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?

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

10 Responses

  1. “Last week there was another escalation when Ahmadinejad was quoted depicting Khamenei as dictator, and implicitly calling for his removal.”
    What exactly did he say?

  2. “threatening [the] ‘Iranian threat'”
    Yes. Western media, specifically the US (at least the newspapers as I read a large swath of them from afar) rarely mention the reality that Ahmadinejad is subject to term-limits. “Ahmadinejad” is the cover-boy for anti-Iran campaigns and this is one reason the escalation is so scary as of now: if Israel/US don’t act within the year, they won’t have Ahmadinejad as the scapegoat any longer. Most news-outlets do not mention that he is a relative moderate among future Iranian candidates for president! (nor do they mention that even green-party candidates were pro-nuclear) I fear we may not see much past the 2012 elections in Iran, as almost all evidence seems to indicate a disastrous escalation is on the way…

    It is certainly hard to argue for the merits of Iranian democracy but your commentary does justice to the topic in my opinion. I, perhaps naively, believe that if it were up to Ahmadinejad (and not Khamanei and Dennis Ross), he and Obama would have opened up some form of dialogue and greatly progressed towards a solution to the “Iranian threat.”

    • Hi John,

      I don’t know if I would go as far as depicting Ahmedi-Nejad as more pragmatic, but the thing is that understanding the whole situation better, suddenly put more options on the “single-option-table”…

  3. The infamous elections of 2009 were unusual precisely because the ruling elite overtly removed the popular candidate.

    Nothing like that would ever happen here, in OUR democracy… such as it is…

  4. I really don’t know why you continue to peddle the “stolen” election line, Juan. You know there is persuasive evidence to the contrary. Still, you persist with this, this time in the form of a guest editorial.

    What’s more, you’ll censor this comment.

    Nevertheless, I still read your blog. About 2/3 of your blog entries I still find interesting.

  5. Thanks for the post, Lior.

    I frequent JC’s blog and appreciate his perspective on Middle East affairs. I also read the Leveretts’ blog, “Race for Iran,” to get a different angle on issues pertaining to Iran, i.e., its nuclear program and its acrimonious relationship with the U.S.

    J.C. and the Leveretts seem to be on the same page on many issues (e.g., the Palestinians’ plight, Israeli warmongering, U.S. foreign policy in the M.E.) but certainly not the 2009 Iranian Presidential election. How would you respond to the excerpt below (taken from a post written on the Leveretts’ blog late last year)?

    “The Arab awakening has revived Western speculation about “what could have been” in the Islamic Republic of Iran if only the United States had provided more tangible support for Mir Hussein Mousavi and the Green Movement in the wake of Iran’s June 12, 2009 presidential election. Central to that speculation is an account of Iran’s election as one of the great frauds in modern political history. This account has been promulgated by agenda-driven Iran “experts” in the West, expatriate Iranians with an animus against the Islamic Republic, and major media outlets. Some of us have gone to considerable lengths to point out that the narrative does not have a single piece of hard evidence supporting it. But the myth of Iran’s “stolen” election maintains its hold over a significant percentage of American and other Western elites.”

    The rest of the article can be found here: link to raceforiran.com

    Thanks,
    Michael

    • Michael,

      There are many reasons why the uprising in 2009 failed in Iran, and succeeded elsewhere (couple years later). One main reason, in my opinion, is related to world politics. While Mubarak, Ben Ali, and co. were to be held accountable by the US and Europe, the Iranian regime had Russia and China to beck them up, and couldn’t care less about the ways they will use to keep the opposition quiet. The US couldn’t and shouldn’t do anything to actively support the movement, besides showing the moral support, it had given (in parts). If you’re asking whether the elections were actually stolen, then my answer is yes. Watching the political scene before the elections (mass demonstrations throughout Iran), during the campaign, and history of voting patterns (Azeris to Moussavi- a candidate of Azeri origins), one can understand that there is no other option. The elections were stolen.
      Did I answer your question? If not, I apologize- try to rephrase.

  6. I’ve always thought/speculated that the “stolen election” was merely an urban reaction: Tehranian political leanings (likely more “progressive” than rural regions) having perceived the national election totals as fraudulent… all this with the acknowledgement that Khamenei likely gets his way ultimately, whether through the screening of candidates and then the additional support of likely declaring which votes are legitimate/genuine. Without the appropriate oversight, we just don’t know.

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