Keep an eye on Iran over the coming weeks. The country is in the process of shedding the final vestiges of democracy as it heads to a new presidential election on June 14. It is a sad unraveling of an experiment that began more than 30 years ago.
Ever since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has tried to bolster the legitimacy of the ruling regime by maintaining a significant element of democracy in its unique system of government. The Supreme Leader — first Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — always had the final say, but voters did have some real input in the choice of president, a position with a considerable amount of influence.
With the second term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad coming to a close, the dominant clerics are discarding any meaningful choices for voters, making sure Ahmadinejad's successor will be someone completely to their liking, regardless of what voters want.
The real turning point came four years ago, when a reform candidate of the so-called Green Movement got Iranians fired up ahead of the 2009 election. Young people fed up with the restrictive and intrusive dictates of the clerics and their security forces mobilized the country, only to see their hopes brutally dashed. Just hours after the polls closed, the regime called the election for Ahmadinejad, sending millions of outraged Iranians into the street to protest what had all the markings of a stolen election.
The rigged election was followed by a harsh campaign of repression that snuffed out the opposition's ability to function. The main figures of the day — candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and candidate Mehdi Karroubi — remain under house arrest. Thousands have fled to exile, and scores of journalists are in prison, as are large numbers of reformist activists.
No real reformers are on next month's ballot. But that's only part of the story.
Since his 2009 re-election, Ahmadinejad had a dramatic falling out with the regime. Believe it or not, Ahmadinejad is, in effect, more moderate than the rest of the regime. He wants to de-emphasize the religious aspects of the government in favor of a stronger focus on the country's national roots. The clerics see this nationalist push as an assault on their power and have fought back ferociously.
Ahmadinejad is not allowed to run this time, but his close ally, Esfandiar Mashaei, did register as a presidential candidate.
So did former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is often described as a moderate, a term that would only apply to someone of his views in a country like Iran. Rafsanjani's decision to run created great excitement, but his views turned out to be too threatening to the establishment.
In order to become a presidential candidate in Iran, prospective candidates have to register. What is essentially an application is reviewed by the 12-member Guardian Council, which decides who will become a candidate on the basis of vague criteria, including loyalty to the Islamic revolution.
More than 700 Iranians registered. The Guardian Council trimmed the list to just eight, disqualifying Rafsanjani, who was one of the founders of the Islamic Republic and, of course, Mashaei.
The remaining candidates include Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghlaifab, nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati. One of those three is the likely next president, although there could be a surprise from the so-called moderates, including Hassan Rouhani, a nuclear negotiator many years ago (negotiations are an old, long story) and Mohammed Aref, who worked with the frustrated reformist, former president Mohammad Khatami.
The real opposition has no horse in this race. Incredibly, it is Ahmadinejad who is becoming the main opposition. At 56 years of age, he has become a despised thorn in the side of the regime. But he has a base of support and he is unlikely to fade from the scene.
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He and Mashaei, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, say they will appeal the Guardians' ruling. If the ruling stands and Mashaei cannot run, they have hinted at a plan to make damaging revelations. Ahmadinejad has already accused men in high places of corruption, and he probably has strong evidence of the official corruption that made it possible for him to serve a second term.
While the drama unfolds and the powerful in Iran become divided and bitter against each other, the real opposition is watching from the sidelines, waiting for its moment. Keep an eye on Iran.