Russian protection, or American tutelage? This is the choice offered to Iranians in next month's presidential election by a cast of candidates that resemble a caricature of characters in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Pictured: Mohsen Rezai, former chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, addresses the media after registering his candidacy for Iran's June presidential election, at the Interior Ministry in Tehran, on May 15, 2021. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
Within days the all-powerful Council of the Guardians of the Constitution is expected to publish the list of "approved candidates" for next month's presidential election in the Islamic Republic in Iran.
According to official reports, a total of 592 men and one woman have filled in the forms for consideration as a candidate. The council, however, is expected to approve no more than seven to 10 applicants.
What is not clear is whether the council will assess the applicants on the basis of existing regulations or in accordance with new rules it published last month. The Interior Ministry, which has the charge of organizing the elections, says nothing outside the existing regulations should be at play. The council, however, says the ministry's role does not include an assessment of applications.
The dispute may furnish some fuel to feed the low-burning fire of this bizarre election. Everyone knows that the final list will be established by the "Supreme Guide" who has the final word in the Khomeinist regime.
If previous elections are to be taken as a guide, this time, too, the "Supreme Guide", Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is likely to use the election as a multipurpose exercise.
The first objective is to ensure as large a turnout as possible.
Khamenei has described elections in the Islamic Republic as referenda on the regime itself. With Iran arguably stuck in its deepest crisis in decades while economic meltdown, rampant corruption and Covid-19 chaos wreak havoc on an unprecedented scale, the Khomeinist regime is in dire need of reasserting its legitimacy.
Major-General Hussein Salami, chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, says the "Supreme Guide" wants the highest turnout in the Islamic Republic's history, which means some 80 percent of the estimated 62 million eligible to voters.
The second objective is to assess the relative strength of rival factions within the Khomeinist ruling elite and the peripheral leftist groups that still support the system.
As things stand, the so-called "New York Boys" or Americanophile faction, represented by people like President Hassan Rouhani and the remnants of the Rafsanjani-Khatami-Mussavi trio are destined for a drubbing. Initially, many pundits predicted that the faction will be shut out of the game from the outset. Khamenei, however, has decided that it is more prudent to give them a side-chair, even if away from the banquet and close to the kitchen door.
The "New York Boys" blame former US President Donald Trump for having wrecked their strategy for using the Obama "nuclear deal" as a means of reviving the Iranian economy and, in time, steering the regime towards normalization.
Some even claim that Trump's tough line was inspired by Russian President Vladimir Putin who saw the Obama "nuclear deal" as a first step towards a return of the US tutelage on the Islamic Republic. The return of the Obama faction of Democrats to power in Washington with Joe Biden's victory revived the hope of the "New York Boys" but came too late to put them in pole position in the forthcoming race in Iran. Biden's victory, however, persuaded Khamenei that it would be more prudent to maintain the Americanpophile faction, albeit in a dramatically reduced version, as a pawn that may be needed at some point in the future.
Khamenei's third objective is to help his own Russophile faction capture the presidency. That would give his faction full control of all three formal organs of the state: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. His faction could then reap the benefits of Biden's policy of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. If that happens, we would witness one of those delicious ironies that make history worth studying. In 2016, an American president helped puncture the hopes of the Americanophile faction by denying it the oxygen it needed to thrive. In 2021, another American president, from the rival party, helped the Russophiles crush their rivals.
The terms "Russophile" and "Americanophile" may need to be explained. Neither means any actual sympathy for either Russian or American ways of life and political systems. Both factions are committed to preserving the Khomeinist system, warts and all. Both regard foreign systems, whether Russian or American, as ideological rivals. Both want to "export" revolution, destroy Israel, if possible, and impose hegemony on the Middle East. In short, both wear beards, though of different styles.
So where is the difference?
First, there are different personal, family and clan ambitions and an intense rivalry over bigger slices of the national economic cake. Abbas Akundi, a minister in Rouhani's administration, says Iran today lacks a government in the proper sense of the term. Instead there are factions fighting over what they regard as "spoils of war."
All the 10 or so figures expected to be allowed to stand have served as high civilian and/or military-security officials of the regime for decades. With an average age of 62, the group is far from representative of a population where median age is below 30. Of Iran's current population of 85 million almost 50 million were not even born when the mullahs seized power in 1979.
We have two factions of the same ageing nomenclature competing over power and privilege and determined to keep all generational, cultural and political alternatives out.
Their key difference is over which "great power", Russia or America, is more likely to help the Khomeinist system survive. The Americanophiles claim that only the US is capable of helping the Islamic Republic build a thriving economy that could silence domestic demands for political, cultural and religious freedoms. After all, US support played a key role in saving Chinese Communism from its contradictions by playing the card of economic prosperity to suffocate dissent at home.
The Russophiles claim that the US is not only a fickle friend but also represents an ideological threat. The so-called "American way of life" has seduced generations of Iranians since the 1950s and, given another chance, would exercise its seductive power to woo current generations away from "pure Islam" as defined by Khomeini. In contrast, Russia has shown that it is ready to fight to protect its allies, not to say clients, as shown in Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and above all Syria.
More importantly, Russia isn't a potential ideological rival because the "Russian way of life", unknown to most Iranians, lacks any seductive power capable of challenging Khomeinism. In other words, the Khomeinist regime has a better chance of survival under Russian protection than it could have under American tutelage.
Russian protection, or American tutelage? This is the choice offered to Iranians next month by a cast of candidates that resemble a caricature of characters in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.