Sternfeld: Will Iran’s Elections Provoke a New Green Movement?

Lior Sternfeld writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

Two important realities about Iran are obscured behind the smokescreen of the “Iranian threat” which US politicians and even the US government have created. The first is that the Iranian people are highly politically engaged, and have been throughout the past century. The second is that elections actually matter; well… with the exception of 2009. The former manifests itself in every election cycle, as the average turnout on election day is around 80% (compared to roughly 52% in the US). Iran, unlike its “democratic republic” neighbors, never claimed to champion democracy per se. However, it had given weight to the public vote within the limited reach of the constitution and the political structure of the Islamic Republic. The infamous elections of 2009 were unusual precisely because the ruling elite overtly removed the popular candidate.

In the light of this democratic element in Iranian governance, the parliamentary elections that will take place in a month in Iran should win more of our interest. For the first time since the “stolen” elections Iranian voters must show their confidence in the state mechanism. However, this election incites more interest not only because of the results in the polls, but more importantly, because of what will happen in the streets. For the first time in the history of the republic, the opposition (the reform movement) will not take part in the elections.

Following the eruption of the “Arab Spring” the opposition leaders, Mir-Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karubi, wished to display solidarity with the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt by taking to the streets. It was well known that beyond than showing solidarity, they wanted to protest the fraudulent elections of 2009, and the harsh oppression since then. Shortly after this attempt to protest, the two leaders were put under house arrest, and remain there. With the two prominent leaders out of the scene, the opposition’s ideologists and key supporters, led by former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Rafsanjani and clerics like Ayatollah Dasteghaeib, decided not to participate and so as not to legitimize the process.

This decision is critical for the Green Movement. It can revive the dying (or awfully quiet) movement if the people take to the streets instead of the polls. In recent days the situation is heating up again, as Moussavi’s supporters demand his release from house arrest, along with the release of his wife, Zahra Rahvand, and Karubi. The government, for its part, threatened to add the couple’s daughter and prominent supporters to the detainees. (Some legislators even wanted to put the former president Khatami, to trial for subversive activity).

Moreover, the political map in Iran is not comprised of two sides only, but lately a third party was created out of the deep rift between the sitting president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his former patron, the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Ahmedi-Nejad had tried to secure his loyal allies’ positions and placed them in key positions in the cabinet. In order to do so, he removed many of Khamenei’s people. The ongoing rift caused the supreme leader to declare that the position of the president should be re-considered, and perhaps it should be abolished. Abolishing it means acting against the constitution, which is regarded as almost sacred in Iran. Yes, Iran has constitution, and it has been relatively well observed throughout the years of the Islamic Republic. The uproar this utterance caused brought together rather strange bedfellows: Ahmadinejad supporters, and proponents of the opposition movements. Last week there was another escalation when Ahmadinejad was quoted depicting Khamenei as dictator, and implicitly calling for his removal.

In the background of all these considerations, everybody looks at the presidential elections scheduled for summer 2013. According to the constitution, Ahmadinejad cannot run for a third term, and to large extent, much depends on the public reaction to the absence of the opposition from the parliamentary elections.

Apparently, all these developments are not much of interest in the West. None of the major media outlets in the US discuss these events. There may have been some anecdotes here and there, but no serious reporting or analyzing was evident. Without jumping into conspiracy theory, could the media feel that it is threatening “Iranian threat”? Could adding another dimension to the shallow image of Iranian society and politics complicate the picture too much?

Lior Sternfeld in a Ph.D. student in Iranian Studies at the University of Texas, Austin

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