Today, the Iranian people cast their ballots in a parliamentary election that is widely expected to mark a turning point for the country. Unfortunately, expectations are likely misguided. Although the Iranian people will make known their will to the Iranian government and the rest of the world through their votes, the election itself won’t secure meaningful political change in Iran.
The more progressive candidates in Iran were disqualified from the election through a vetting process that is rigorously carried out by a hard-line Council of Guardians. In January, the Interior Ministry acknowledged that 402 would-be parliamentary candidates had been disqualified. According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, that number grew this month to about 700. Voters can therefore express their desire for change by voting for the most reformist candidates, but can expect to see little concrete progress.
Before the council even began its job of vetting candidates, the regime had effectively repressed reform movements. Newspaper editor Abdollah Nuri, for example, was sentenced to five years in prison in late November for offending Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with “anti-Islamic” articles in his newspaper. Mr. Nuri used the high-profile court case to expose the regime’s coercive policies and called the Special Court for Clergy “illegal” and incompetent to judge him.
Even Iran’s repressed reform movement should be regarded with some skepticism, however. Iran’s leading progressives, such as Mr. Nuri and Iran’s President Mohammed Khatami, are part of the elite, religious society that rules Iran and have helped make the repressive policies of past regimes. They are hoping to reform the current theocracy from within, but don’t appear to be striving to build a free democracy. They are reformists, therefore, only in relative terms.
That myth of the Iranian reformers is certainly at odds with U.S. intelligence. CIA Director George Tenet recently called Iran “the most active state sponsor of terrorism.” The White House policy of attempting rapprochement with Iran legitimizes the regime and is therefore counterproductive. Furthermore, White House overtures have been repeatedly rebuffed by Iran. On Jan. 30, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said “There is an attempt to probe a possibility of a dialogue and we are waiting to see what happens in the Majlis [parliament] next month.” Iran’s supreme leader, Mr. Khamenei, responded to Mrs. Albright by saying she was “naive” and said the Iranian people would “once again deal a blow to the United States” through the elections.
The elections in Iran won’t likely bring about the hoped for political changes. The demonstrations that are routinely crushed in Iran and the infighting within the ruling clerical elite could be harbingers of change, however. The West should help the process by viewing the current regime realistically.