The parliamentary election in Iran, scheduled for March 2, has got precious little to do with a genuine exercise in democracy or with offering an opportunity for a popular alternative to emerge. The political opposition is completely barred from the election. Almost all political groupings of reformist, democratic and left orientation have called for a boycott of the sham.
Friday's parliamentary election will be followed by a presidential election planned for June 2013. The one is in many respects a rehearsal for the other, with many observers seeing the March elections as a showdown between supporters of President Ahmadinejad on one side and conservative clergy close to Ayatollah Khamenei on the other. Much of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric of late has been aimed as much at positioning his supporters in the internal power struggle in Iran, as it has been about the international situation.
Khamenei himself has acknowledged the sensitivity of the poll this week, stating that, "To some extent, elections have always been a challenging issue for our country," going on to ask people "to be careful that this challenge does not hurt the country's security."
This is clearly a coded warning to any reformist and opposition groups not to "rock the boat" especially in the face of the external threat from the U.S., EU and Israel. According to confirmed reports from Iran, nearly 600 candidates for Friday's election, including a group of current MPs in the outgoing parliament, have been barred from running. They are deemed to be either "non-conformist," "not reliable" or "too independent and outspoken"!
The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran have just marked the 33rd anniversary of the February 1979 revolution, with all of the contradictions that brings. Contrary to what it would have the world believe, the anniversary is a difficult time for the leadership of the Islamic Republic. On the one hand it gives them the opportunity to position themselves as the inheritors of the mantle of 1979, a genuinely popular uprising against the oppressive Shah and his Western backers, who had drained the economy of Iran to line their own pockets.
The present rulers of the Islamic Republic know that the rhetoric of anti-imperialism and a strong independent Iran still has resonance. This sense of purpose was fired in the U.S. hostage debacle of 1980 and the ill-judged fratricidal Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, in which the then-Western-backed Saddam Hussein attempted to stop the Iranian revolution in its infancy. Saddam failed but the hardline religious elements in Iran, originally part of the broad-based coalition for change, were able to exploit the situation created by the war to consolidate their position around a distorted fundamentalist interpretation of the goals of the revolution.
Those who argued the case for secularism and democracy in Iran found themselves imprisoned, executed or forced into exile. It is this aspect of the revolution which gives the current Iranian leadership problems. The desire for democracy is one which has never left the Iranian people but found little means of expression until the "stolen" presidential election, in June 2009, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was returned to office amidst widespread allegations of vote rigging.
Since then the tensions, which had previously simmered beneath the surface of Iranian society, have come into the open and onto the streets, in the form of the Green Movement, trade union, youth and peace activists, all of whom call for a return to the true ideals of the Iranian revolution, of peace, justice and democracy.
In order to counter this groundswell the leadership of the Islamic Republic is prepared to engage in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the West over its nuclear program, access to the straits of Hormuz and its human rights record.
In his address to a rally in Tehran to mark the anniversary of the revolution recently, President Ahmadinejad stated,
"God willing, the world will witness the inauguration of great achievements in the nuclear sphere in a few days,"
He went on to state that Western powers were using the nuclear issue as a "pretext" to work "against the development of the Iranian nation."
"They say that they want to talk to us. We have always been ready for talks. Well, they should be within the framework of justice and respect. I clearly declare that if you (the West) use the language of force and insult, the Iranian nation will never yield to you," he said.
Ahmadinejad's remarks must be seen in the context of recent action on both sides which has escalated the tensions in a delicately balanced exchange.
President Barack Obama recently said that the United States would work in "lockstep" with Israel to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons, going on to state that Israel's government was "rightly" very concerned about Iran's nuclear program. No comment was forthcoming on the widely acknowledged "secret" of Israel's nuclear capability, a significant factor in sustaining instability in the Middle East.
While the U.S. and EU believe tough action is needed in the dispute over Iran's nuclear program there is nevertheless a risk of damage to the shaky economies of the developed world. Iran is an important oil producer and exports around 2.3 million barrels a day. Even though there are guarantees in place from Saudi Arabia to make up any shortfall in Iranian oil supply, this would use up virtually all of the spare capacity from the world's biggest producer. The last time that happened, in 2008, oil prices climbed to almost $150 a barrel. Prices are currently running at around $110 a barrel. A leap to $150 a barrel would, without question, lead to a deep global recession in 2012.
It is clear then that the stakes are high for all sides in the dispute. The threat of loss of supply may be enough to trigger recession in the West, while the reality of choking off the Gulf certainly would result in recession.
The possibility of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations, making it one step removed from a direct U.S. intervention, has long been considered a tactical option. Many observers in the U.S. think that such an attack is now more likely.
Solidarity organizations have pledged to continue to do all they can to support the people of Iran and work is ongoing to link the peace movements across the globe to do everything they can to avert a conflict. The ordinary people of Iran would certainly be the first victims of sanctions, or a war, but many others may follow.
Photo: Police detain a man in front of Tehran University during 2009 election riots. AP Photo