Interview with Mohammad Mohaddessin, Chairman of the NCRI Foreign Affairs Committee on the recent sham presidential election in Iran.
NCRI – The sham presidential election in Iran came to an end but the conflict and rift at the top of the clerical regime did not. The following interview examines the most pressing issues at stake in this ‘election’ and the outlook for future events.
Q: There are conflicting reports coming from Iran. Some suggest growing public discontent, particularly among the younger generation, but on the other hand Tehran claims there was a massive turn out in the election and argues that such a turn out suggests widespread support for the regime. How do you explain this conflicting reports?
• Popular discontent in Iran is indisputable. It is a fact which no one can deny. For 38 years, the people of Iran have been denied their basic freedom, not only in politics but also in their social and private life. They have been brutally suppressed. Tens of thousands have been executed. Many more have been imprisoned. When it comes to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and other general freedoms, Iran ranks among the very bottom of the list.
• I think the above mentioned facts should provide the answer to the second part of the question. In a country which is ruled by an absolute dictatorship, the concept of an election is different to democratic countries. It is in truth a ‘selection’ and not an election. Look at the case of Iran. The allegiance of the candidates to the Supreme Leader in words and deeds has already been approved.
• It is like giving the people the choice between Al Qeada and ISIS. They have their deep differences but are they really different? The two main contenders in the election were both responsible for 38 years of executions and suppression in Iran. Therefore, claiming a high turnout is really an insult to the people of Iran as if they have enthusiastically taken part in this sham election to elect one of their suppressors.
Q: But the regime claims that some 72% of the electorates participated in the election and some foreign journalists have also reported that the polling stations they visited was rather busy, indicating a high turnout.
• The figure claimed by the regime is absolutely false. It is common among all dictators to make such preposterous claims of popularity. It is part of their fantasy that the more they suppress their people the more popular they become.
• We have reports, including video clips from well over 100 cities around the country showing a low turnout at the polling stations, some as few as a handful in the course of several hours. There were many reports including video clips of people complaining that they have been made to wait outside the polling stations for hours to make a queue, many of whom acknowledged that they are only taking part to have their ID card stamped to avoid any administrative hindrances in their personal life. Prisoners were forced to take part in the election.
• We have in the past exposed undisputed documents that in every election under the current regime the true number of participants have been multiplied by 4 or 5 times and then the figure has been released. They have what is called “room of vote aggregation” which decide the number which must be released.
• Journalists are always taken to a few specific polling stations, where the regime has already mobilized its people to show a high turnout. How many centers could they visit? Two, five or ten? If you look at the Iranian regime propaganda they also claim high turnout among Iranians outside Iran and show video clips of people queuing to vote, and they even claimed due to high turnout they had to extend the time of voting in some countries. But, even the official figures show that only 6.7% percent of those eligible for voting took part in the election outside Iran. Out of 2.5 million Iranians eligible for voting according to official figure, only 168430 voted.
Q: Are you suggesting that the whole process was flawed and Rouhani was not elected by the vote of the people? But there are real differences between Rouhani and his main contender Raisi. Are you saying there are no differences between them?
• The answer is both yes and no. Yes, the whole process is flawed. All candidates have been selected by the Supreme leader. That means they all fall within the acceptable sphere of the religious fascism ruling Iran. Any election without the opportunity for the opposition to be present is flawed, let alone the candidates being selected. The regime always claims a high turnout regardless of the actual number of people who vote.
• No, I do not say there are no differences between Rouhani and Raisi, and in more general terms between the two factions of the regime. An intense power struggle exists. But, what I say is that their common grounds are more than their differences. Both candidates support the absolute rule of the clergy. Both have been decision makers within the regime since the beginning. Of course Rouhani has been in a higher position of office. Both have been responsible in the crimes committed by the regime over the past 38 years. Raisi was a member of the “Death Commission,” responsible for the massacre of political prisoners in 1988. Rouhani was also one of the first officials in Iran who called for the public execution of opponents in Friday prayers’ sessions. He also described executions in Iran as implementing the rule of law or God’s command.
Q: On the one hand you say there is an intense power struggle but on the other hand you say both factions of the regime have more in common. Is it not confusing? In the West they are known as moderate and hardliners. Don’t you think this is a better and simpler explanation?
• No it is not confusing. It is the reality of the situation in Iran. “Moderates” vs. “hardliners” is a misguided concept which does not reflect the realities of Iran. Indeed, it has enabled the Iranian regime to further suppress the Iranian people and continue with its rogue behavior in the region with some kind of impunity. It is time to put an end to this damaging fictional notion.
• The bitter power struggle within the regime is not due to different schools of thought or one faction being moderate and the other being hardliner. It is a reflection of the regime’s failure to address the most basic needs of the people and growing public discontent. It is simply the fear of reaching their end. Their dispute is on how best to preserve the system, i.e. the religious fascism ruling the country. Presenting this as moderates vs. hardliners is a misrepresentation.
• One faction, i.e. Rouhani, says we have already reached the end and we cannot survive unless we can get help from outside word, namely Western governments. He says that we can gain Western help while maintaining the system and the same policies only with a change of tone. In short he believes, and has said it in private internal discussions that we can deceive the West as I did on the nuclear issue in 2003 and also in the nuclear deal, that while we made some temporary concessions, we maintained our nuclear program structure.
• On the other hand, Khamenei strongly rejects this notion as pure naiveté and as publicly stated a weak before the election that he believes change of behavior is tantamount to regime change. He stresses that if we retreat an inch on either domestic or regional policies, that would be the beginning of our rapid fall, as it was in the case of the Shah’s regime. Indeed, this has been the case for many dictatorships in history. When they reach the conclusion that they can no longer survive with an iron fist, it already too late for reform from within. People’s demand goes far beyond the calculated and limited change of behavior the dictators intend to implement to remain in power.
Q: Khamenei as the Supreme Leader has the ultimate power in Iran. It is also known that Raisi was his favorite candidate. You also say that the election was not a truly free election. So, how come that Khamenei could not have his own candidate being declared the winner?
• This question touches the core of the issue. You are absolutely correct that Khamenei’s favorite was Raisi, while all others were also acceptable to him. None of them were considered outside the system, otherwise would not be able to participate. But Khamenei had a red line that his manipulation of the election should only go so far as to not lead to a public uprising due to intensification of internal feuding.
• Khamenei had picked the most despicable candidate who was only known to the people as a ruthless executioner. Even many figures from his own faction refused to back him – not as a matter of principle; rather, their own personal interest was to distance themselves from a notorious murderer. The Resistance’s activities inside Iran, highlighting the role of Raisi in the 1988 massacre, had further enlightened the people.
• In short, Khamenei had lost the game before the Election Day. This is because, under this regime, “elections” are not decided by the vote of people but by the balance of power within the regime. Khamenei, who remains the most authoritative figure within the regime and whose approval is a prerequisite for anyone to be able to advance any change, has lost the clout to dictate his desire without serious internal objection. He feared that if he pressed harder to have his own candidate, the internal feuding might trigger an uprising, not in favor of Rouhani, but against the entire regime. Therefore, this election was a major defeat for the entire regime.
Q: What would you say to those in the West who suggest that with Rouhani there might be a good opportunity to further engage with Iran with a prospect of changing the regime’s behavior?
• I would urge them to see the facts and make their judgment based on the facts and not based on their own wishful thinking. Rouhani neither wants, nor can make any change, let alone substantial change in Iran. He is not new. He as the regime’s president for four years. The Telegraph editorial one day after the election rightly said “The re-election of President Hassan Rouhani changes nothing. Iran remains an impoverished dictatorship governed by a theocratic elite.”
• He does not ‘want,’ because he is the product of the very same system. He has been part of the system right from the beginning. He knows that a real change would lead to the regime’s fall. His own contention has never been that he wants to change the system but only to “modify” it. He has never called himself or his faction “reformer” but only to be “moderate” within the absolute rule of clergy. That is not what the people want. His internal claim is that he can have both for the regime. Maintaining the system, its principles and policies and yet benefiting from Western governments.
• He cannot make any change even if he wanted because in this regime the president does not have much power. He is simply an enabler to get some logistics done and to act as a good servant for the Supreme leader, who holds the absolute power. In addition, the whole system is irreformable. The system is based on the absolute rule of Supreme leader. Supremacy of the clergy, misogyny, intolerance of other views and disrespect for religious minorities are part and parcel of the regime. Even a simple issue such as the right of women to freely choose their own clothing is considered as national security matter. Domestic repression and meddling in other countries through support for extremists and terrorist groups are the two main pillars of the regime without which it cannot survive. Spread of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism is enshrined in the Constitution of the regime.
• The experience of the past four years and in particular events after the nuclear deal leave absolutely no doubt that this regime is absolutely incapable of any reform regardless of who might be the president of the regime. During Rouhani’s first term as the president, the number of executions increased in Iran. Some might say it was the judiciary. But at least he could express opposition to the growing number of executions, making Iran the number one executioner per capita in the world. But instead he called it implementing the rule of law and God’s command. According to his own Minister of Defense, Iran’s defense budget was increased by 140% and more missile tests were carried out than before. Iran’s meddling in Syria was intensified, even the money obtained as a result of the nuclear deal was allocated to Syria and support for other terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere.
Q: So, in your view what was the significance of the election? Are you saying that it was not important at all?
• The mullahs’ regime at the end of its sham presidential election is a divided regime that has been gravely weakened by its internal power struggle. In the current critical domestic, regional and international circumstances, for Khamenei it was crucial to make the medieval regime monolithic in order to face the crises and maintain the regime’s balance. But as I said earlier, in fear of a major mass uprising, Khamenei had to forgo his favourite candidate and opt for Rouhani. Therefore, Khamenei’s failure is a heavy blow for him and a sign of the regime’s approaching demise. Rouhani’s second term would only entail growing crisis and a more intense power struggle. Crisis has precipitated at the leadership level of the religious fascism and would continue until the downfall of the regime of the velayat-e faqih (absolute rule of clergy). Let me be more specific.
• In the run-up to the election, greater public attention was attracted to political freedom, issues of executions in particular the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, most of whom were members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). Indeed, this issue, which for over 29 years was a forbidden area and a taboo, turned into a social demand. The growth of the movement seeking justice for the victims of the massacre that highlighted the role of both factions of the regime in the political executions sent a shock wave to the entire regime and proved that the people’s desire is for rejection of the entire regime with all its factions.
• Another significant development was the extensive activities of the PMOI’s network in Iran. The state run mediate including the national TV constantly expressed concern about their activities and impact inside Iran. The combination of these activities and people demanding justice for the massacre of the PMOI members by the regime has completely changed the scene of the “election campaign.” While the candidates exposed each other’s’ role in plundering people’s wealth and even their role in suppression, a new current emerged in the society spreading the slogan, ‘No to executioner, No to charlatan, and our vote is regime’s overthrow’.
• As a result of this massive campaign and pressure from the public, Rouhani was forced to make certain statement such as accusing the other faction as having a record of only executions and prison for the past 38 years or suggesting the other faction was engaged in cutting tongues and sewing mouths shut. This led to the other faction exposing Rouhani’s role in executions and suppression. This wound which the regime has kept closed for so many years has become open. Both factions also exposed each other plundering and stating that only 4% of the Iranian people have in their possession the entire wealth of the country and enjoy privileges. They further revealed a very dark picture of the Iranian economy with the real statistics and not the official one and also the extent of the corruption. Furthermore, Rouhani had to make promises that he cannot maintain, which puts the entire regime in a much more vulnerable situation.