Iran Election Watch 2013: The Islamic Republic to carry out most closed elections in its history?


In a recent long-form analytical article published on the hardline website Jahan News on 27 January 2013, Reza Sarraj laid out what he asserted was the United States’ strategy toward the Islamic Republic will be in the next several months. Sarraj is the former head of the student branch of the Basij paramilitary, currently a researcher for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-linked Imam Hossein University, and a political analyst for a number of hardline Iranian publications including Fars News Agency. He has been accused by Iranian student leader Ali Afshari of having participated in the interrogation of political prisoners in the past. Our article does not cover all of Sarraj’s piece, only key passages relevant to the upcoming election campaign and vote.

Reza Sarraj’s analysis

In his article, entitled “The Dominant System [United States] prepares a greater sedition”, Sarraj asserts that Iran is currently in a strong domestic and regional position, while the United States is in decline within the Middle East. Sarraj argues that if Islamic Republic is able to carry out a successful election in 2013, it will not only enhance the regime’s domestic legitimacy, but will also increase its soft power abroad, meaning that it will both be in a better position to manage the impact of economic sanctions at home and serve as a model for the new regimes that have recently arisen from the Arab Spring. Thus, he presents a successful election – one whose legitimacy is in no way questioned as was the case in 2009 – as essential for the Islamic Republic to maintain its current strong position.

In this light, he accuses the United States of pursuing a three-pronged strategy to change the balance of power in its own favour. The first element of this alleged strategy is “pressure”, which Sarraj states the United States is placing on Iran through international sanctions. Second is the fomenting of domestic “instability” in Iran. Third, Sarraj argues that the United States will use pressure and instability to force Iran to make greater concessions in nuclear negotiations, weakening the regime overall. According to Sarraj, because of the United States’ weakening position in the Middle East, it has a limited time-frame to manage its problems with Iran and in the region.

The most potentially significant aspect of Sarraj’s analysis for the upcoming 2013 Iranian presidential elections is his claim that the United States will attempt to create instability. Sarraj specifically argues that the United States will attempt to create a “greater sedition”. The word “sedition” is the regime’s code for the 2009-2011 Green Movement, which it views as having been a foreign-backed movement to carry out a “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic. Sarraj predicts that instead of “where is my vote?”, the slogan of the greater sedition will be “free elections”. This may be a reference to the demands of senior Iranian politicians, including former presidents Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami and even current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to hold to free elections. Whereas the Green Movement was a post-election demonstration, similar to other similar modular revolutions between 1989 and 2011, Sarraj presents two other models that the greater sedition may follow. The second model is a pre-election protest movement that questions the freedom and fairness of the election, similar to what happened during the 2012 Russian presidential election. The third model is the creation of a security crisis during the election, for example through political assassination, similar to what happened in Lebanon in 2005 (the killing of Rafic Hariri) and in Pakistan in 2007 (the killing of Benazir Bhutto).

It is here that Sarraj makes what may turn out to be a significant claim. According to him, the greater sedition will in fact encompass all three models. Ordinarily, any one of these models being carried out during the election would constitute a significant enough security concern for the regime to close the already limited political space and carry out repression. If the Islamic Republic believes, or claims, that the United States will use all three models to create an election crisis in 2013, the regime may be making the case for an unprecedented closing of the political space in Iran and very high levels of repression.

Implications and anecdotal evidence

Many of Sarraj’s assumptions may in reality be unfounded. For example, although Israel may try to support the opposition, as has been indicated in the past by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, the policy of the Barack Obama administration does not appear to be to foment instability. In fact, the Obama administration has in the past been criticized for not being vocal enough in supporting the Green Movement. While it is well within the realm of possibility for the United States to use cyber-attacks or sabotage to slow down Iran’s nuclear program and create leverage for P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations, fomenting instability would likely end nuclear negotiations altogether, running counter to current U.S. goals. Thus, Sarraj’s claim that the United States will attempt to create instability in the next few months appears to hold little water. However, there may be a kernel of truth in Sarraj’s otherwise fanciful theory. Economic sanctions, Ahmadinejad’s subsidy reforms, and the regime’s poor economic management, have created very hard economic times in Iran. Whereas the Green Movement was a protest movement of the urban middle class for socio-political rights, the regime may now fear facing an even more powerful movement of the working poor which stems from  economic desperation.

In a recent interview, IRGC Brigadier General Nasser Sha’abani indicated that this is precisely the type of protest movement that the regime’s security forces are concerned about. This concern may have been demonstrated by a number of very harsh and very public judicial actions by the regime. In Tehran, two youths were publicly hanged for a brutal armed robbery in which no one was killed. The images of their executions stoked outrage within Iran and internationally. In the cities of Shiraz and Zanjan, thieves had several fingers amputated. While these punishments are provided for in Iran’s penal code and are not unprecedented, their use at the present moment appears to be aimed at sending a clear message to the working poor about the consequences of committing crimes out of economic desperation and rising up against the regime.

Aside from this, the regime also appears to be taking a number of actions to severely limit the social mobilization that normally happens around election time in Iran. In the past, the Islamic Republic has allowed a greater level of political freedoms around election time to increase voter turnout and give its democratically questionable elections the semblance of greater legitimacy. However, a recent election law passed by parliament now gives the regime even greater power to limit the number of candidates who can participate. Live debates between presidential candidates, which were met with popular acclaim in 2009, will now be pre-taped and heavily edited before being aired. Finally, the regime seems to be attempting to limit the media’s coverage of the election: On 26-28 January 2013 it arrested several news editors and journalists at leading Reformist and Centrist media outlets.

Although Iranian elections have historically been controlled affairs by the standards of liberal democracy, the 2013 election may be the most controlled in recent memory. The level of repression by the regime can also be expected to be very high, although whether it compares to 2009-2011 will depend on whether a protest movement emerges this time around.