US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage recently referred to Iran as a "sort of democracy." What he presumably meant was that, despite the fact that the real power in Iran remains in the hands of unelected mullahs, there is a level of political participation, pluralism, and freedom in the Islamic Republic that certainly never existed in the other two members of the "axis of evil," Saddam's Iraq and Kim Jung Il's North Korea. Such trappings of freedom in Iran are essential for the continued legitimacy of the regime. The hardline mullahs know that their ultimate control of the country would be in jeopardy if their legitimacy was seriously challenged.
For this reason, the national elections for the Majlis (Parliament) in Iran that are scheduled for February 20 are extremely important. However, unless a constitutional standoff between the unelected Guardian Council and the current members of the Majlis can be resolved, the election might either be cancelled or boycotted by the main reform parties. The primary reason for this crisis is that the Guardian Council has rejected the candidacy of thousands of reformers wishing to run in the election, including several existing members of the Majlis. As a result, some members of the Majlis have staged a sit-in and demanded that the Guardian Council rescind its order. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has urged a compromise solution, as has the President Mohammed Khatami.
If the crisis is not resolved, and the election takes place regardless, the results will be viewed as illegitimate by large numbers of the Iranian population. This will further undermine the credibility of the Islamic Republic, especially the unelected leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his immediate entourage, including members of the Guardian Council. It is true that if the reformers either boycott the elections or perform poorly due to public apathy and to better organized conservatives candidates, the immediate effect will be to strengthen the power of the hardliners, who will now control all the instruments of power, including the Parliament. But the price the hardliners pay will be very high, and their moment of triumph could also be the beginnings of their demise.
How could this happen? Since 1979, the clerical regime has derived its legitimacy from the revolution itself and the belief that a majority of the population supported an Islamic Republic. For the first decade after the revolution, the preoccupation was the brutal war with Iraq and its immediate aftermath. In the mid-1990s, disillusionment with government corruption and abuse peaked and public frustration culminated in the unexpected election of President Mohammed Khatami in 1997 and the emergence of a flourishing reform movement. Though bitterly opposed by the hardliners, the reformers provided another layer of legitimacy to the regime because, although demanding change, they were seen to be working within the system and not calling for a new constitution or counter-revolution.
However, after seven years in power, Khatami has failed to deliver meaningful political reforms and the disillusionment of the majority of the population is at another high point. It comes at a time when Iran finds itself in a much more precarious international environment. Not only is Iran surrounded by American military forces, but some of its activities, especially its nuclear policy, have come under increasing criticism from the international community, including the European Union. Consequently, if the upcoming elections are viewed by the rest of the world as rigged, the pressures on the regime will build, and those who support the call for regime change in the United States will get a boost to their cause and could even gain support within some circles in Europe.
However, one dilemma for the United States and its European allies at this time is that some pragmatic Iranian hardliners appear to be willing to strike a deal on the all-important nuclear issue. The price for the deal might implicitly include a "hands-off" policy on stratagems to infiltrate or interfere with Iran's domestic politics. This trade-off might be acceptable to some in the European Union, but it is doubtful that the Bush Administration will go along, since it remains highly suspicious of Iran's nuclear intentions, no matter what cooperative measures they agree to. The one issue that might change American perspectives would be a decision by the hardliners to significantly reduce material support for Hezbollah and end all military and financial support for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This would suggest a more cooperative Iranian approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which would be very welcome in Washington.
Geoffrey Kemp is Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.