Vol. XLI No. 31 July 30, 2017

Iranian Elections: ‘Democracy’ Within the Framework of Theocracy

Navid Shomali

THE presidential elections in Iran on May 19 saw the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani for a second term of office. As was widely expected by most Iranian observers, this was the most convenient outcome for the theocratic regime in Tehran. The election, from the opening of nominations, the vetting of candidates, the televised debates, during a three-week-long campaign, followed the normal practice of a carefully state-managed show.  However, the liberal newspapers and media in North America and Europe presented the election as an exercise in democracy in which the “reformers” won decisively.  

In Iran, a very tightly controlled theocracy which does not believe its legitimacy derives from the ballot box, holds sway. Popular participation in the elections is widely encouraged and facilitated by the regime to impress upon an external audience that the Iranian people endorse their clerical oppressors. Under the Iranian system, only the powerful Guardian Council can approve candidates for the presidency or any other key political office.  The Guardian Council itself is under the firm grip of the Supreme Religious Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, thus ensuring that the ruling theocracy enjoy a stranglehold on the ‘democratic’ process, which is effectively a charade.

Liberal observers could be forgiven for not fully appreciating the complexity of the power structures devised by the clerical leadership to maintain their grip on power. The candidate entrusted with executive power is carefully selected on the basis of whether the regime considers that he has the key qualities to secure its survival.

There are two main factors that chiefly shape the regime’s selection criteria in this process. Firstly, there is the growing threat posed internationally to the Islamic Republic of Iran, due to its often provocative and interfering foreign policy stance. The recent hostile diplomatic moves by the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel are recent examples of note.

Secondly, and of equal importance,  is the increasing level of internal discontent due to the sharply worsening socio-economic situation within the country, combined with a decline in the living conditions of the masses.  The regime is working on a strategy to control growing public protests in the short and medium term without having to change course from its neoliberal and outdated macro socio-economic policies.


Heralded as a reformer by certain sections of the western press, President Hassan Rouhani has spent four years in office without doing anything to address the most basic economic demands of the working poor or to improve the human rights record of the Iranian regime. Widespread inequality, unemployment, absolute poverty, environmental degradation, abuse of women’s rights, and wholesale suppression of dissent have characterised Rouhani’s first term in office.  Rouhani has done nothing to support the development of trade unions or advance the position of women in Iranian society. His neoliberal economic policies have seen rampant inflation while unemployment has soared.

Despite this, Rouhani has secured a further four years in office.  He did not stand on a platform of extending the misery of the Iranian people but as the man who delivered an end to international sanctions through the 5+1 deal (JCPOA) with the United States and European Union. The deal involves international sanctions being softened in exchange for Iran accepting US/EU demands for the dismantling of important parts of its nuclear technology and strict controls on its nuclear energy programme.   

Trump has publicly been a vociferous opponent of the deal with Iran since before his election last November, though he is aware that important voices in the US, EU and the UN are likely to resist any attempt to tamper with the JCPOA. This is not to say that Trump will not continue to pursue his objectives against Iran. His speech in Saudi Arabia on his first overseas visit recently was evidence of this. This inevitably meant that the Iranian theocracy had to carefully select its candidate for the presidency, based on a proven record of dealing with international challenges, at the same time as remaining steadfast in adherence to the traditions of the Islamic Republic. 

The list of candidates for the election on May 19 did not include any opposition. All opposition forces are banned and routinely suppressed.  The Iranian communist Tudeh Party continues to operate underground, as it has since 1983, when it was attacked by the theocratic regime and its entire leadership and many of its cadres were arrested and executed. 

However, in order to create the illusion of a contest the Guardian Council fielded a rival candidate in the shape of Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, well known for his part in the mass execution of around 5000 political prisoners during the autumn of 1988. Raisi is regarded by many as a likely successor to Khamenei, though he lacks political experience at executive level. The regime was aware that Raisi’s election would weaken Iran’s position as far as the foreign policy challenges confronting the regime are concerned.  There are a number of court cases, lodged internationally and relating to the massacre in 1988, outstanding against Raisi, potentially limiting his ability to travel abroad.    

On the other hand, Rouhani’s cards were already on the table. 

Rouhani was, in effect, the only candidate worthy of consideration by the regime, based on the fact that the Iranian leadership would wish to continue with the normalisation of diplomatic relations and cooperation with the EU and US.  The main concern of the regime has been to see the lifting of financial and economic sanctions and thus the removal of an immediate existential threat to its survival.  A Rouhani administration is seen as a grouping of mainly able technocrats, many educated in the UK and US, who are best placed to oversee this process of detente. 


In the absence of any opposition political parties, and with trade unions that are prohibited by the Islamist regime, Rouhani’s neoliberal programme was neither scrutinised nor exposed.  His reformist-sounding rhetoric was given a sufficient airing to attract voters opposed to the hard-line fundamentalism of Raisi.  The ruling circles temporarily tolerated Rouhani’s propaganda campaign up to a point but still felt the need to remind him not to cross the Islamic Republic’s “red lines”.

It is important to note that based on the statistical analysis of the election results constituency by constituency, the polling stations in the working class districts were without exception very quiet on May 19.  Workers representatives mostly omitted to cast their votes in an election, the outcome of which was clearly foreseeable, and thus neither of relevance nor interest to the vast majority of the labouring class. 

The Iranian Left in general disputes Rouhani’s credentials as a reformer. He has been a key figure at the heart of the theocratic regime right from its inception in the early 1980s.  As a member of the National Security Council, and for 16 years its secretary, he was involved in many key life and death issues. He is recognised as a representative of an emerging powerful section of the neoliberal capitalists that advocate the extending of Iran’s trade relationships with the West, including the US. However, the opposing and competing factions always ultimately unite around support for the Supreme Leader, this being the fundamental internal dialectic of the regime.

It can be safely stated that no significant change is expected in the nature of the "political economy" of the Islamic Republic and that only cosmetic adjustments to the capitalist management of the economy may be forthcoming. Rouhani will no doubt continue to defend the free market economic policy and to rely on a rigid "monetary policy" and open-door foreign trade and investment.  The price of these policies is paid mainly by the workers and wage earners. The experience of the past twelve years has shown that during Rouhani’s four further years in office, the conditions of life of the classes and strata involved in productive work, the majority of the population, are unlikely to improve.

The fact that Rouhani was considered the safest pair of hands in directing Iran in the turbulent climate of the Middle East, neither contradicts the existence of an intense struggle between factions of the regime nor its continuation in domestic Iranian politics. However, regardless of how this struggle plays out behind closed doors, all the competing factions will unite around the objective of lending legitimacy to, and bolstering the mandate of, the chosen candidate through attracting people to voting stations in a cosmetic ‘people’s ballot’. Unfortunately, the liberal media in the US and EU fall for this and in effect legitimise the predetermined result of an election in which people had no real prospect of fundamental change.