The decision by Iran’s Guardian Council to bar the long-time Iranian leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from participating in its June 14th presidential election prompts two thoughts about the Islamic Republic.
First, despite fanciful notions by some top U.S. officials, Iran is no democracy. Second, despite equally fanciful notions by some U.S. “experts,” Rafsanjani is no moderate who might have nourished a new U.S.-Iranian relationship.
Let’s take these one at a time.
That an authoritarian regime would pretend to be a democracy – with candidates, elections, and the like – is nothing new. The Soviet Union famously held elections in which the Communist Party picked candidates for various offices who then reportedly received about 99 percent of the vote.
The process may be more convoluted in Iran, and leaders like Rafsanjani may come and go, but nothing occurs that would threaten the iron grip of a brutal theocracy that was born with the 1979 revolution and continues to rule.
In Iran, the Guardian Council determines who is qualified to run for President. The 12-member council includes six chosen by Iran’s “Supreme Leader” (the nation’s most powerful person) and six chosen by parliament based on the nominations by the head judge, who is appointed by the Supreme Leader. Thus, you can’t realistically run for President unless the Supreme Leader approves.
The Supreme Leader is elected not by the Iranian people but, instead, by a body known as the Assembly of Experts. That body can remove the Supreme Leader but, in fact, it has never exercised such power. Iran has had only two Supreme Leaders since its birth – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who presided until his death in 1989, and the current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
By the time registration to run for President had closed on May 11th, nearly 700 Iranians had filed their papers. In the end, the Guardian Council had approved just eight.
But, if the regime is an autocracy with just superficial trappings of democracy, that reality has apparently escaped the notice of an impressive, and bipartisan, collection of high-ranking U.S. officials.
President George W. Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, claimed in 2003 that Iran was distinctly different from the other two members of Bush’s “axis of evil” (Iraq and North Korea) because of “its democracy.”
President Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, called Iran “an elected, legitimate government” during his confirmation hearings early this year. Though Hagel’s comment proved embarrassing to the Administration, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed it a month later, saying, “Iran is a country with a government that was elected.”
Next month’s “elections” hold little promise of spurring a governmental change in a direction that the West would favor. Sizing up the eight candidates, the New York Times wrote that they “reflect the different shades of gray that now make up Iran’s establishment, a coalition of conservative clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders known as the traditionalists… only one, Hassan Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, has even slightly different stances from the traditionalists.”
That’s led some observers to mourn Rafsanjani’s demise, as if this savvy operative who started his political rise as an aide to Khomeini might have pushed the regime in a less hostile, more cooperative direction.
During Rafsanjani’s presidency, which ran from 1989 to 1997, he spearheaded murder and mayhem at home and abroad.
At home, he jailed, tortured, and killed intellectuals and other dissidents. Abroad, he directed the murder of Iranian dissidents in Europe, reportedly ordered the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 and injured more than 300, and is linked to the 1996 bombing of Saudi Arabia’s Khobar Towers by Hezbollah, Iran’s favorite terrorist client, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
“It is not difficult to kill Americans or Frenchmen,” he reportedly observed at one point. “It is a bit difficult to kill [Israelis]. But there are so many [Americans and Frenchmen] everywhere in the world.”
After helping to activate Iran’s clandestine nuclear program as chairman of Iran’s parliament in the 1980s, he spoke in 2001 of using nuclear weapons against Israel: “The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything,” he said. An Israel nuclear counterattack, however, “will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.”
The events of this week remind us that the Islamic Republic remains a harsh theocracy – and that almost certainly won’t change no matter who prevails in next month’s “democratic election” for President.
Lawrence J. Haas was Communications Director and Press Secretary for Vice President Al Gore. He writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs and is the author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”