By Edward Carney
In its report on Iranian reactions and the prospects for US policy toward Iran in the wake of American midterm elections, The Independent led with the observation that Iranian state media seized upon reports of “voting irregularities” in order to express supposed concerns about the health of American democracy.
The article noted that the English-language propaganda network Press TV repeatedly ran the caption “US rights groups report problems with machines in a dozen states,” and that the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Fars News Agency published an entire article based on one former US diplomat’s declaration that the “election results underscore just how divided we are.”
This effort to cast doubt upon the American democratic process is reminiscent of a strategy that the Islamic Republic has used on numerous occasions to distract attention from its own domestic issues while creating false equivalencies between itself and its Western adversaries.
Regardless of irregularities and problems with voting machines in the US elections, criticisms of these topics are deeply ironic when they originate with a country whose political system consists of democratic features layered onto a system of absolute authority.
In the case of the Islamic Republic, that authority is vested in leading religious clerics. While Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei currently enjoys final say over all matters of Iranian policy, the will of the electorate is also overridden by other bodies that are tasked with supporting or extending the supreme leader’s role.
The Guardian Council, for instance, enjoys veto power over all Iranian legislation and over all candidates for high office. The operation of this body routinely limits the number of candidates to a small fraction of those who initially apply to run. The rest are excluded on the basis of the council’s perception that their views are at odds with the will of the supreme leader, or at odds with the regime’s interpretation of Shiite Islam.
Insofar as this situation excludes real alternatives to the existing leadership structure of the Iranian government, opposition groups have sought to organize mass boycotts of recent elections. This stands in stark contrast to the midterm elections in the US, where the problem of long wait times was generally the result of higher-than-average turnout.
Iranian officials have tried to claim a similar improvement in voter participation, particularly in the 2017 elections that led President Hassan Rouhani to secure a second term.
But opposition groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran alleged that footage of active polling places on state television often featured members of the Basij civilian militia, who had traveled en masse to those polling places in order to inflate the official participation figures.
The PMOI also promoted the boycott of that election, risking arrest by posting images of the exiled opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, accompanied by slogans like “vote for regime change.”
Against the backdrop of this boycott and the generally undemocratic nature of the Iranian electoral system, it may be difficult for Iranian state media to convince citizens that that system is somehow healthier than the American alternative.
Yet the same is true of the comparative human rights situations in Iran and the US, but Iranian officials have a long history of levying accusations against American institutions in a transparent attempt to distract from well-recognized human rights crises in the Islamic Republic.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself has contributed to this effort, using Twitter and his personal website to promote Iranian viewpoints in the English language. Relevant Twitter posts have tended to co-opt popular hashtags used for discussion of key domestic issues by users in the US or Europe.
In 2014, for instance, the supreme leader capitalized on protests regarding police violence against African Americans, using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag despite the prevalence of institutionalized discrimination against various religious and ethnic minorities in Iran.
In December of last year, Khamenei again used the shortened form of the hashtag, #BLM, to say “the U.S. gov. commits oppression inside the U.S., too.” The tweet coincided with the outbreak of mass anti-government protests across the Islamic Republic, which prompted suppressive measures by Iranian security forces that left 50 peaceful protesters dead.
Before the mass uprising was brought to heal, more than 3,000 additional protesters were arrested, and 14 were tortured to death while in detention. Even more recently, in October, Khamenei inserted himself into Western discussions of women’s rights using the #MeToo hashtag.
Disregarding such issues as the legal rape of Iranian women by their husbands and the many incidents of women being physically assaulted by morality police for perceived instances of “bad hijab,” the supreme leader decried “countless sexual assaults on Western women” then linked to a page on his personal website in which he promoted mandatory veiling as a means of preventing women of all countries from being pulled toward “deviation.”