Iran's mullahs have just conducted the first round of their exercise in nondemocracy, the election of a new president.
Their Guardian Council, made up of Islamic hard-liners, largely determines everything. In this year's election, they determined who should run, disallowed a thousand contenders, and ruled out all women candidates. When polling day came, critics say, the regime even felt it necessary to cook the books to ensure that results turned out the way they wanted them to. The regime denies these charges of fraud.
No candidate got the 50 percent of the vote required to win the presidency outright. So later this week, a runoff is scheduled between two candidates who supposedly topped the polls, Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president whose two earlier terms were disappointing to moderates, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ultraconservative mayor of Tehran, who came from nowhere to seize second place, bemusing the pollsters and pundits. Conservatives are now vigorously promoting the mayor for the runoff.
Another candidate who pollsters had predicted was in second place, pro-reformist Mostafa Moin, was declared to have come in fifth. Confusion over the results was exacerbated by differing early claims about the results from the Guardian Council and the Interior Ministry.
The direst conclusion from this electoral farce is that Iran's hard- liners are intent on consolidating their power. With the Guardian Council in actual control, Iranians cannot look to either finalist for the presidency to display either the ability or the will to effect major political change.
But hold on. There were some encouraging flickers from the voters. They may have been cynical about the prospect of change emerging from this election, but they made clear nonetheless that they yearn for it. One of the most moving quotes to emerge from the campaign came from a former parliamentarian, Haqiqat-Jou. She told Monitor correspondent Scott Peterson: "The election is our chance to express the thunder of freedom."
Do they want freedom enough to barricade the streets and march militantly on the repositories of power? Apparently not. Is their first priority economic change, creation of jobs, and generation of wealth? Apparently yes.
They forced candidates to deal with a tsunami of discontent among the younger, often unemployed, citizens of Iran under age 35 who make up more than two-thirds of the population. Western reporters covering the presidential campaign reported that all candidates courted the youth vote. Even conservative candidates who have no heart for it talked of the need for change. There was break-dancing and rock music and American-style clothing and designer sun-glasses at political rallies, with the candidates themselves pretending to hipness. Indeed, a perplexing anomaly in Iran - a country whose religious leaders maintain a drumbeat of criticism against the US - is the wealth of youthful friendliness toward Americans and America.
How will all this play out? Not, apparently, by early change through political coup. The Economist recently referred to Iran's youthful electorate as having "little love for revolutionary ideals, but [having] worries aplenty about employment and prospects." It seems unlikely the new president can do much to stimulate economic reform while Islamic hard-liners call the shots. And it's improbable he can do anything to bring democratic political reform.
As for Iran's relationship with the US, this too will be determined by the Guardian Council and the unelected but governing mullahs. Critical in this relationship is the question of Iran's nuclear program. The ruling regime insists it is for peaceful purposes. The US suspects it is for the clandestine development of nuclear weapons. The US suspicion is fostered by the knowledge that Iran has consistently lied about the production of nuclear material that is capable of military use.
Nonetheless, the widespread evidence of youthful discontent during this presidential election campaign, and the clear expression of the desire for change, can be of little comfort to the stern men who hold Iran in thrall. As the reformist Tehran newspaper Shargh editorialized during the campaign, even conservative candidates knew they had to mouth the reformist language of "democracy, a free economy [and] the participation of women and young people." This is dangerous stuff for an Iranian regime that seeks to turn back the clock, or at least cause time to stand still, in an Islamic world caught up in debate about freedom and modernization.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.