On Thursday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran commented upon Khamenei’s speech by emphasizing its similarity to a speech the supreme leader had given in response to the outbreak of nationwide protests against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. In addition to the vague threat of reprisal against domestic supporters of the boycott, Khamenei also conveyed familiar, unsubstantiated accusations that this and other protests were the result of attempted intervention by Western powers and “Zionists”.
In a previous speech, Khamenei appealed to the notion of national autonomy in order to urge Iranians of all political persuasions to go to the polls and demonstrate the legitimacy of the country’s government. But the emerging boycott specifically disregards this claim of legitimacy, asserting that the incumbent Hassan Rouhani and his hardline challengers are essentially the same, since the clerical regime has the authority to bar genuinely reformist voices from the political process altogether.
The regime’s tight control over political dialogue was certainly on display in the recent commentary by Khamenei and others. Addressing the candidates who had passed their vetting by the unelected Guardian Council last month, Khamenei cautioned against addressing issues that might agitate “ideological, geographical, linguistic and ethnic fault lines.” He also characterized these types of political speech as “traps set by enemies,” and threats to “the country’s security and tranquility.”
These claims have been reinforced by other hardline public figures. On Thursday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran cited one example that was specifically directed at President Rouhani, who is opposed by hardliners but also regarded as an inadequate alternative by serious reformists and dissident organizations like the NCRI. The report quoted former Member of Parliament Ahmad Tavakoli as saying that some of Rouhani’s statements on the campaign trail threated to fuel public resentments and “put the country on a track of sedition.”
“Sedition” is the term still applied by regime authorities to the 2009 uprising, which was violently suppressed following Khamenei’s public response, and which led to dozens of deaths and hundreds of instances of political imprisonment. Although Rouhani’s successful campaign in 2013 included the promise to release at least some of those political prisoners, his administration has shown no movement on this issue or on any other reform-minded campaign promise with the exception of pursuing a nuclear agreement with world powers.
Rouhani’s record on civil rights and economic reform led to a significant loss of support in the early days of his presidency. More recently, it has lent credence to the calls for boycott which are being led by the NCRI and its main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. Vocativ reported upon some of the details of that campaign on Thursday, emphasizing how it has been supported through social media activity by Iranian expatriates in place like France, where the NCRI is headquartered in exile, and Albania, where thousands of PMOI members relocated after spending years as refugees in the former American military base of Camp Liberty, Iraq.
The campaign has also made itself apparent in domestic activities, including the public display of posters celebrating NCRI President Maryam Rajavi and graffiti espousing such slogans as “my vote is for regime change.” But the international support from the Iranian diaspora is arguably a major part of the reason why the regime is struggling to suppress the emerging boycott. That struggle is evident from Khamenei’s responses to it, which acknowledge widespread non-participation as a real threat.
In the Washington Post’s coverage of Khamenei’s speech on Wednesday, the paper pointed out that other regime officials had claimed certain victories in their pushback against the boycott organizers. Claims of dissident arrests and the disruption of particular campaigns were vague, however, and this could suggest that they are little more than propaganda efforts to make the boycott look more precarious than it is.
What’s more, the Associated Press issued a report, also on Wednesday, indicating that there has been a great deal of successful resistance to the regime’s attempts at clamping down on political speech by private citizens. The article specifically highlights the importance of internationally accessible social media applications in perpetuating conversations that would otherwise be suppressed. These include discussions of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners which primarily targeted the PMOI and which had been subject to a conspiracy of silence until last year when the son of the late cleric Hossein Ali Montazeri revealed an audio recording of the former regime official harshly criticizing his colleagues for the massacre.
Social media and the internet have permitted groups like the PMOI to reach residents of the Islamic Republic with formerly inaccessible information about this and other issues. Although sites like Twitter and Facebook are technically banned by the regime’s highly active censorship authorities, young Iranians routinely circumvent these restrictions through the use of virtual private networks and other technical workarounds. What’s more, since its introduction to Iran in 2015, the Telegram messaging app has become a very familiar tool for political and social activists throughout the country. It is this service that is given particular credit in the AP report for making effective repression more difficult for regime authorities in the run-up to this election.
Of course, this is not to say that Iranian citizens are not suffering for their political activities and pro-reform or anti-regime views. In an effort to strike a blow against Telegram, in March the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps arrested several administrators of the app’s local user groups. What’s more, the Center for Human Rights in Iran points out that “more than 20 reformist journalists as well as political and civil rights activists have been arrested in recent months” and that “campaign speeches by prominent supporters have meanwhile been forcibly canceled in several cities.”
Some of these efforts have simply reinforced Khamenei’s appeal to the candidates to avoid controversy in their campaigning. But the more repressive efforts have clearly been focused on reformist voices, some of which continue to support Rouhani despite the widely felt disappointment of his first term.
Reuters explained on Thursday that the Revolutionary Guards have sought to put their weight behind Raisi, and that they are preparing to bus people to the polls and use familiar intimidation tactics to generate votes for their chosen candidate. This preference has not been associated with any expectation of seriously different policy initiatives from Raisi and Rouhani, although it is believed that Raisi might do more to defend IRGC business interests against the potential influence of foreign investors in the aftermath of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
The more salient reason for IRGC support of Raisi, however, is the hardline paramilitary’s apparent belief that his presidency could set him up to be selected by the Assembly of Experts as the next supreme leader. Reuters quoted Atlantic Council senior fellow Ali Alfoneh as saying, “The IRGC believe that [Raisi’s election is] their chance to completely eliminate the technocrats and control the succession process after Khamenei.”
Nevertheless, Khamenei himself apparently remains focused on the short term goal of compelling as many Iranian citizens as possible to go to the polls. Conversely, the NCRI and other opponents of the clerical regime remain focused on exposing the illegitimacy of the political process and the lack of reformist voices. Most global media outlets still seem to believe that the incumbent Rouhani will win, but he lacks the committed support from an institution like the IRGC, and the implications of his possible victory may greatly depend upon the what portion of the population comes out to vote for either leading candidate.
As the parallels between Rouhani’s recent speech and his speech in 2009 indicate, his preoccupation with that factor seems to reflect regime concerns about the possibility of another Green Movement-style uprising.