How the U.S. should respond to Iran’s election
May 24th, 2013
08:53 AM ET

How the U.S. should respond to Iran’s election

By Dwight Bashir, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Dwight Bashir is Deputy Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  You can follow him @DwightBashir. The views expressed are his own.

This week, in one arbitrary swoop, Iran’s Guardian Council shrunk the list of presidential candidates for next month's election from 686 to eight eligible individuals.  It should come as no surprise that all of the serious contenders are loyalists to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Still, the decision did hold some surprises, not least the disqualification of former two-term President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The exclusion of Rafsanjani, 78, speaks to something greater than his age. If we learned anything from the stolen June 2009 election, it was that the regime would do anything to maintain its stranglehold over the country. The last election highlighted a regime fighting for its life by invoking its repressive religious ideology to stifle a tidal wave of dissent and protest, and the banning of Rafsanjani is the first clear sign during this election cycle that Khamenei will do anything to avoid a repeat of 2009. The reality is that since then, Rafsanjani has become a greater adversary of Khamenei and a favorite of the reformist Green Movement.  To allow him to run would be tantamount to giving pro-reform Iranians a rallying icon.

Sadly, there is now no serious candidate opposing the government or its policies, meaning the elections will likely be an exercise in futility.  Washington should therefore take heed as Western powers head back to the negotiating table with Iran over its nuclear pursuits. One need only look at Iran’s political system to see why.

For a start, the vetting body that makes up the Guardian Council is a group of 12 Shia Muslim clerics and jurists, six of whom are handpicked by the Supreme Leader and the other six confirmed by parliament. As expected, the body removed all 30 female candidates from the list – while nothing in the constitution explicitly restricts candidates to men, the Council has never permitted a woman to run for office in the Islamic Republic’s 34 years of existence.  Non-Muslims are explicitly barred from office and vague eligibility qualifications include allegiance to the Islamic Revolution and the Supreme Leader, by far the most important determinant.

More from GPS: Why Iran isn't the Soviet Union

In addition, Iran’s absolutist application of velayat-e-faqih – or rule by the Islamic jurist – as conceived in 1970 by the original Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is the foundation that cements Iran as the world’s only functioning theocracy. Through this particular application, which undergirds Iran’s 1979 constitution, all democratic procedures and rights are subordinate to the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader. In fact, Iran’s constitution effectively mandates that the Supreme Leader himself approve all key domestic and foreign policy decisions.  To top it off, Khomeini’s absolutist interpretation is rife with anti-Semitic, anti-Baha’i, anti-Christian, and anti-Western sentiments that permeate the system and drive egregious human rights violations, particularly on the basis of religion or belief.

Iran’s regime is using such mechanisms to ensure its survival in the face of rising public dissent.  It aims to silence any voice, movement, or creed that does nothing more than question it, and punishes with imprisonment, torture, and death anyone who openly disagrees with it.  The staggering number of prisoners of conscience – from journalists to political dissidents, women’s rights advocates to student activists, ethnic and religious minorities to human rights defenders – held today in Iran is another indication that the regime’s strategy remains one of survival by repression.  For example, for more than two years, 2009 presidential candidates Mir-Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi – de facto leaders of the Green Movement – remain under house arrest.

As the United States and other Western powers seek to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions, they would do well to raise publicly the regime’s thwarting of true electoral democracy and its abuse of pivotal rights, including religious freedom. Indeed, the two are connected – the government’s lack of accountability to its people fuels unaccountability on the nuclear front. By pressing the government publicly on democracy and human rights, the West can embolden reformists in Iran to rise further to the surface and demand genuine reform. If the thrust for reform were to reach genuine critical mass, the government would have little choice but to accept reform over repression as a means for survival.

A good start would be for the United States to pursue a dual-track effort of identifying additional officials responsible for severe human rights and religious freedom violations and impose sanctions as delineated under CISADA, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act. To date, the United States has only named about a dozen mid-to-high-level officials while the European Union has named several dozen more.

The U.S. and EU would send an unequivocal and unified message if it identified Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the top official responsible for severe abuses. Not only would it be the right thing to do, but it would also send an unmistakable signal that the West cares as much about the Iranian people – including dissidents – and their future as it does about preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

At the very least, a dual-track initiative would tease out the regime’s true motives. At most, it would create a greater impetus for authentic change, compelling Iran to act more responsibly in the world as it becomes more responsive to its people.

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Topics: Elections • Iran • Middle East

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soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. It's

    It's a rigged election just like last time. Who cares how the US responds. The Iranian people should respond harshly again!!!!!!

    May 24, 2013 at 9:37 am | Reply
    • wjmccartan

      Can you prove it, It's? I bet not!

      May 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Reply
      • It's

        Mass rioting in the streets pretty much proved it last time. Can you prove it wasn't rigged?

        May 24, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
      • wjmccartan

        Hey moron, still at I see you pile of dung, between you and general patton using my name its kind of annoying. Although you can have the name I've taken to calling general patton. You dickwad.

        May 24, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  2. sasss31

    FREE IRAN! Regime change and regime change only.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:08 am | Reply
    • Marine5484

      It appears that this Dwight Bashir has brainwashed you too, sasss31. These right-wing fanatics in Washington and London wish to once again set up a puppet regime in Iran and thus take over it's oil reserves and that's all there is to it!

      May 24, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  3. sand

    if anyone wants to see a real garbage country then go to Azerbaijan that’s real piece of real garbage if the Iranians are radicalised then the Azerbajanis are gold diggers at least when iran does something wrong the news reports it in azerbaijan there are human rights violations and corruption every day the only reason cnn has not reported on this is because Azerbaijan is allied to the USA and Israel. what does turkey want i tell you they want a world war and after that the usa and russia have nuked and destroyed each other then the turks will come and conquer them its the typical nomad or nomadic turkic war strategy let 2 parts fight each other and weaken each other then the turks will take there land when they are at there weakest.

    May 24, 2013 at 11:49 am | Reply
    • wjmccartan

      The one thing I will give you Sand is that you always at least your own handle every time you post. Besides that though your blowing smoke out your a s s if you think Turkey has any chance of a real world power. Remember though that they are an ally of Nato and not an enemy, unlike Iran's theological leadership. This will just be one more vote that doesn't represent the majority of the populace.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Reply
      • Wasnt Mee

        The Turks have reason to believe they can control the world. They did control "the world" for many more years than we have. They believe it can happen again. So do the Persians. We forget their history of the world. Our world has never accepted an outside invasion but every country in Europe has been conquered many times with the exception of China.

        May 29, 2013 at 9:08 am |
  4. wjmccartan

    I have thought a little bit more about the question and I believe a good place to start would Heckling, Heckling, and more Heckling. Your leader has a rubber beard, your leader couldn't find Mecca with a map for slow learners, your leaders sandles look like they belong on a girl.

    May 24, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  5. Joblin

    I love iran and plan to vote and love my leaders, hate the usa meddeling.

    May 24, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Reply
    • mohammad

      Good for you. Seems the regime take care of you very well.

      May 26, 2013 at 8:49 am | Reply
    • Edgar

      You love your leaders? You might be one of the few. A new leader in Iran means the same saddle but a different donkey.

      June 1, 2013 at 7:56 am | Reply
      • Mahmoud

        Is this the saying of your parents or teacher to write like this and insult a nation?? If you do not like my country and my chose, it does not mean that i should follow you. I am voting and i am the one who chose the president and leader and the rulings of my country . Please read your writing again

        June 1, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  6. Noah

    I found the articles full of celiche statements. Something to be in line with previous analyses by the similar sources. A boring article.

    May 25, 2013 at 1:21 am | Reply
  7. mohammad

    This the last year of this regime. Believe me. The regime so stupid that do not noticed the same policy as iraq was implemented for them by us and 5 1.

    May 26, 2013 at 8:54 am | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    We now all know that the next president will be a conservative loyal to the ideas of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Although he is the absolute ruler of the Islamic Republic, he still urged the citizenry to go to the polls. For his government, which is a mixed clerical and parliamentary system, the elections are seen as key affirmation of its legitimacy, however flawed the process may be.

    May 26, 2013 at 10:55 am | Reply
  9. Wasnt Mee

    What we need to do first is get a better understanding of their history as they see it. Give them the respect of their past and encourage them to join us. Second, we provide whatever is necessary for the population to have access to the internet. Their people will rise up and demand more freedom. Then and only then can we "deal" with Iran. I can recall working with Iranians in the 70's. They were great friends and totally stressed when the revolt came. My customers ran them out and the citizens ran them out of their homes. These are regular people. It is the government controlling by force. One thing different between Iranians and us is Americans will put up a fight. And will fight to the death if necessary. My Iranian friends were far more passive than an American. That is the crux of their protest. They believe we are crude, self centered brats who just now came on the world scene. Maybe so. You wanna fight about it?

    May 29, 2013 at 9:21 am | Reply
  10. dave

    What have you been smoking, Mr. Bashir? It is nobody's business how the Iranians runs their elections!? They have 10 thousands of years more experience than us and the Arabs in running an empire or a country. Problems are created and magnified when the foreigners and their traitor stooges, under the false claim of human rights & freedom, pretend care and interfere!? Of course, Mr. Bashir needs to keep his zio ni st s owned media bosses happy with this propaganda article to get his weekly paycheck!? Anybody can travel to Iran and see for himself that most of these articles are special interest goal driven as propaganda!?

    May 30, 2013 at 2:47 am | Reply
  11. Mahmoud

    I invite all of you my friends to come to my country to see lots of the propaganda about IRAN is wrong. If we had not oil or we were under the flag of some countries, there would not be this propaganda. See you soon.

    June 1, 2013 at 11:10 am | Reply

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