Iran Pushes Illusion of National Unity Ahead of Elections

Rouhani’s efforts are reminiscent of his statements earlier this month urging all citizens to participate in elections for the parliament and the Assembly of Experts, scheduled for February 26. Rouhani declared that there can be “no doubt” about the legitimacy or efficacy of those elections, even though the Guardian Council, which is tasked with vetting all candidates for loyalty to the supreme leader, had disqualified many representatives of Rouhani’s faction, as well as nearly 99 percent of the candidates regarded as reformists.

It is possible that the regime as a whole regards Rouhani’s efforts as having been effective in increasing voter turnout. The Indo-Asian News Service reported on Wednesday that leading regime officials had expressed optimism on this point. But those comments were apparently related less to Rouhani’s request for unity and more to the effects that the regime authorities believe will result from the recent review of numerous candidacies that had previously been barred from the ballot.

Reports indicate that more than 1,400 of these individuals have now been reinstated. And while this may allow the regime to plausibly claim that it has made progress toward greater representation of the electorate, it is not clear what actual impact the reinstatements have had on the ideological makeup of that ballot.

 A brief on the elections that was released this week by the National Council of Resistance of Iran notes that “even the least non-conformity” with the theocratic regime leads to a candidate being barred. This serves to explain why nearly all of the 3,000 reformists who initially registered for the elections were initially barred. Undoubtedly, many of the 1,400 reinstatements represent other factions, meaning that the voters’ reformist options remain very severely limited.

Even some very prominent candidates have remained off the ballot, including some who have shared Rouhani’s description as “pragmatist conservatives.” The BBC notes that one such figure is Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, who had been vying for a spot on the ballot for the Assembly of Experts, which would be tasked with selecting a new supreme leader in the event of Ali Khamenei’s retirement or death.

The consequent lack of representation for so called moderates and reformists has reportedly convinced many Iranians, including former supporters of Rouhani, to sit out the forthcoming elections. The regime’s commentary regarding high voter turnout and overall national unity appears designed to conceal the ever-present undercurrent of dissent and defiance which can be detected, for instance, on various social media applications that are banned in Iran.

One such application recently joined this ban list, and unlike familiar Western applications like Facebook and Twitter, this one was specifically designed to help Iranian activists and dissidents to avoid some of the familiar repression in the Islamic Republic. Deutsche Welle reports that the Gershad application for Android phones allows users to report the position of Iran’s notorious morality police in order to help other citizens to avoid being apprehended for violations of the country’s forced veiling laws and other religiously-motivated restrictions on free expression.

In addition to highlighting the general climate of dissent and the mechanisms by which it is repressed, the Gershad story also points to the interest that exists for expressing that dissent in subtle ways, much like the deliberate avoidance of voting. Deutsche Welle quoted one Iranian Twitter user as saying that every download of Gershad would be “a protest in itself.”

There are many instances of more explicit dissent in the Islamic Republic, some of them aimed at securing the election of reformist candidates or other forms of political change, but these tend to be dismissed by the Iranian regime and its propaganda networks as non-genuine expressions of the views of the Iranian people.

This was illustrated once again on Tuesday by Voice of America News, which reported upon Iranian news anchor Sheena Shirani’s flight from Iran following years of harassment by her boss at the state-owned Press TV. After Shirani released recording of that harassment and described it as indicative of a much broader problem in Iranian society, Press TV officials declared, “Publication of the audio file was made in collaboration with anti-revolution individuals for politicizing the matter.”