TEHRAN — It is election time in the Islamic Republic of Iran. No one here doubts that the elections for the seventh Majlis (Parliament) will be fake-the kind we had during the Shah's regime twenty-five years ago. Despite the long sit-in by reformists in the parliament, and the attempt at mass resignation by them and many ministers, the elections are going to take place on time. Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, you see, ordered it so.
All the huffing and puffing by reformists about the dire need for free and competitive elections, which, in any other setting might have led to a regime change or at least widespread reform, fizzled-out with the order of Khamenei and the quick and expected kowtowing of Khatami, the President and Karroubi, the House Speaker. They both are now urging the people to vote. The all-powerful Guardian Council, which vets candidates, has rejected eighty current MPs and 2,300 other candidates. Around 900 hopefuls have withdrawn their candidacy. There are 155 seats that are virtually uncontested, assuring a hardliner majority in the next Parliament.
University professors and students have declared a boycott of the elections. Aghajari, the professor from Hamadan, whose condemnation to death by a local court for blasphemy triggered widespread student protests last year, has also called for a boycott. Other reformist candidates have withdrawn their candidacy in solidarity with those who were rejected. Both Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi, and reform minded philosopher, Abdolkarim Souroush have publicly, all be it with subtlety, denounced the elections. The two reformists newspapers, Shargh and Yas-e-Now that were brave enough to cover the Majlis sit in and publish reformist lawmakers's critical letter to Khamenei have been shut down.
The sit-in, covered by CNN and BBC, was all but ignored by the Iranian state-run television. The people on the street seemed oblivious to it. This sense of apathy is caused by the impotence of the reform movement led by Khatami. The reformists did little when students took to the street asking for reform in June 1998 and again in 2003. They watched as the hard-line vigilantes clubbed and beat men and women who had found courage in Khatami's rhetoric of the need for a free and open society. Student leaders and journalists were thrown in jail and even tortured, sometimes to death, without trial.
So, the people, disappointed, have lost all hope in the reformers and democracy itself. The seventy-eight percent of the electorate, which, was mostly made up of women and young people, those who voted for Khatami, have lost faith. People believe that Khatami was a trick played on them by the regime to keep them from revolting and to present a democratic face to the world.
Polls are unreliable here and our best pollster is in jail, but any canvassing of the street will soon bring you to the conclusion that most believe in the above theory. In fact that is the mildest of the conspiracy theories around. I have heard from at least a dozen people from all walks of life that Prince Charles' visit to see the earthquake-struck, Bam, was really a signal that the U.K is behind the hard-line clerics and has ordered the go ahead for the fake elections! Another theory is that the hardliners, headed by the powerful and extremely wealthy former President Rafsanjani, are bribing the Europeans and the Americans to keep them from meddling in Iranian politics.
I, having lived here now for some time, have my own theory:
Rafsanjani is the most powerful man in Iran. He not only heads the Expediency Council but he is the richest mullah here. He and his family have a finger in everything. No big economic deal is struck without his approval. His children are billionaires themselves. Whether in front or behind the scene, Rafsanjani has been ruling Iran for the past twenty-four years [see “Millionaire Mullahs“].
Khatami and the reform movement could have been stopped long ago. Rafsanjani and his cronies are capitalists and reform is good for business. Only they also know if they reform the electoral process they themselves will soon disappear from the scene, if not worse. The hatred towards the mullahs is such that any real opening will lead to their fall, just like Perestroika led to the fall of the Soviet regime.
So the ruling elite in Iran wants to make up with the West and even the U.S., but they do not want real Democracy because that would be their death knell. They did reject the American team who wanted to come to Bam, but only because they did not want the reformers to take credit for it. They made sure of the reformers defeat through the power of the Guardian Council to reject candidates.
Once they firmly hold the Majlis, and perhaps after an initial tightening of social strictures that had been relaxed under Khatami, they will again ease them. Finally they will make peace with America and reap the economic fruits of that reunion. Rafsanjani will take the credit and who knows, someday he may even travel abroad without being arrested as a terrorist! He is no Taliban; he is above all just a businessman, a mullah capitalist with endless ambitions. All he has to do is to make the world believe that these elections are real and that his power is legitimate. That is why these elections are important. That is why they should be seen as the total sham that they are.
The state-run television is working full force to get people to vote. Many believe rumors that the stamp in your birth-certificate, which marks the fact that you have voted, is necessary if you need to do anything that is connected with the government, such as applying for a business license, etc. People vote out of a combination of fear and need. Some are saying that those controlling the ballot booths are really Bassijis, vigilantes in the pay of government. Despite all these rumors designed to spread fear, I have never witnessed such utter disdain for voting.
This vote is also an important one because the world is watching. Ms. Ebadi, our Noble Prize winner, in her acceptance speech, asked for free elections. The European Union, whose members, especially, France and Germany, have been recipients of lucrative contracts from this regime, is watching closely having demanded fair elections. In fact the German parliament officially declared solidarity with the striking MPs. The post September 11th world has to take a more careful look at Iran with its Hezbollah links and nuclear aspirations.
A U.N. team to over-see the elections has never been more relevant. These elections will take place without them. The reformers will lose because the majority will stay home. If more than ten percent vote you can be sure that there has been meddling.
The world, especially those European democracies that trade with Iran (Javier Solana, high ranking European Union official, just recently declared, “Iran is the natural partner for the EU”), should use the failure of these elections to be democratic as a reason to put economic pressure on Iran.
You see Iranians are too scared and tired to take to the streets. Every time they do so they end up in jail or dead. My young friend, who took to the streets last summer, now, after three months of jail, stares into space and rarely speaks. Change from within is for the textbooks and far from the reality here.
South Africa would not have ended Apartheid without the enormous pressure from the global community. It is up to the world, especially those nations with money and power, to treat Iran like they did South Africa during the apartheid regime. Now that reform is dead and buried, now that Iraq has become a quagmire for the Americans — divestment, political and economic pressures may be the best ways, to deal with the mullahs ruling Iran.
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