For a theocracy, Iran has a remarkable number of elections. But the theocrats are taking no chances. Now that the nuclear deal Tehran reached with the US and international powers has started to open up Iran’s economy and smooth the rougher edges of its abrasive relations with much of the world, its rulers would appear to believe, with Alexis de Tocqueville, the great 19th-century liberal thinker, that “the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform”.
Thus the phalanx of unflinching jurists in the regime’s Guardian Council has crashed through the ranks of reformist candidates in elections this month to the 290-seat majlis, or parliament, and 88-member Assembly of Experts. The Guardian Council, an appointed body that vets candidates and can veto laws — including episodic attempts by the majlis to curb its arbitrary powers — has let through only 30 of roughly 3,000 reformist hopefuls, many of them partisans of Hassan Rouhani, the moderate president. As Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, explained last month: “If the agents of penetration somehow manage to enter [the] foundations of the Islamic Republic, they will weaken the bases of the system and will eat them from the inside like termites.”
In power since the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, Iran’s rulers are best seen not so much as convinced theocrats but as a post-revolutionary elite of vested interests using religion as their standard. The institutions of theocracy, such as the Guardian Council or the Assembly of Experts that selects the supreme leader, guarantee their own hegemony over the republican institutions, such as the elected majlis. In that sense they are like Chinese Communist party plutocrats, whose interest is not socialism but power and control. And having seen what happened to the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev added the political opening of glasnost to the economic restructuring of perestroika, they have a clear preference for the Chinese model: open up the economy but not the politics.
The Guardian Council will this week publish a final list of approved runners in the February 26 elections, and probably reinstate some barred candidates — including perhaps Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Imam Khomeini and thus revolutionary aristocracy. Its intent will be not so much to relent as to underscore the magnanimity of the theocracy. Yet not all regime enforcers are so confident.
They know from experience that Iran’s republican institutions and contested elections have a life of their own. In 1997, with the landslide election of Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president; in 2009, when they had to repress mass protests against the rigged re-election of populist president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad; and now, they fear, with the popularity of Mr Rouhani — voters keep on springing surprises. Moreover, this is a youthful society with a socio-economic profile similar to those of the countries upended by the turmoil of the so-called Arab spring that has sucked Iran further into proxy warfare across the region.
A European diplomat in the thick of last year’s negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, comprising the regime’s praetorians, was fearful of the consequences of success; “that kind of change is, over time, regime-changing”. They may be right. Can they keep the lid on?
Mr Rouhani, like Mr Khatami (whose silky, smiling features resemble those of his predecessor but one), looks unlikely to challenge the foundations of the Islamic Republic. Mr Khatami chose not to confront head-on a power structure built around the Khomeinist concept of the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” (Wilayat al-Faqih), which vests supreme power in unelected clerics who can overrule popularly elected politicians and who answer to the supreme leader. Mr Khatami was an avowed admirer of de Tocqueville but, more tellingly, had translated Machiavelli into Persian.
Yet the Islamic Republic has shown it is not an impregnable fortress immune to change. Its guardians’ and enforcers’ attempts to stamp out the reformist impulse at home is not enough either. Iran is not just reintegrating with the world economy. As a result of its expansive influence in neighbouring Arab countries, particularly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that catapulted the majority Shia into power and the current civil war in Syria, where it is propping up a minority regime against a Sunni majority, it has forged a Shia axis — but with long lines to defend.
In Iraq, for instance, it is already manoeuvring to prepare a more Tehran-friendly clerical leadership ahead of the succession to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, now 85 and arguably the foremost religious authority in the Shia world, who is hostile to the Khomeinist concept of clerical rule and opposed to IRGC-backed militia in his country. The eruption of the jihadist caliphate in Iraq and Syria is not just a threat to Iran’s borders. This weekend’s Isis bombings at the Shia shrine near Damascus of Sayyida Zeinab — daughter of the first Shia Imam Ali and granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed — looks like an attempt to replicate the al-Qaeda bombing of a Shia shrine at Samarra 10 years ago this month, which unleashed apocalyptic sectarian carnage. Iran guardians have more than elections to ponder.