By Amir Taheri
February 22, 2020
Iranians are supposed to go to the polls on Friday to elect a new Islamic Consultative Assembly, an ersatz parliament designed to give an autocratic regime a pseudo-democratic varnish. At the same time, voters are invited to participate in by-elections to fill vacancies in the Assembly of Experts, a grouping of mullahs supposed to supervise the performance of the “Supreme Guide”.
We said “supposed to go the polls” because it is not at all clear how many of the 60 million eligible to vote would bother to take part in an exercise that many regard as insulting and futile. A number of polls, including some conducted by the government, predict a turnout-no higher than 50 percent. A Ministry of the Interior poll puts the number of those who intend to vote in Tehran at 24 percent.
Some Middle East experts often ask me why a regime like the one in control of Iran needs any election specially when candidates are pre-selected by the authorities and those elected won’t be declared winners without the final approval by the office of the “Supreme Guide”.
The reason is that, in its initial phase, the Islamic Revolution was, in fact, a classical bourgeois revolution reflecting typical middle class dreams of democracy, nationalism, socialism or even communism. With rare, and at times important, exceptions, the mass of Iranian workers and peasants took no part in anti-Shah demonstrations. The difficulty was that the leadership of the revolution had no intention of creating a Western-style society in which economically and socially Westernized Iranian middle classes would feel at home. One way to deceive them was to continue with a tradition of elections dating back to 1907.
For decades later, a new middle class has emerged, President Hassan Rouhani refers to it as “the well-off 30 percent”, people who are prepared to live a double life in which economic comfort, not to say prosperity, is combined with lack of political freedoms and restrictive social norms.
In this double life, the new middle class passes part of the year abroad, mostly in Western Europe and North America, where it can wear what it likes, eat what it likes and live like its Western counterparts.
I was astonished to learn from an Islamic Majlis study that over 3,000 high-ranking officials have permanent resident permits for the United States and Canada. For example, six out of the 31 provincial governors in the Islamic Republic commute between Canada and Iran on a regular basis. Thousands of the children of this new middle class attend Western universities, mostly in the US and Canada. The new middle class, including some senior mullahs and their families, also uses several specialized hospitals in Germany, Switzerland and Britain. In many cases, as soon as a passenger aircraft leaves the Iranian airspace, the ladies cast off their hijab and the men queue up to shave or at least trim their beards. They look like a troupe of actors capable of playing different roles in accordance with the script at hand and the venue of the show.
The new middle class has also built egg-nests outside Iran, for a rainy day when one might be forced to flee. Iranians have bought an astonishing 70,000 properties in Turkey alone. Georgia recently stopped the sale of property to Iranians and Oman has just imposed restrictions on Iranians buying real estate in the sultanate. In Western Europe and North America tens of thousands of former Islamic officials and their associates own property and substantial investment portfolios.
The new middle class also has a network of propagandists abroad, peddling the yarn that the Islamic Republic, in the words of Noam Chomsky, is a “people-based” regime, a little lamb defying the American big bad wolf.
Interestingly, the new Islamic middle class often cites Western “Infidel” authorities to support its world vision. Last Tuesday, “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, addressing an election rally in Tehran, quoted former US President Jimmy Carter and Senator Bernie Sanders to back the claim that the US is about to implode because of widening class divisions, mass poverty and spiraling national debt. Hardly a day passes without the daily Kayhan, echoing Khamenei’s views, quoting unknown or little known “American scholars” and think-tanks praising the Islamic Republic and demanding that US cease opposing Tehran’s regional ambitions.
That a new regime creates a new middle class isn’t something limited to Iran. Serbian writer Milovan Djilas has a whole book on the new middle class created by the Communist regime in Yugoslavia. In Communist China the new middle class began to take shape in the 1970s. Han Suyn depicted that new stratum of the Chinese society, consisting of people who could wear Western clothes and munch chop-suey, an American invention, when abroad but could also march, waving Mao Zedong’s Red Book in Beijing. Today, you would be astonished by the number of Chinese Communist officials who have attended American universities and have their offspring treading the same path. You may be even more astonished to learn the volume of Chinese investments in Europe and North America.
There is, however, a big difference between the Islamic Republic’s new middle class and its counterparts in Titoist Yugoslavia or Communist China. In Yugoslavia and China no section of the new middle class pretended to have democratic aspirations. The “moderates-vs-hardliners” show that has plagued Iranian politics for decades did not exist in Yugoslavia or China.
The least bad outcome of today’s polling would be the end of the “moderate-hardliner” duet. Since there was no campaigning worthy of the name and no major political issues were discussed by the candidates it is impossible to know exactly who is who. But some observers predict a low turnout and claim that the overwhelming majority of candidates likely to be declared as winners belong to the faction led by Khamenei and backed by the security-military apparatus.
In other words, next Majlis will have fewer “half-pregnant” members, those who want to appear like Jeffersonian democrats but acting more savagely than Attila. I am not sure that such predictions would become reality. But I sure hope they will. A Majlis reflecting the reality of a corrupt, incompetent and brutal regime in full is less harmful than one designed to hide the nature of the Islamic Republic and promote forlorn hopes of moderation and reform.