ON just two occasions have recent elections in Iran reflected the people’s will and yielded particularly surprising and disorienting outcomes for the ruling establishment, first in 1997 with the election of Mohammad Khatami, and again, three years ago. In June 2009, the democratic opposition, led by the reformist Mir Hussein Moussavi — a former prime minister with a reputation for honesty, integrity and clean politics — polled strongly, only to have the election stolen from it through fraud.
Popular protests were met with widespread arrests, street assaults and assassinations, and a show of force by police commandos, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, militia members and countless paid plainclothes vigilantes. Soviet-style show trials and TV confessions followed. Since early 2010, except on one occasion, the ruling authoritarian clique has used sheer force, intimidation and fear to prevent public protests by the supporters of the opposition. Mr. Moussavi and a fellow opposition leader, Mehdi Karroubi, have been illegally under house arrest since February 2011.
The 2012 election, to be held Friday, is altogether different; it is a farce. Once again, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia are busy preparing, as they have in the past, to drag men in uniform and their families to the ballot box with prepared lists of the votes they should cast.
The apathy of Iranians today is rooted in the contested nature and violent aftershocks of the 2009 election. With most of the democratic opposition’s prominent figures, including Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karroubi, languishing in prison or under house arrest on trumped-up charges, reformist parties have announced that they do not recognize the legitimacy of a sham election.
We believe that this “engineered” election will yield a host of handpicked and servile deputies who simply do the bidding of the ruling elite. These so-called deputies will then be used to present a democratic façade to the outside world.
With Iran’s democratic opposition sitting on the sidelines, the race has been left wide open to two authoritarian factions — one led by the fraudulently elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and another by an equally unscrupulous conservative group. Their previous “marriage of convenience” has now dissolved, opening the floodgates to an orgy of mutual mud-slinging and a naked stampede for power.
There are no genuine ideological differences between these factions; what motivates them is a lust for power and control of the country’s oil wealth. And they are competing in a polemical race to describe how they would “stamp out” what, in official spin, is labeled as the “remnants of the sedition” — officialese for Iran’s popular Green protest movement, which was brutally attacked three years ago but has nevertheless survived.
The Green movement was born out of spontaneous mass protests that questioned the validity of a fraudulent vote count. Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karroubi, while still free, kept emphasizing their commitment to free and fair elections, independence of legal institutions, fully accountable governance and a responsible foreign policy — a far cry from what has come to haunt the country in recent years.
We are painfully aware of the tremendous challenges that lie ahead for Iran in its peaceful resistance to a deeply authoritarian power structure bent on the use of sheer hypocrisy, fear, intimidation and brute force to hold on to power.
This, we realize, is the same challenge that has been with us Iranians for over a century: the peaceful transition to a democratic, pluralistic, developed and prosperous Iran.
Several crucial tasks lie ahead of us. First, our peaceful movement has to survive the ruling authoritarian apparatus, and to build and empower the political organizations needed for the future democratic era. More urgently, though, it has to safeguard the country’s territory, its people and its political independence against the increasing perils of external threats, international adventurism and internal strife. We must oppose warmongering and jingoism, whether from foreigners or our fellow countrymen.
It is disheartening that in the midst of rising military threats against the country, certain hotheaded elements and currents within the ruling coalition appear to welcome the prospect of a military confrontation as a blessing.
In their selfish and unpatriotic calculations, a limited military engagement would provide them with the opportunity to wrap themselves in the flag, crush the domestic opposition, consolidate their rule and position themselves for a “grand bargain” with the outside world. This is a treacherous illusion and a dangerous gamble.
Unfortunately, the international community is at the moment inadvertently buttressing Iran’s authoritarian rulers. Sanctions and military threats will, regrettably, further hurt ordinary people and reinforce the demagogic propaganda of the repressive ruling coalition.
At the moment, everyday Iranians have to bear the burden of falling economic fortunes, the sheer incompetence of the government, rampant corruption, intensive repression and gruesome violations of human rights on a daily basis.
Whatever the election’s outcome, and whoever gets the majority block in Parliament, much tougher days await them all — especially since they have entwined their fate with that of Syria’s murderous government rather than supporting the struggle of the Syrian people.
The cumulative effects of an increasing loss of legitimacy, rising popular dissatisfaction and widespread economic decline will serve only to sharpen the infighting at the top. Our democratic opposition movement intends to persevere to ensure that the future will be brighter for the majority at the bottom.
By Ardeshir Amir-Arjomand, a professor of international law and adviser to the Iranian opposition leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi and currently the spokesman for the Iranian Green Movement’s coordinating council.