TOPICS > Politics

Reformists Boycott Elections in Iran

February 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, the Iranian elections. We start with this report narrated by Louis Bates of Associated Press Television News.

LOUISE BATES: The parliamentary election in Iran is more a test of public sentiment than a real political contest, since nearly two and a half thousand candidates have been banned from running. Forty-six million Iranians can cast their votes, but they can only chose a conservative parliament. That’s why pro-reform politicians have urged Iranians to boycott the ballot.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, voted early on Friday, but his fellow citizens were more reluctant to follow suit. This election official in the capital, Tehran, reported only 50 voters in the first two hours of balloting. Voting was extended for one hour in some provinces in what looked like an attempt by hard-liners to ensure the highest number of votes. Many were following the official line.

“I am participating in this election just to show the enemies of my country that they mustn’t decide for us,” this man said. This young man said many people would not be voting because they felt they weren’t able to exercise their democratic right properly.

President Mohammad Khatami called Iranians to vote. He said that since the revolution, people have expressed their opinions many times in favor of freedom. “I hope that by taking part in this election we’ll see this wonderful result. Whatever the result, we must accept it,” he said.

Paradoxically, Khatami, a reformer, has a lot to lose. Since 1997 he’s pushed for more openness in politics and business affairs and for relaxing Islamic social restrictions.

RAY SUAREZ: So what do today’s elections mean for political reform in Iran and for rapprochement with the United States? For that, we get views from two American scholars who were born and raised in Iran. Ray Takeyh is director of studies at the Near East and South Asia Center at National Defense University in Washington. And Mahmood Monshipouri is the chairman of the Political Science Department at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and a visiting fellow at Yale University.

Professor Takeyh between the boycott by some parties and the disqualification of hundreds of candidates, if you went to a polling place today in Iran, was there anybody to vote for besides candidates aligned with the clerical conservatives?

RAY TAKEYH: No, the guardian council and other such institutions have ensured that the candidates that are available are going to be candidates that support the conservative line in terms of both political and also economic and foreign policy dimensions of it. This is a very serious crisis that Iran actually faces because what has happened in this month is that the essential legitimacy of the Islamic Republic has evaporated. It is no longer an Islamic republic, it is an Islamic regime. The Islamic Republic was never achieving the totalitarian pretensions of some of the other regional states, such as Saddam’s Iraq. Its vitality was always contingent to a certain extent on the vitality of its elected institutions. Those elected institutions have been emasculated and the electoral process has come to a standstill. Today is the most meaningless election Iranians have held in the 25 years of Islamic rule.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Monshipouri, do you agree with that analysis?

MAHMOOD MONSHIPOURI: Certainly I’ll echo the same sentiment. I will add that one of the lessons that we can draw from this election is that the Iranian people, the vast majority of the Iranian people have become disillusioned with the reformist movement and the reformists in general. So this is also a judgment on the seven years of poor performance on the part of the reformists.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what happened? In 1997, President Khatami was first elected and then he was reelected and each time there were parliamentary elections he had more allies in the parliament. Now things, Professor Monshipouri, seem to be swinging decisively in the other direction.

MAHMOOD MONSHIPOURI: It is interesting to raise this question, I think it’s a very interesting question. In the sense that cynicism toward politics has emerged among some Iranians who would say that, look, in the last seven years we have had two faction politics. It hasn’t paid any dividends, it hasn’t worked out. It has been totally counterproductive — not the sense that perhaps there are advantages to having a single party or a single faction dominating Iranian politics, perhaps if you have a parliament which is predominantly controlled by the conservatives, then you will see more concessions on the part of the groups vis-a-vis the global forces. Certainly this group cannot swim against the currents of global forces such as democratization, human rights and the rule of law and civil society and so on and so forth. So there is a cynical as the argument may sound, there is sort of a kernel of truth to that.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, do you agree with Professor Monshipouri’s suggestion that cynicism, alienation from politics, the reformists just sort of pack up and go home, no longer connected to politics or do they just emerge somewhere else?

RAY TAKEYH: I don’t think the reformists are going to go away. I think what you are beginning to see in Iran is as the conventional political process has come to a standstill, as the idea of electoral politics is no longer relevant, increasingly Iranians are going to start to pressure the system from outside as opposed to trying to change it from inside. So what you begin to see in Iran is an increasing emergence of a sort of a coalition involving disenfranchised parliamentarians, student organizations, dissident clerics and a hard-pressed middle class whose standard of living has declined every year since the revolution.

Increasingly as we are beginning to enter an era of intense political instability and unpredictability in Iran, where you begin to see a mass movement emerging and pressuring the system for change, change that was no longer, as the Professor mentioned, possible through the usual methods, expansion of civil society, expansion of critical media, elections to parliament and the presidency. Now you begin to see the movement come from the outside and try to pressure the system. I don’t think we begin– Iran has entered a period of autocratic stability. I think we increasingly are beginning to enter politics of turbulence and even confrontation, protests, defiance and demonstration.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the politicians and parties that were locked out today tried to get all their followers to stay home. Is there some significance that you would be looking for in the numbers as to whether they were successful in keeping people home?

RAY TAKEYH: Historically the turnout for Iranian parliaments have been about 55 percent. In the year 2000 it was an unusual year; it was a year of optimism and hope. The turnout was about 70 percent. If the figures go down to 45 – 40 percent, that’s an indication of political apathy. If they drop to 30 percent and below, that is an indication of political protest. I anticipate they are going to go 30 percent and below.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Monshipouri walk us a little bit through the electorate. What are the splits geographically generationally, between classes in Iran?

MAHMOOD MONSHIPOURI: Yes, I mean in 2000 elections you have the women and the youth being basically the bedrock of support for reformists. And this time around the women and youth have chosen to stay home. The streets basically are quiet, and the journalists, the reform-oriented sectors of the society — intellectuals and other professionals — have chosen to stay home and not cast a vote. So I don’t believe that there would be any sort of geographical relevance involved in this election.

The implication of that is that the Iranian people have really separated themselves from the political structure and now they are increasingly seeking solutions in the civil society and they have turned away from the political solutions and political structures. So what’s going to happen, I certainly found Professor Takeyh’s argument very suggestive — what is going to happen is this: That you are going to see reformists who have so far have been fighting the system, from within the establishment and from within the system — they are going to join the opposition in society and forge an alliance in society and become a viable opposition group vis-a-vis the conservatives.

So far, the reformists have been sort of acting in sort of a paradoxical way. They have been engaged in a system that has been dominated in terms of levels of power by the conservatives, but now there is an opportunity for them to disengage themselves from this establishment and fight it from outside, from without.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Takeyh, what happens to President Khatami at this point? He had promised not to support elections that weren’t competitive — free and fair in his own words. And then under pressure from clerical authorities, he went and supported a turnout in today’s election. Is he a spent force?

RAY TAKEYH: He is largely an irrelevant figure on the Iranian domestic political scene today. President Khatami was important in 1997 in the sense that he ushered in the message that the republic, the Islamic Republic can change by development of its institutions and through its own constitutional provisions. It was a compelling logic and an important argument and as the professor said, it mobilized the vast constituency. He has now a discredited figure in the Iranian political scene serving out the remainder of his term and to be consigned to oblivion once his term evaporates, which it will soon.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Monshipouri what happens to Iranian-American relations such as they are? There was a perception among American policy holders that it wasn’t clear who to talk to in Teheran, where the power really was and where to apply the pressure on things like development of a nuclear program — does that become clearer now once the conservatives hold all the important posts in government?

MAHMOOD MONSHIPOURI: In a sense it does, yes. It becomes clearer because there is a wing of the conservatives known as pragmatic conservatives represented largely by the former President Rafsanjani and the head of the high council of national security Hasan Rowhani who represent the pragmatic wing of the conservatives.

If the pragmatic wing of conservatives prevails over the hard-liner conservatives, then I think they will be in a position to make concessions as they have done. For instance, the point man of Iran in the negotiations of the non-proliferation treaty, NPT, and the additional protocol has been Hasan Rowhani who has talked to the Europeans in the western world and has been able to move that agenda forward. So it seems to me that the pragmatic conservatives are in a better position to get the job done and work toward normalizing relations with the United States and remaining strong trade ties with the EU — European Union, China, India, South Korea and the rest of the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree?

RAY TAKEYH: Yes. This is one of the paradoxes of the Islamic Republic. As the internal situation becomes more unstable, the foreign policy becomes more moderate. In a sense, the professor says pragmatic conservatives have been in control of the foreign policy machinery and the national security apparatus. Now they’re going to come to the United States with a deal namely that they’re willing to engage in the United States and have a more rational relationship on the proliferation issue, possibly stabilization of Iraq and the Persian Gulf as well.

So the United States stands at a crossroads. It has a choice. It can deal with these unsavory conservative actors that just undermined a very vibrant democratic movement, or it can remain loyal to its rhetoric of sponsoring and promoting democracy in the Middle East. That’s the decision the United States has to make. The people who can deliver on the proliferation issue, onstabilization of the Persian Gulf arena are the same people that undermined what, in my opinion, was the most vibrant democratic movement in the Middle East in the past quarter of a century. Do we want to hold our nose and deal with them or do we want to be loyal to the president’s rhetoric that American policy is no longer predicated upon real politick consideration but on values and promotions of democracy.

RAY SUAREZ: Professors, thank you both.