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The Race for Iran


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Flynt and Hillary



Iranians vote in Tehran, March 2, 2012

As we have discussed in multiple posts, major Western media outlets brought an agenda-driven and intellectually sloppy approach to their coverage of the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election.  From their coverage of the Islamic Republic’s recent parliamentary elections, it would seem that there has not been much of a learning curve. 

One all-too-typical example is The New York Times’ main “analytic” piece about the parliamentary elections, see here; the article, entitled “Elections in Iran Favors Ayatollah’s Allies, Dealing Blow to President and his Office,” was filed by Neil Macfarquhar from Beirut.  This specimen of bad journalism cites a former reformist parliamentary now living in the United States, an editor for the opposition Rooz online, and the Washington commentator Karim Sadjadpour (who favors the Islamic Republic’s overthrow), to assert that the elections were carefully stage managed (by Ayatollah Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, working on behalf of his father) as part of an ever increasing dictatorship to abolish the presidency and turn the Islamic Republic into a parliamentary-based, prime ministerial system.  One can find these themes in many other Western media stories about the elections. 

To re-introduce a note of terrestrial reality into international discussion of Iran’s parliamentary elections, we asked our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran, to offer his observations.  We are pleased to present Mohammad’s article below. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



By Seyed Mohammad Marandi

Most of the Western so-called reporting on the Islamic Republic’s recent parliamentary election displayed very limited direct knowledge about Iran and often, as its authors’ acknowledged, derived its their information primarily from Western-backed opponents of the Islamic Republic.  As long as this goes on, Western countries will continue to miscalculate about the Islamic Republic’s internal politics and foreign policy—and then be left wondering, again and again, why they always get things wrong. 

Five points of fact illustrate the shortcomings in this approach to “understanding” Iranian politics.  First of all, contrary to unsubstantiated “green” propaganda intended to damage the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei’s son Mojtaba is not an important political figure.  Claims of this sort that are recycled in the Western media have little effect inside Iran.  Regardless of what they think about his policies and beliefs, Ayatollah Khamenei is recognized even by his opponents (like Ataollah Mohajerani) as super clean.  Moreover, people recognize that, if Mojtaba had such an important role, he would be seen regularly involved in politics and high-level decision-making processes and institutions.  He isn’t. 

Second, changing the structure of government by removing the presidency would require a change in the Constitution, a process that has little to do with this year’s parliamentary elections.  It would require a referendum—not a decree from Parliament.  The current parliament has had somewhat poor relations with the incumbent President; if the parliament to be formed out of this year’s elections also turns out to be critical of the President, this will neither be new nor have anything to do with changing the Constitution.  And, in any case, Ayatollah Khamenei never spoke about any imminent change in the Constitution.  A few months ago, in a question-and-answer session with students and academics, he said in response to a question that there could be changes in the constitution in the distant future if it were concluded that a different governmental structure would work more effectively.  He then gave the example of the current presidential system. 

It is also inaccurate to suggest that eliminating the presidency would make the elected branches of government weaker.  If Iran were to have a prime minister it would make the parliament even more powerful.  Either way, it would have no effect on the combined scope of authority of the executive and legislative branches. 

Third, the turnout was very high in the recent parliamentary election, around 65 percent.  In fact, the turnout in Iran was much higher than in analogous off-year congressional elections in the United States (for example, turnout was just under 38 percent in the 2010 American congressional elections), and higher even than in U.S. presidential elections (turnout was just under 57 percent in the last American presidential election, in 2008). 

The decisions of former Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani to participate, along with other reformists like Majeed Ansari, Seyed Mehdi Emam Jamarani, Kazam Mousavi Bojnourdi, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson Hassan Khomeini, reflect this.  If turnout had been low, why would they vote and increase the “legitimacy” of the voting process and of the election results?  (This assumes, of course, that they are opposed to the current political order as implied by much of the Western media, for which there is no evidence and which I don’t agree.)  If turnout had been low, why would they want to be seen standing apart from the majority who did not vote? 

In fact, they knew that turnout was going to be high; they also recognized that such high turnout shows that the public trusts the voting process, that people feel their votes count, and that they are deeply committed to the Islamic Republic.  By casting their ballots these reformist leaders have stated that they accept the accuracy, validity, and legitimacy of the voting process and that they have no link to the “greens.”  If they believed the results were unreliable, why would they vote, thereby strengthening a “corrupt” system?  Instead, they have effectively stated that they do not accept claims that the 2009 presidential election or any previous presidential election was fraudulent, even though the voting process has not changed.  Merely through their participation, they have given the voting process a clear vote of confidence. 

Other major reformists who campaigned to win seats had different calculations.  People like Mostafa Kavakebian (who lost), Mohammad Reza Khabaz (who lost), Masoud Pezeshkian (who won), and Mohammad Reza Tabesh (who won) wanted a high turnout from the very start.  While they are Reformists, they wanted a display of unity and strength among Iranians against what is widely seen in Iran as Western acts of war against ordinary Iranians through embargos and sanctions.  Indeed, there is evidence from polls and follow-up panels that the publication on election day in Iran of President Barack Obama’s interview, in which he proclaimed “I don’t bluff” in the context of a military attack on the Islamic Republic, may have driven up turnout, at least in Tehran, among those who might otherwise have stayed home. 

Fourth, the fact that Ahmadinejad’s sister participated and lost (by a small margin), that many independents won seats, that reformist candidates stood for seats, and that there were numerous “principlist” coalitions taking part in the elections (e.g., Jebheye Motahed, Jebheye Paydari, Jebheye Eestadegi, Sedaye Edalat, each with a different list of candidates) and that many independents won seats shows that the elections were meaningful.  There was a broad choice of candidates and the counting process is trusted and reliable. 

Fifth, I do not know who will be the next speaker of parliament.  But, contrary to uninformed Western speculation, Ayatollah Khamenei never involves himself in such issues.  If, as many Western analysts and reporters claim, the Leader is out to have a subordinated parliament under the speakership of Gholam Haddad-Adel, then based on this logic he would have told Ali Larijani four years ago not to stand against then-parliament speaker Haddad-Adel and, as Mr. Larijani is an ally of the Leader, he would have acceded.  In fact, the reason why the majority of parliamentarians voted to make Mr. Larijani their speaker four years ago was their perception that he would be more critical of President Ahmadinejad.  If, as Western pundits now commonly assert, the Leader wants to weaken Ahmadinejad, he should support Mr. Larijani’s continuation as speaker.  The logic underlying such speculation is clearly flawed—in no small part because it is based on information produced in the imaginary world of Western-based and funded greens and anti-government commentators.

Despite sanctions and other forms of international pressure, the Islamic Republic has the strong support of the public.  In contrast to many countries allied to the West, it has meaningful elections that include candidates with very different political views.  In my view, there is no doubt that the Islamic Republic is here to stay and that it will outlast the dying dictatorial regimes on the other side of the Persian Gulf.




Flynt recently made a short video for Penn State’s School of International Affairs, where he holds a faculty appointment, about a range of Iran-related issues, click  here or on the video pictured above.  He discusses the impact of sanctions and other sorts of coercive pressure on Iran, arguing that “we are not going to be able to sanction them, browbeat them, or even bomb them into surrender.  We need to be able to come to terms with them.”  Doing that starts with “accepting the Iranian revolution, and accepting the political order that came out of it, the Islamic Republic, as an enduring and legitimate political entity, with legitimate national interests.”  He explains why this is the only workable basis for “strategically grounded rapprochement” between Washington and Tehran, and elaborates on the nature of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett




Hillary appeared on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story earlier this week to discuss the role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in U.S. presidential elections, click here or on the picture above.  The other panelists were John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago international relations scholar and co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, and Larry Greenfield of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the oldest “think tank” associated with the Israel lobby. 

One of the more consequential exchanges in the program occurs early on.  Asked why American presidents and presidential candidates come with such regularity to AIPAC, Hillary notes that there are, of course, highly valued “tactical” benefits to doing so—raising money, getting votes (especially in potentially decisive swing states like Florida and Ohio), etc.  But there is also an important strategic context:  AIPAC provides a forum for presidential candidates (including incumbents running for reelection) to show that they “believe in U.S. exceptionalism” and “U.S. preeminence”; that they believe the United States “is still very much the ‘indispensable nation’ in the world”; and that it still “has decisive influence in the Middle East” and “is not going to let that influence in the Middle East go”.  In short, it is a well-established and friendly forum for presidential aspirants to demonstrate their commitment that the United States should “continue to dominate and be a hegemonic influence in the Middle East.” 

We, of course, argue that this post-Cold War “imperial turn” in America’s Middle East policy—manifested in its invasion and occupation of Iraq, in its posture toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the Arab-Israeli arena, and in many other ways—has been grossly counter-productive for the United States’ strategic position in the region (as well as lethally destructive for many people living there).  But, in the Inside Story segment, it is striking how readily Larry Greenfield agrees with Hillary’s assessment of why presidential candidates flock to AIPAC’s annual policy conference.  Asked what AIPAC wants to hear from candidates, he opens his response by noting that is wants to hear a clear expression of “the strategic drivers that Hillary mentioned”, including “the strong role of America in the Middle East, its alliance with Israel, and its strategic relationship with democracies [sic!].” 

The connection between America’s post-Cold War quest “to dominate and be a hegemonic influence in the Middle East” and AIPAC’s elevated influence in American politics over the past two decades is crucially important, but rarely noted in public discussions of U.S. policymaking.  Hillary notes that, for almost the first 40 years of Israel’s existence, no American presidential candidate went to AIPAC.  Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the first President Bush—none of them went to AIPAC.  While there has long been a measure of pro-Israel influence, the Israel lobby’s “real hold on politics doesn’t really happen until the end of the Cold War and the defeat of the Iraqi military inside the Middle East…the defeat of the last remaining Arab military, [the last] strong Arab party, and the defeat of the Soviet Union.”  These developments

“leave the United States and Israel unconstrained and focused on [for the United States, being] a global superpower, the world’s one and only global superpower, and for Israel to be predominant in the Middle East.  That’s when you have this mix happen, this push from the politics inside the United States to support this U.S. policy to be the world’s only unchallenged superpower and for Israel to have this unconstrained strategy to deploy force anywhere it wants, at anytime and in any degree necessary, according to its own preferences, in the Middle East.  That doesn’t happen until after the Cold War.” 

John Mearsheimer, who has been courageously outspoken on the issue for some time, points out how Israel, far from being a strategic asset for the United States, has become a clear “strategic liability.”  He is right.  But the United States sticks with this strategic liability not just because of the power of the Israel lobby.  The United States sticks with it as part of a larger—and deeply dysfunctional—quest to subordinate the Middle East as part of a post-Cold War American empire.  Through this warped prism, Washington sees Israeli military dominance in the region as a useful adjunct of its own strategy.  That is what the United States has to give up to develop a truly effective policy toward the Islamic Republic and toward the Middle East more generally. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Hillary was interviewed by Scott Horton on Antiwar Radio today, you can listen to it here, to discuss Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington and the various public statements, by Netanyahu and President Obama associated with the visit.  The Obama Administration congratulated itself over not letting Netanyahu tie it to a specific red line for Iranian nuclear development, short of building an actual weapon, which Obama would “enforce” with American military power. But Hillary points out that Obama has let Netanyahu push him into a more dangerous position–namely, that unless the Iranians surrender their current nuclear program (which they won’t), Obama may now be on the hook to use American military power against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear infrastructure.  All after November 2012, of course.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett