Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, came to power in 1980 following the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. He spoke to The WorldPost from his home outside Paris, where he lives in exile.
In Iran, the main pillars of power are controlled by the unelected supreme leader. And President Hassan Rouhani has declared that the president must be submissive to the supreme leader. Given the president’s limited power, what is the role of elections in Iran?
As you said, the main pillars of power are under the control of the supreme leader, who also dictates overall socioeconomic and foreign policy. Despite this, elections, especially the presidential election, are regarded with the utmost importance because it is obvious that, without them, a theocratic regime on its own lacks popular legitimacy. More importantly, elections provide an aspect of legitimacy domestically and internationally, especially in a region ruled largely by oil-fueled monarchies.
Elections also register the balance of power within the body politic. Though not a democracy in the Western sense, when reformist forces turn out strongly and win at the polls, it provides them with a margin to maneuver. Still, one has to accept that the main winner of the election is the regime of the ayatollahs since, irrespective of who gets the vote, it is they who claim legitimacy for it.
Many millions voted out of fear, partially over more economic sanctions and even war if Raisi had been elected.
By all accounts, the turnout was huge ― reportedly over 40 million people. Why did Iranians vote in such numbers now?
First, the claim of 40 million who voted should not be taken at face value. After all, the counting took place behind closed doors without observers. However, there is no doubt that many millions voted ― and the main reason is fear.
The main fear was that Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi could become president. His nickname is “Ayatollah Death” since he was the head of one of the teams who, in the summer 1988, executed thousands of prisoners who were already sentenced and were serving their sentence. In this respect, the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, took Iranians hostage, telling them that they either have to get out and vote or “Ayatollah Death” would become their president.
There was also the fear of poverty. During the presidential debates, it was revealed that around 18 million Iranians are living in shantytowns. Further, there were related fears over more economic sanctions and even war if Raisi had been elected. In short, there was fear of a change for the worse.
For the first time since the early days of the revolution and the rule of Mossadegh, the core debates were about human rights, the rights of citizenship and democracy.
Can we say that this election is a major marking point on the path toward democracy in Iran?
Democracy is a culture in which people have the habit of exercising their rights, something that doesn’t occur without constant struggle in a theocracy like Iran’s. In this election ― for the first time since the early days of the revolution itself and the rule of our democratic Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, back before the shah ― the core debates were about human rights, the rights of citizenship and democracy. I am a good barometer to measure this shift, after all, since I was forced out of office in those early revolutionary days by the ayatollahs for promoting these values.
This gives us reason to believe that democratic culture is spreading and deepening in Iran. In effect, the public forced the candidates to address these game-changing issues.
Also, the mere fact that the hardliners, the so-called principlists, could not find anyone to nominate except “Ayatollah Death” shows that the regime has reached a dead end. Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary concept of “velayat-e-faqih” ― absolute rule by a religious leader — has become so discredited within the traditional Islamic mainstream that it cannot be used as an excuse for despotism anymore.
Khomeini’s concept of absolute rule by a religious leader has become discredited within the traditional Islamic mainstream.
During his visit to Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump made it clear that America’s goal was to counter Iran’s influence. How do you think the victory of Rouhani affects such a policy?
Former President Barack Obama’s policy was to create a balance of power between Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, Israel and Arab sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf on the other. Trump has reversed that policy, embracing an anti-Iran alliance with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms.
If Khamenei understands the criticality of the situation and lets Rouhani implement his regional foreign policy, then Iran’s situation in the world will change drastically and such alliances will become irrelevant. It would avoid what I call the six wars — terrorism, economic war, religious war between Sunni and Shiite, propaganda war, diplomatic war and military war through direct intervention by outside powers.
Let’s also remember that Trump made two moves that favored Rouhani’s policies in recent weeks. Just a few days before the election, the American president signed the suspension of certain sanctions, which was part of implementing the Vienna nuclear agreement. At the same time, he increased the sanctions directly related to the regime’s missile program, which was a warning to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
These actions both align with the reform side in Iran. I would venture to say that the reelection of Rouhani makes it more difficult for Trump to make things harder on Iran.