No prospects for an Iranian spring?

With two weeks left before the presidential election, is there any hope for systemic change in Iran?

Demotix/Hanif Shoaei. All rights reserved.Demotix/Hanif Shoaei. All rights reserved.

In the streets of Iran these days, the youth remembers Ahura Mazda. Young Iranians are wearing necklets and stickers of the Zoroastrian god of a religion that thus dates far back to pre-Islamic Persian history and that has always been tolerated since the Islamisation of the country. Zoroastrian symbolism has associations with a culture and history that is much older than Islam. In the contemporary political climate in Iran, such symbolism is also an expression of subtle protest against the current government.

However, with a view to the upcoming presidential elections in June, it would be a misguided conclusion to assume the existence of a societal basis for radical change. One should not over-interpret such occurrences as a nation-wide simmering state of revolutionary intent on the part of Iran’s youth. The fate of the exuberance with which the ‘Green movement’ was talked up by the west as an Iranian freedom movement in the wake of the rigged presidential elections in 2009 should sound a note of caution. At least four further reasons explain why 2013 will not be the year of an ‘Iranian Spring’. 

First, independent of whether the ‘Green movement’ of 2009 was overrated by the west on its scale and capability to mobilize, it lacks leadership personalities capable of representing the desire for genuine democratic change, at least according to a western understanding. Mir Hossein Moussavi who, together with Mehdi Karroubi, was declared the leader of the ‘Green movement’ in 2009, was previously responsible for waves of executions of political prisoners during his time as prime minister in the 1980s. In this, the west is lacking any historical memory as well as an imagery for partially very different conceptions of democracy. In addition, Moussavi and Karroubi have been under house arrest since 2011.

Second, any fundamental systemic change is impeded by a crucial institutional obstacle: all presidential candidates have to be formally approved by the Guardian Council. This Council is composed of six jurists, elected by the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, and six Islamic faqihs, to be selected by the Supreme Leader, and monitors the conformity of candidates to Islamic regulations. This guarantees a systemic consensus. Independent candidates that would represent a genuine systemic alternative are not allowed to run. The reformist camp placed their hopes in Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had already been president from 1989 to 1997, after he submitted his candidacy at the last minute. These hopes were crushed by the Guardian Council’s recent decision not to let Rafsanjani run. 

Third, the current political landscape in Iran is fragmented more along ideological than party lines. While the reformist camp criticizes the lack of a free party system, a public dispute has flared up between Ahmadinejad’s principalist group and the conservative camp surrounding Supreme Leader Khamenei. Meanwhile, the Islamic Left is not represented, the reformist Mosharekat party is dissolved and other opposition groups are in exile.

Fourth, the power of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) remains unabated. Founded by Khomeini as a paramilitary organization whose purpose was the protection of the regime, the Guards Corps have evolved into a veritable ‘state within the state’ which suppresses any opposition. Their power has increased with the imposition of international sanctions, as these provide them with ideological legitimacy and strengthen their grip on important economic sectors. Among the Revolutionary Guards are the Bassij forces, who brutally cracked down on protesters in 2009. A massive deployment of police units and Bassij forces has already been announced in order to staunch any possible popular unrest in the context of the June elections.

After two terms in office, Ahmadinejad cannot be re-elected again. It was rumoured that he might be flirting with the idea of a ‘Putin model’, according to which his confidant Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai could have functioned as his proxy for the next four years and give way to Ahmadinejad’s return to the presidency in 2017. But the Guardian Council has ruled not to let Mashai run as a candidate, a move very likely related to the public rift between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei. Ahmadinejad announced he would contest this verdict. 

Of the eight admitted presidential candidates, the most prominent are former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s son-in-law Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, former IRGC commander Mohsen Reza’i, former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, current chief nuclear negotiator Said Djalili, and Tehran’s mayor Baqer Qalibaf. The outcome of the elections will be tensely awaited and predictions are almost impossible to make. This is a lesson learnt from 2005 and 2009. Hopes of a freedom movement for systemic, democratic change, however, should be quickly discarded. 

About the author

Moritz Pieper is a doctoral researcher at the University of Kent, Brussels.