Iran’s Engineered Elections Reelect Sanctions-Fed Regime

The results of Iran’s eighth parliamentary elections were never meant to be a cliffhanger – the hard-line camp of fiery President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came out on top; moderate conservatives maintained their stake; reformists were demoralized.

And everyone else was on vacation. Iranian New Year’s celebrations, held before and during the first days of spring, curiously coincided with a muted, and, experts say, engineered electoral process.

"So much of what the government did was presented in a sleight of hand," said Ali Ansari, head of Iranian Studies at the prestigious University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, during a talk last Friday at the New America Foundation think-tank in Washington. "Things were rigged on quite a monumental scale."

While the introduction of electronic voting in the capital Tehran may have certainly facilitated voter manipulation, rigging need not occur in the form of high-tech ballot stuffing, especially when the government institutions themselves are used to manufacture and engineer the field of candidates.

Part of the vetting process involved excluding potential candidates who, in many cases, did not otherwise feel that they were members of the opposition, said Ansari. "In this case, they actually created an opposition, people who were very staunch loyalists to the system in the end."

The result is a competition between insiders, at the expense of those excluded for a myriad of reasons.

The republican institutions of the country – such as the Interior Ministry – once served as bastions for reformist ideology and competed with the Guardian Council for management of the elections. But with the president’s office firmly in the hands of Ahmadinejad, and a majority of hard-liners and conservatives ready to give his cabinet selection final approval, these government organs have landed firmly in the ideological orbit of the conservative base.

This March, they served as the first line of attack in a double-vetting process, in which 1,700 candidates were barred from running.

"What they’ve done is they’ve picked and chosen these candidates in such a way so as to ensure that there is no competition in a number of constituencies," said Ansari. "They targeted all those reformists that were basically well-known so that they would not have that name recognition with the public."

The reformists who did run managed to capture 31 seats in the first round, but conservatives trounced them nationally three to one. Pro-Ahmadinejad hard-liners took 90 seats, moderate conservatives 42, and independents with loyalties to both camps took 39. Eighty-eight seats remain up-for-grabs in the run-off elections scheduled for Apr. 25.

Government officials and media placed voter turnout out at 60-65 percent, but figures from Iran’s Interior Ministry suggest much lower numbers – 52 percent nationally, and no more than 30 percent in Tehran.

In the opaque and enigmatic game of Iranian politics, analysts see one constant: the internal strategy consists of gaining the loyalty of the true executive of the government, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.

"The Supreme Leader has successfully and clearly shifted the competitive hard-line politics to the right, so that the form of democracy applies to the fight between hardliners and moderate conservatives; reformists remain marginalized," said Christian Science Monitor reporter Scott Peterson Tuesday on Capitol Hill, during a panel hosted by the National Iranian American Council.

The new arrangement may also bring Khamenei out of the shadow of power, exposing him in ways that he has not yet coped with. So far, Ahmadinejad has been able to maintain his support, even though the president has been dogged by criticism of his administration’s mismanagement and incompetence, some of it from within the conservative camp.

Even with a sputtering economy and 20 percent inflation, he presses on as the chief bullhorn for the regime’s defiance on the nuclear issue. Ahmadinejad announced a major expansion of uranium enrichment on Tuesday, saying that scientists were putting 6,000 centrifuges into place, twice the current number. Even if the facts are exaggerated and remain unsubstantiated, the nuclear issue is one piece of political turf the conservatives have dominated.

"Attitudes on the nuclear program have hardened," said Barbara Slavin, a former USA Today reporter and fellow at the United States Institute for Peace. "The government has been very effective in convincing Iranians that they really must have a nuclear program."

There is also a perception among Iranians that they are being unfairly sanctioned by the international community for what amounts to a double standard, said Peterson. Many Iranians ask why there is no discussion of Israel’s 200 nuclear warheads, or those in Pakistan. This month, India and the US signed an unprecedented agreement that would provide US nuclear power assistance to India while allowing the country to substantially step up its nuclear weapons production.

"It is the reason Iranians feel these are political decisions being made by the [U.N. Security] Council and the bottom line result is that there is clear defiance on the part of Iranians that is quite widespread," said Peterson.

As the international community mulls over a third round of sanctions, it appears the restrictions have already had deleterious effects, but not against the people the Security Council intended them to. The limited access of the Iranian economy to international banks has moved the banking sector underground, or, rather, across the Persian Gulf.

"The United Arab Emirates remains a great clearinghouse for all sorts of laundering of Iranian transactions," said Slavin. Furthermore, the sanctions have made the population even more dependent on the government for economic benefits, strengthening patronage networks of the ruling class.

"There is a middle class that’s really operating outside of this old boys’ network and these sanctions are crushing that middle class," said Ahmad Sadri, an Iran expert who teaches at Lake Forest College near Chicago.