For today's presidential “election” in Iran, the country’s supreme leader has decided to do away with the niceties of a two-horse race between reformist and conservative candidates. As in any dictatorship, there is now only one horse running. Although at first glance it might look like there are six remaining candidates with six different agendas, a closer look reveals that there is one with six faces.
The common denominator between them is their complete obedience to the supreme leader. In fact, the “election” is making it possible for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to do away with the republican aspect of the regime and exercise the absolute power that is ascribed to him in the constitution that was engineered by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989.
This is not to say that each candidate is precisely like the other. Each opens up a different path for Iran’s foreign policy. In fact, this election is Khamenei’s response to President Obama.
The outcome can take three forms. If Khamenei wants to tell Mr. Obama that he is going to continue his current nuclear policy of confrontation in negotiation with the "P5+1" group, he may well appoint Iran’s current negotiator, Saeed Jalili. However, if Khamenei decides to tell Obama that he will determine his nuclear policy based on Obama’s policy on the issue, then Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran, will become his president. Finally, if Khamenei wants to tell Obama that he is ready to compromise on the nuclear issue, then Ali Akbar Velayati, the former foreign minister, or Hassan Rowhani will become the president.
In any case, the other candidates have no chance of being appointed, as they have no role to play in his chess game. They will be allowed to compete in order to give the impression that Iranian voters have a real choice. It is not accidental that a few days ago, the regime’s news agency, Fars, published the result of a “survey” according to which Mr. Qalibaf has the highest level of support and Mr. Jalili, Mr. Rowhani and Mr. Velayati are running behind.
None of the candidates is of any domestic use to Khamenei; they can only be used in relation to his foreign policy regarding America. A quick look at their backgrounds demonstrates this fact. Velayati was Iran’s foreign minister during the Iran-Iraq war and the Iran-gate scandal. Mohsen Rezaei was commander of the Revolutionary Guards during the war and collaborated with Mr. Rafsanjani and Khamenei during the scandal. Rouhani also collaborated with Rafsanjani during the scandal, and Jalili had been in charge of negotiations regarding the nuclear issue. During the war, Qalibaf was commander of the Revolutionary Guards division while serving Khamenei, and, as was revealed by WikiLeaks, he and Velayati were secretly in contact with the American government. Mohammad Gharazi was oil minister and involved in the secret purchase of arms.
Still, Obama’s recent decision to impose new sanctions on Iran before the election is his way of telling Khamenei that he knows this election is irrelevant because people have no real choice, and that he will impose harder sanctions if Khamenei continues the current policy. So Khamenei’s decision to appoint one of the three aforementioned candidates will be his response to Obama’s.
In effect, therefore, it is not only that people’s participation in such an election would be irrelevant, but that all votes would be votes for a regime which perceives and treats people as duty-bound minors. People are being invited to vote and ratify their non-citizenship. This is why actively boycotting this election is an act of regaining dignity and integrity as well as an act of mass, nonviolent uprising that could bring an end to a regime that prolongs its existence by systematically moving the country from one crisis to another.
Ironically, it is this sense of crisis that is causing some to resist a boycott and to take their chances that one of the candidates might actually be able to reform the system from within. History tells us that Iranians will not move against dictatorship as long as there is a threat of foreign military intervention or sanctions in the country’s affairs. We saw this during the 1979 revolution, when US President Jimmy Carter’s election assured Iranians that the country would not be invaded in response to political movement, and again when Obama’s election gave the emerging Iranian "green movement" confidence that the US was moving away from the jingoistic policies of President George W. Bush and at the time seemed to ease its military threats.
Today, many Iranians are fearful of internal political forces which have lent their services to foreign governments that have an interest in Iran’s disintegration. The current disastrous instability in the region has only increased this sensitivity.
The absence of even the threat of foreign intervention is therefore a necessary condition of large-scale mobilization to remove the present regime. If the United States and other foreign governments are sincere in their desire to neutralize the power of the mafia regime in Iran, they need to remove all threat of military action against Iran. They must also lift the backbreaking economic sanctions currently imposed on the country, which not only harm ordinary people and weaken civil society but provide immense opportunities for the military-financial mafia, and primarily the Revolutionary Guards, to siphon off national wealth through corruption. The US government does not want to reduce either the threats or the sanctions because it also benefits from the crisis that is created.
But if the US government is genuine in its stated desire to see a democratic Iran, it must stop cooperating with the Iranian regime in this way. The rest will be the task of Iranians, who are more than capable of bringing the reign of the corrupt theocracy to an end and of establishing home-grown democracy in an independent and free Iran. In a region swamped with violence, the peace-making repercussions of this movement will be beyond calculation.
Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He now lives in exile outside Paris.