May: Iran’s latest unfree and unfair election

Author: Clifford D. May - June 1, 2017 - Updated: May 29, 2017

Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May

The Islamic Republic isn’t a democracy, but a theocratic dictatorship

News must be new but it needn’t be surprising. The decidedly unsurprising news out of Iran last week: There was an election (of sorts) and the winner was Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent president. An apparently mild-mannered cleric with a beatific smile, he has presided over Iran for four years — a period of egregious human rights violations, the Iranian-backed slaughter in Syria, the taking of American and other hostages, and increasing support for terrorists abroad. Nevertheless, you’ll see him described in much of the media as a “moderate.”

At most he is a pragmatist, one with a keen sense of how credulous Western diplomats and journalists can be. He knows they won’t judge him based on such quotes as this: “Saying ‘Death to America!’ is easy. We need to express ‘Death to America!’ with action.”

In Iran, the president is not the most powerful figure. That distinction belongs to an unelected “supreme leader.” It is to the supreme leader that all government bodies report — including the 12-member Guardian Council, which approves presidential candidates. This time around, more than 99 percent of those who hoped to run were disqualified because they did not hold politically/religiously correct positions. Women also were excluded.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has had two supreme leaders. The first was Ruhollah Khomeini, a charismatic cleric with the fiery mien of a biblical prophet. The Carter administration and the mainstream media initially mistook him for a moderate as well. Anyone who had bothered to read what he had been writing since the 1940s would have been aware that he regarded himself as a jihadi and believed that Islam should “conquer the whole world.”

After Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, Ali Khamenei, who had been president, was appointed supreme leader by the Assembly of Experts, an entity whose members also are selected by the Guardian Council. Based on this it should be clear: Iran’s elections are not open, not free and not fair — even when they are not rigged as they were in 2009.

The New York Times has called Iran’s form of government “undemocratic democracy.” That’s amusingly oxymoronic but not at all precise. I would call it a theocratic dictatorship cleverly marketed to provide the illusion of representative governance. It may be helpful to compare it to the Soviet system in which the Communist Party decided which candidates could run and what elected officials could do. In Iran, substitute mullahs for commissars.

Mr. Rouhani’s main rival in this election was Ebrahim Raisi, who doesn’t pretend to be anything but the hardest of hard-liners. So should those of us concerned by the strategic threat Iran represents feel relieved about the election’s outcome?

A worshipper holds up an anti-U.S. placard during a protest rally against a Bahrain police raid on a town home to prominent Shiite cleric sheikh Isa Qassim, after Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran, Iran, Friday, May 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
A worshipper holds up an anti-U.S. placard during a protest rally against a Bahrain police raid on a town home to prominent Shiite cleric sheikh Isa Qassim, after Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran, Iran, Friday, May 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

On the contrary: As my colleague, former CIA Iran specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht has pointed out, a win by Mr. Raisi would have been the better result because it would have made it more difficult for Western leaders “to deceive themselves about Iran’s intentions.” It also would have increased “the distance between the Iranian people and their overlords.”

Journalists and diplomats who make the case for Mr. Rouhani’s moderation usually point out that he is eager for improved economic relations with the West.  That’s true but his goal, transparently, is to strengthen Iran’s economy, a necessary precondition for building a more powerful military. It’s not just coincidence that the budget of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and missile development program has risen 24 percent this year.

Might a wealthier Iran become complacent? Might it lose its zeal to fight and sacrifice in order to spread its Islamic Revolution? That was what President Obama hoped and what Ayatollah Khamenei fears. To Mr. Rouhani, I suspect, it’s a manageable risk.

During his first term as president Mr. Rouhani’s most significant achievement was concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He and his silver-tongued foreign minister, Javad Zarif, persuaded President Obama to lift sanctions and turn over billions of dollars. Iran’s economy — which had contracted by 6.8 percent in 2013 and 2 percent in 2015 — last year grew by an estimated 6.4 percent. In exchange, Mr. Rouhani promised to delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program — a program whose existence he denies.

What’s next on his to-do list? My guess is that he’ll attempt to widen divisions between the U.S. and the European Union, attract foreign investment and end non-nuclear sanctions — sanctions imposed for the regime’s support of terrorism, violations of human rights and continuing ballistic missile programs.

That last task may prove challenging: After renewing a temporary waiver on U.S. sanctions against Iran’s crude-oil exports, the Trump administration last week slapped several new non-nuclear sanctions on Iran, adding to a list of more than 40 imposed this year.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, and my colleague Mark Dubowitz call this the “waive-and-slap approach” — essentially a holding pattern as President Trump’s advisors attempt to work out a comprehensive and coherent Iran policy, one not predicated on the belief that Iran’s rulers can be appeased.

Mr. Trump’s top national security advisors are acutely aware that the ambition of those rulers is to build a new Persian/Islamic empire. Already, Iran controls Lebanon through Hezbollah, its loyal proxy, powerfully influences the Iraqi government, supports Houthi rebels in Yemen and has dispatched its own forces, as well as those of Hezbollah, to defend Bashar al-Assad, its loyal and lethal client, in Syria. Iran and Hezbollah are increasingly penetrating Latin America as well.

On Saturday, around the same time that Mr. Rouhani’s victory was announced, President Trump arrived in Saudi Arabia where the threat posed by such neo-imperialist ambition was the top item on the agenda. That, too, was not just coincidence.

Clifford D. May

Clifford D. May

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) columnist for the Washington Times and member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent bipartisan federal body reporting to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.


  • Baseri

    June 1, 2017 at 9:36 am

    You sir have absolutely no knowledge of the dynamics in a country like Iran, just close your eyes and imagine an Iran like syria and Iraq and what that would do to middle east. Iranians are slowly but surely moving towards a more open society, slow steps towards democracy are better than a missle brought to iranian plates served by Americans and their allies, we all know how Iraq and Afghanestan turned out. You simply have no alternative to propose other than mindless fear mongering rhetoric towards Iran. A win by Raisi would have been better so you could justify an attack easier….

    • dandumkhazram

      June 1, 2017 at 5:18 pm

      It is true. This article is condescending and full of the western conceit. USA makes wars, proxy wars, cold wars and world wars to support Israel. They try to undermine stability in Middle East by proxy revolutions to create a pro Israel bloc. That is why they support armed rebellion in Syria. Ironically they support the terrorist regime of Saudis who used Wahabbism supported by West and Israel to create that perpetual cliche post 9/11- Terrorism. USA and its allies dont accept that they have failed to crush the indomitable spirit of Iranis. Hell with their opinions. YOU CANT POLICE THE WORLD NOW. That age is gone, Zionist lobby.

  • david

    June 1, 2017 at 11:24 am

    So how much did you get paid to write all this gibberish?

  • Ruth Riegler

    June 1, 2017 at 11:40 am

    Thank you, sincerely, for this article. The head of the Iranian opposition in exile, Maryam Rajavi, has called Iran’s regime the “godfather of ISIS” and it’s fairly clear that she’s right – they are the primry beneficiaries by a very long way and have wreaked untold misery across the region. And Iranian officials have actually announced (in 2015) that the regime is building a regional “Islamic nation”, this was their objective from the outset (massively assisted by Obama’s catastrophic ‘legacy deal’). http://eaworldview.com/2015/11/iran-daily-we-are-forming-a-single-islamic-nation-in-iran-syria-iraq-yemen/

    • ultradonut

      June 1, 2017 at 6:30 pm

      The head of Iranian opposition! what a joke. Isn’t she the one who were listed as a terrorist by American until recently?

    • Adam

      June 1, 2017 at 7:21 pm

      Maryam Rajavi is the leader of a terrorist cult who have blood of American on their hand. First they were on Saddam Payroll and now they are on Saudi’s. Mr. May’s article looks more like paid ads by Saudis than anything else!

    • Bob

      June 2, 2017 at 3:29 am

      What are you talking about?!!! Godfather of ISIS is Israel and the US. The only two they have not attacked. But nice try Ruth. When are you going back to Tel Aviv?!!! You dont want to miss your flight!

  • Bob

    June 1, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    Okay Clifford! Right off the bat I can hear your harsh tone towards ANYTHING Iranian. As soon as I read this about OVERLORDS (Bawhahaha) : ” It also would have increased “the distance between the Iranian people and their overlords.”

    We Iranians DO NOT have overlords! You’re condescending and full of yourself. I just stopped reading your article after that. You’re just another Iran-basher in a basket FULL of Iran-bashers in the western propaganda outlets like Colorado Politics.


  • Joeseph

    June 1, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    Nonsense. The real threat to world peace comes from Saudi Arabia. The country where almost all the 9/11 hijackers came from, the country that started Alqada and ISIS and spreads the most intolerant version of Islam throughout the world. You are worried about fair elections? Then Talk about Saudi elections. oh but you can’t because there are no elections there. Saudis don’t even let women drive a car!

    All these propaganda against Iran is funded by pro Israel and Pro Saudi entities/lobbies.
    I wonder how much money the “Foundation for Defense of Democracies” is getting directly or indirectly from the supporters of these two countries.

  • Mike

    June 1, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    Yawn, I’m not concerned with Iran Mr. May. They are far more progressive than our “Ally” Saudi Arabia. Interesting that you have nothing to say about them with regards to dictatorships, threat to globs peace, human rights record, etc. Just move on with your life and stop obsessing about the imaginary Iranian boogeyman that keeps you awake at night.

  • Albert Nunns

    June 1, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    Another unfair and unreasoned commentary paid by Sheldon Adelson, carried by the neocon, Cliff May’s pro-Israeli settler organization Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which is actually not a foundation, does not support democracy and defends nothing other than their own war mongering world view.

  • Mossadegh

    June 1, 2017 at 4:24 pm

    The author hates, Iran, Iranians and Persian culture. If he had his way he would ” wipe Iran off the map”.
    Nothing will make this man happy until Iran is destroyed, if they put in his own list of people to govern – he would accuse them of something else. Put simply Mr. May is a fanatic of the very type he accuses everyone else of being and people like him will bring disaster home to America. He could not be happier if Israel fought to the last American. these are the first drumbeats of the upcoming war with Iran.
    I predict it will make Vietnam and all else before it look like a picnic.

    • Bob

      June 2, 2017 at 3:31 am

      The author is a paid Israeli apartheid supporting so called “journalist”. More like propaganda journalist.

  • Freonpsandoz

    June 1, 2017 at 5:19 pm

    Iran reelected a moderate leader and the neocons are terrified that their plans for another regime-change war to benefit Halliburton et. al. won’t come to fruition. We can’t elect a leader anywhere near as moderate as Iran did. The US now is a wealthocracy; Citizens United eliminated the last vestiges of democracy here.

  • MKhattib

    June 1, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    Iran can’t hide the lie that its Revolution was about giving back to the oppressed people when the mullahs took power and traded a despot for another form of religious dictatorship. It also shows the rank hypocrisy when the police crackdown on ordinary Iranians for using social media or engaging in lifestyles widely ridiculed in the West, but exempted for the children and family members of the powerful. It’s no different than all the hoopla that accompanied Hassan Rouhani’s rise to the presidency under the guise of “moderation” but the guy has turned into just another loyal member of the hard line willing to enforce the crackdowns on Iranian citizens his predecessor Ahmadinejad employed. Far from showing how great life is in Iran, stories like this only cast a brighter light on the hubris of the mullahs and military commanders who control Iran’s economy with a tight fist and steer its riches to their own and to terror groups overseas such as Hamas and Hezbollah and Assad in Syria. It’s sad, it’s pathetic, but it’s not surprising.

  • ultradonut

    June 1, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    It is interesting how hardliners all over the worls sound exactly like each other

  • Zereshk

    June 1, 2017 at 7:24 pm

    How many times the Idiot author has been in Iran? people like these are more destructive to USA than ISIS, they deceive and mis-inform people.

  • Mehdi

    June 1, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Now there are a lot wrong with the Iranian system, but let’s get the facts right. The Assembly of Experts are not selected by the Guardian Council, they are elected directly by People’s vote like parliamentary representatives.

    The Guardian Council filters the candidates, which is where political influence is placed. This has only been in place after the constitution was revised after Ayatollah Khomeini passed away, and it is one of the key demands of the reformists to remove this filtering and allowing people to elect the right members to the Assembly of Experts whose main role is to watch over the conduct of the Supreme Leader.

    If the Guardian Council influence is eliminated and the Assembly of Experts does a genuine job at keeping the Supreme Leader accountable for his decisions and actions, then Iran would have a very good democratic system, and this is what reformists want.

  • M

    June 1, 2017 at 8:16 pm

    Did US had fare and free election ever? Two party system with pretty rigid candidate selection, please go mind your own election first

  • Nima

    June 1, 2017 at 8:26 pm

    While the presidential elections in Iran are constrained by authoritarianism and far from perfectly democratic, for many Iranians they represent the only realistic avenue towards gradual change of the ruling system, so they do matter. The alternative is what? Bombs? Another bloody revolution?

    It is interesting that some western ‘journalists’ are just as vehement as the Ayatollahs in their denounciation of the voices for reform in Iran.

  • Robert Chang

    June 1, 2017 at 9:56 pm

    LMAO, this is called nonsense journalism. This writer don’t even know what the hell is he writing about.
    When you publish an article, make sure to support it via facts and where is your source of information.

    The so called Isis was created by the US then they invaded Iraq and topple Saddam. The invasion of Iraq saw a power vacuum which Isis sees it as an opportunity to rise into power with the backing of Saudi Arabia as the Saud’s sees this as a opportunity to further spread their Wahhabi ideology and at the same time to control their arc rival Iran from spreading their influence in the region.

    If the writer were to write an article based on facts and common-sense, then he should knew that the so called Islamist fanatics (Al-Qaeda, Taliban and Isis) are based on Wahhabi ideology which are only practiced by the Gulf states. Do you see any of the terrorist that killed many innocents in the US, Europe and Asia comes from Shia muslims? 100% of this terrorist comes from the Sunnis and 80% of the Sunnis comes from the gulf states.

    Please have some journalism ethics when you want to write an article. Such article only shows how stupid can this writer be.

  • Robert Chang

    June 1, 2017 at 10:03 pm

    May I also add that, Iran is the only Muslim majority in the middles east with a functioning democratic elected government. Every 4 years they are the only country that run a general election to elect a President. If the writer wants to talk about unfree and unfair election, why not the writer talk about Saudi Arabia?

    Saudi Arabia is the only country that has their family name stamped on the country flag. And Saudi Arabia has be ruled by Saud’s dynasty for god knows how many years without even running an election.

    Based on the human rights report – Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son. Authorities also fail to prevent some employers from requiring male guardians to approve the hiring of adult female relatives or some hospitals requiring male guardian approval before undertaking certain medical procedures for women.

    Where else Iran allows their women to drive and get a job without the need to male guardian permission.

    Dam this author seriously, distorting facts to the maximum and thinking that the readers are stupid like him.

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