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.
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.