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In Iran, The Election Is Being Televised

Incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) and presidential challenger Mir Hossein Musavi (far right) in their televised debate on June 3.
Incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) and presidential challenger Mir Hossein Musavi (far right) in their televised debate on June 3.
Iran's 10th presidential election has become perhaps the most contested and exciting vote the country has ever seen.

Most Iranians -- both in Iran and among the diaspora -- endorse participation in this election. Many perceive their country as being "on the brink" and think a second term for President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will push Iran "off the cliff."

Break With The Past

A dwindling number of Iranian opposition groups continue to encourage a boycott of the vote because they view the entire electoral process as irretrievably undemocratic. The four candidates approved by the Guardians Council are all, in essence, handpicked by the regime, those people argue. The candidates thus offer no new ideas, they say, and it is difficult to draw any meaningful distinctions between them. Participation in such an election would merely serve to legitimize the clerical regime, the argument goes.

But this election should be appreciated not solely on the basis of its outcome, but for its impact on the process of democratization in Iran.

Elections matter, particularly the present ones, for it has been enriched with televised debates and presentations. The media are no longer monopolized by the supreme leader's favored candidate. We see a nation that is largely untrained in the methods of democratic competition, unfamiliar with the give and take of politics, and poorly practiced in peaceful decision-making at the national level undergoing a transformative exercise.

Such elections increase the appetite for more democracy; a recent poll shows that over 77 percent of Iranians favor direct elections for choosing the country's supreme leader and all other top officials.

Critical Voices

But elections in Iran are good for more than just Iranian voters. They also offer researchers a rare window into the workings of an often opaque political system. The Islamic republic, as a rule, safeguards even ordinary news as state secrets; but during elections it opens somewhat and divulges hidden information. To limit such disclosures, the law limits candidates to just one week of campaigning. Nonetheless, leaks, interviews, and written appeals -- and, this year for the first time ever, televised debates -- increase political transparency and help reduce the gap between the state and the people.

All four candidates in this election are bona fide members of the country's ruling elite and none offers concrete new proposals. But the campaign has been unusual in that all three challengers have been harsh and relentless in their criticism of Ahmadinejad.

The country's economic decline over the last four years and the president's imprudent international policies and sometimes irrational outbursts have been widely discussed and criticized. A tacit defense of the idea of establishing ties with the United States to end the country's isolation looms in the background of the campaign.

Listening to the discussions, it becomes clear that Holocaust denial is not the norm among Iran's political elite. Both Mahdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Musavi questioned Ahmadinejad's rationale for denying the Holocaust and argued that such statements only harm Iran's national interests.

Compelling Viewing

The televised debates produced a period of transparent politics that the authorities probably did not anticipate. Karrubi claimed that Ahmadinejad had sent secret messages to Switzerland with the aim of persuading the United States to open talks with him before the election, an accusation that Ahmadinejad has ignored. Musavi has accused Ahmadinejad of living in a realm of make-believe in which the West is in decline and the Holocaust never happened. The third candidate, former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Mohsen Rezai, accused Ahmadinejad of virtually ignoring the threat of attack by the United States. Rezai noted that this threat is so imminent that the supreme leader had ordered 100 percent military preparedness.

As expected, the issue of the economic crisis was raised again and again. Ahmadinejad has denied there is a crisis and offered up statistics and graphs to support his claims. When Rezai offered his own statistics suggesting the opposite was true, the president blamed the global economic downturn for Iran's problems. But Rezai was relentless. He hammered Ahmadinejad with facts. For instance, he demonstrated how the country's sugar industry had been destroyed by erratic policies based on lowering tariffs. At this point, Ahmadinejad made a staggering confession: He said the decision to lower tariffs had been made to forestall the impact of impending international sanctions.

It was the first time a senior Iranian official has admitted that sanctions have affected the country or that countermeasures were taken.

Ahmadinejad has staunchly defended his record and accused his predecessors of diverting from the path of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Those claims and his personal attacks against former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani prompted Rafsanjani to write an open letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accusing not only Ahmadinejad of insulting Rafsanjani, but Khamenei and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as well. (It should be mentioned that Rafsanjani could not take his defamation claims to the Iranian courts because he and Khamenei presided over the undermining of the Justice Ministry's independence in the constitutional reforms of 1988.)

'Red Lines'

Despite some pretty fierce duels, the candidates have been careful not to cross any of the regime's "red lines." All candidates have endorsed the country's uranium-enrichment program, and none has argued that continuing this policy in the face of UN resolutions and international sanctions is shaking the foundations of the economy or society. None of the candidates has asserted that the 25 percent inflation rate is at least partly due to the impact of sanctions.

The unlimited power of the supreme leader and how he exerts undemocratic influences through the Guardians Council and other institutions under his control was also off limits. Karrubi, however, made a vague call to amend the constitution, which has been interpreted as an allusion to the need to curb the supreme leader's powers. During the election, Ahmadinejad has served as a lightning rod for the regime, absorbing all the criticism that otherwise might have spilled over to the regime and to Khamenei himself.

In addition, none of the challengers has questioned Ahmadinejad's assertions that personal piety is the sole basis for sound policy formulation and governance. His claims to personal morality and "a simple life" undergird his campaign rhetoric and have gone unchallenged. The challengers have not pursued this line of criticism because they all share the Shi'a-based mind-set that conflated personal merit with administrative skill and virtuous leadership.

Irrevocable Differences?

The introduction of debates and other communications technologies into Iranian elections will inevitably increase transparency. The regime might try to stem such an expansion by only passing the most docile candidates through the vetting process.

However, the increasing public political dialogue, if it continues, will produce a more transparent system, more accountability, and a more significant nation-to-state dialogue.

Democracy building is a long and arduous process of on-the-job training, and Iranians are definitely learning the hard way. But the democratic spirit of the 1979 revolution -- which was later reinterpreted as a call for the intervention of religious leaders in politics -- lingers on.

Despite their shortcomings, Iranian campaigns are becoming increasingly responsive to the demands of the electorate. They are gradually creating public demand for more and better direct choices.

Some have argued that participating in this election may be seen as legitimizing a rather undemocratic regime. But I see it as a step toward a more open, democratic political system.

This election, bolstered by the televised debates, is a big step forward.

Rasool Nafisi teaches the sociology of development and Middle Eastern studies at Strayer University. He is a political consultant focusing on Iran, and his latest work (coauthored) is "The Rise Of Pasdaran," a study of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (Rand Corporation, 2009). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL