Iran's Election Process a "Sham"

Iran's "democracy" under the Islamic Revolution of 1979 is a wondrous thing, as the June 12 presidential election and its riotous aftermath proved.

First, only candidates screened and approved by the mullahs in the Guardian Council could run--in this case, exactly four presidential candidates out of nearly 500 who applied. Second, Iran's highest official is not the president but, rather, the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Third, Iran's election officials are not independent but rigorously controlled by the supreme leader. Fourth, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and other security forces stand ready, willing and able to preserve public safety if the "wrong" candidate appeared to win or protestd in defeat.

Whoever won wasn't going to change Iran's 20-year campaign to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons or its role as the central banker for international terrorism.

And fifth, whoever won wasn't going to change Iran's 20-year campaign to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons or its role as the central banker for international terrorism. The supreme leader and the IRGC control Iran's foreign and national security policies, under both "reformist" presidents like Seyed Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alike.

Credulous foreign reporters missed all of this, partly because they spent their time talking to middle-class Iranians or Iranian ex-pats who think like them rather than doing hard investigative work to understand what was actually afoot. Perhaps these reporters never covered elections in Chicago. Some commentators predicted that President Barack Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo would benefit Iranian "moderates," and some compared the main challenger's wife to Michelle Obama. Even Obama, self-referential as always, was caught up in the rapture, citing his Cairo speech as signaling "the possibility of change" in Iran.

Oh, well. There are, of course, two possibilities. One is that Ahmadinejad got 63 percent. The second is that he stole the election from Mousavi or at least provided himself ample insurance. The Associated Press first reported that Ahmadinejad was heading for "a surprise landside." Reuters then reported that "the scale of his first-round victory stunned his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi."

In fact, what was stunning was that the Western media fell for the whole charade, although it was par for reporters whose political bias frequently obscures reality, whether in Iran or America. It was also par for Obama's style of governance, which views speech making as a relaxing, convenient substitute for presidential action.

The media's endlessly incorrect narrative about struggles between "moderates" and "hard-liners" within the Islamic Revolution of 1979 will doubtless continue, because abandoning it now would be admitting the intellectual poverty of three decades of Western reporting. It would have been easier if outsiders had from the outset understood the debate between the regime's moderates and hard-liners this way: Hard-liners like Ahmadinejad want to continue Iran's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and boast about "wiping Israel off the map." By contrast, the moderates want to continue Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs but remain silent, thus more effectively deluding many willing Westerners.

Make no mistake, as the post-election demonstrations have demonstrated, there is enormous opposition to Iran's existing government structure, and indeed to the entire Islamic Revolution of 1979. Young people (those under 30 constitute approximately 70 percent of the total population) are unhappy and know they could have a different life if freed from harsh clerical rule. Economic grievances are massive, after 30 years of theologians mismanaging the economy. And ethnic discontent (only about 50 percent of the population is Persian) is widespread.

But giving effect to this discontent was never in the cards in the June 12 election, which was intended to bolster the Islamic Revolution, not to undercut it. Outsiders, including Obama, conflated the seething national discontent with the sham election process and simply misunderstood what was actually happening. Such dramatic misperception of political reality inside Iran, does not, needless to say, bode well for overall U.S. policy toward Iran's nuclear and terrorist threats.

In fact, with careful outside support, the post-election outrage in Iran, with time, could grow sufficiently to reverse the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and replace it with a system of representative government. What may be the most positive outcome from what the defeated Mousavi called this "dangerous charade" is that Iranians--and Westerners--will now realize there can be no true democracy as long as the Islamic Revolution remains in power.

Instead of continuing to play by the mullahs' rules, Iranians across the board must resolve to change not just the rules but the entire system, overthrowing the Revolution and its superstructure and creating institutions that truly allow for representative government. That would be "change" we could believe in.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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