Every four years, the Islamic Republic of Iran engages in a closely choreographed farce of elections, aimed at maintaining the illusion that the Iranian people have a say in how their country is governed.
By all accounts, the farce has been successful — with Americans, if not with Iranians themselves. On June 14, the election show is set for another replay.
In February 2003, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage famously called Iran a “democracy.” During his confirmation hearing this March, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel repeated the error, called the Islamist government in Iran “an elected, legitimate government, whether we agree or not,” before he was forcefully corrected by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.
The State Department has consistently gotten this wrong as well. During the run-up to the last “election show” in 2009, it instructed the Voice of America’s Persian service to support former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Moussavi in the hopes he could put a better face on the regime and make it more palatable to the rest of the world.
Until massive demonstrations erupted following what most Iranians believe was systematic fraud in the June 2009 balloting, Mr. Moussavi had no intention of making fundamental changes in the Islamic system. Indeed, he pledged loyalty to the system of absolute clerical rule that has denied the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people for the past 34 years.
A similar loyalty pledge to the system and its core ideology is required of all candidates selected by the Council of Guardians, a body of clerics hand-picked by the supreme leader that gets to decide who is “qualified” to run for president.
In other words, no one who does not pledge loyalty to the mullahs and their supremacy will even be allowed to run for president. That is why I call this an election “show.”
Enter former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a wily cleric reputed to be the wealthiest person in Iran, who has long been the darling of the State Department and the pro-Tehran lobby as someone with whom they can “do business.”
At the apparent urging of the supreme leader, whom Mr. Rafsanjani said had “blessed” his candidacy, Mr. Rafsanjani announced on May 11 that he would seek another term as president. The Voice of America and the BBC’s Persian service broadcasts immediately amplified the news as if Mr. Rafsanjani’s election were already a fait accompli.
Mr. Rafsanjani has been a key player in the Islamic republic’s leadership from the beginning, first as an aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then as parliament speaker and de facto commander in chief during the 1981-1988 Iran-Iraq war, then as president from 1989 to 1997.
Widely credited with having persuaded Ayatollah Khomeini to revive Iran’s nuclear-weapons program in 1985, Mr. Rafsanjani has long been its biggest supporter. In 2001, after he left the presidency but continued to play a leading role as chairman of a shadowy body called the Expediency Council, he said that Muslim nations should acquire nuclear weapons as a counterweight to Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal.
“The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely, while [use] against the world of Islam only would cause damages. Such a scenario is not inconceivable,” he told a gathering dedicated to “liberating” Jerusalem from Israel.
Like his colleagues in the ruling elite, Mr. Rafsanjani views terrorism as the enforcement arm of foreign policy. Argentinian prosecutors indicted him as one of the key decision-makers behind the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires that killed 86 persons. A National Security Agency intercept revealed that the terrorist team that attacked Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in July 1996 and killed 19 U.S. airmen reported directly back to Mr. Rafsanjani himself.
Mr. Rafsanjani also has a strong track record of quashing individual freedoms. As Majlis speaker and president, he directed the intelligence services to track down dissidents and assassinate them overseas in the mid-1980s. As head of the Expediency Council, he backed the crackdown against the student rebellion in 1999, and remained silent during the crackdown following the 2009 elections.
Make no mistake about it: Mr. Rafsanjani’s goal in running for president again is to help the Islamic regime slip the noose of international sanctions and diplomatic pressures, by putting a smiley face on the regime’s domestic and international reign of terror.
Iranians know what free and fair elections look like. Ironically, so does the regime, because its members signed the inter-parliamentary declaration defining the “requirements for free and fair elections” in 1994 when Mr. Rafsanjani was president.
Those requirements include the right of any citizen to become a candidate, regardless of his political or religious beliefs, the right of political parties to organize without government harassment, the free expression of political opinions, equal access of candidates to media, and legal protections of these freedoms. None of these conditions have ever existed in Iran.
Diplomats and leaders in many Western nations seem prepared to delude themselves once again that when a mullah smiles beneath his turban, he will remove the threat this regime poses to the world.
It’s time to end this farce. Instead of supporting Mr. Rafsanjani’s election show, the United States and our partners should demand that the Iranian regime conduct free and fair elections according to the standards they themselves agreed were universal. Failure to do so could put our own freedoms at risk, since it will further enable the regime to pursue its quest for nuclear weapons unchecked.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is president and CEO of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, iran.org, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work on Iran.