What If There Were Free Elections in Iran?

"What is the most important reason for the decline of Iranian soccer?" Following a series of humiliating defeats for the national team, Iran's popular Channel 3 program 90 Minutes invited viewers to express their opinion through text messages. The viewers had the choice between three options: "1. Weak management," "2. Technical weakness of the coaches," and "3. Decline and farewell of the golden generation of soccer players."

As soon as the program went on air, the Iranian opposition, the Green Movement, urged viewers via the Internet and text message to vote for the third option. Much to the surprise of the host of the television program, 75 percent of the poll's respondents did so. This is an ingenious example of the opposition's expressing its discontent in an atmosphere of censorship of the press, and it's a good indicator of how strong that movement has grown. Were free elections held in Iran, the current regime would be in danger of losing power.

That's why the Islamic Republic's political leadership is bound to ignore opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi's five-point plan to solve the political crisis in the country: Responsible government, free and fair elections, freedom to political prisoners, freedom of the press, and the right to establish political parties.

Having cornered itself and lacking political instruments to solve the current crisis, the Islamic Republic is left with few other means but use of extreme force and terror to secure its survival.

Mousavi's five points imagine the near-impossible. It may be too late for the Islamic Republic to correct the past and reform itself. Were Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government responsible, the crisis would not have gone this far. The Islamic Republic's ten-year track record of "guided elections" shows that the regime is fundamentally incapable of allowing free and fair elections. Under current circumstances, free elections would bring radical reformers into office, rather than cautious reformers like Mousavi, Mehdi Karrubi, and former Pres. Mohammad Khatami, who still try to operate within the framework of the system. Freedom of political prisoners would certainly go against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards' advisers, who try to terrorize the public into submission, while freedom of the press and allowing political parties would bring the certain collapse of a regime what has based its power on state control of information and suppression of independent political parties.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the regime leadership considers Mousavi's plan a suicide pill rather than a medicine. Having cornered itself and lacking political instruments to solve the current crisis, the Islamic Republic is left with few other means but use of extreme force and terror to secure its survival. For the time being, terror seems to be the preferred method of the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, who may even consider the current crisis a welcome opportunity to purge the regime of undesirable elements and authorize the ideological armed forces to intervene even more actively in the political, economic, and spiritual life of the Islamic Republic. At some point, even the Supreme Leader may find himself a puppet of the Revolutionary Guards, authorizing mass murder of the public. The Intelligence Ministry's prohibition against cooperation with more than 60 non-governmental organizations including leading think tanks in the United States, on charges of their being engaged in "subversive activities" in Iran must be seen as legitimizing more pressure.

However, denial of internal divisions does not solve the legitimacy crisis of the Iranian regime, imagined foreign enemies no longer rally the public around the flag, and it is doubtful that the Iranian population can be terrorized into submission for long, since increased terror is bound to radicalize the society in the fight against the oppressive state.

Ali Alfoneh is a visiting research fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Ali Alfoneh's research areas include civil-military relations in Iran with a special focus on the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Alfoneh has been a research fellow at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College and has taught political economy at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

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