporal punishment, foreign wars, promotion of fundamentalist Islam and the terrorism that flows from it, and a "modern" electoral system has deceived more than a few people in the west.

In Iran, a 12-member Council of Guardians of the Constitution (six religious members appointed by the Guide and six judicial members appointed by the head of the judiciary) reviews all the candidates for every election, whether presidential, parliamentary or municipal.

Of the six candidates for the presidential election retained by the Council of Guardians out of 1,636 applications, the leading two were mullahs: the outgoing president, Hassan Rohani, and Ebrahim Raissi, known for his role in the terrible massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

Raissi had been the Guide's favourite, and a win for him could have enabled Khamenei to unify his power base, taking advantage of the sudden death in January of Akbar Hachemi-Rafsanjani, a heavyweight supporter of Hassan Rohani. However, as Khamenei's electoral "engineering", as Iranians call it, failed to secure victory for Raissi, he has resigned himself to keeping Rohani, albeit under close surveillance. The Guide's clear intention means that the regime is tightening up both at home, by stepping up repression, and abroad, by continuing the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

In itself and in all events, the election of 19 May has no decisive impact on the regime's general or foreign policy, which is decided by Khamenei alone. Inside Iran, the regime is threatened by a fragile economy and a population that feels let down by the lack of economic benefits from the nuclear agreement, which could result in a surge of social unrest similar to the one in June 2009.

Every day, the authorities issue warnings about the risk of the system collapsing. The candidates were instructed not to make remarks that could weaken the regime's foundations, but the debate between Rohani and Raissi veered out of control as they washed the dirty linen of repression and corruption in public, to the point where the Guide was seriously concerned about the consequences of the clan warfare which continues unabated even after the election.

*A former Iranian diplomat in Paris, Nader Nouri is the Secretary-General of the Fondation d'Etudes pour le Moyen-Orient (Foundation for Middle Eastern Studies, FEMO).