A Potemkin everyone already knows about

Of all the commentary and analysis of Iran’s upcoming elections that I have read, this strikes me as definitively the worst. Titled “Iran’s Potemkin elections” and penned by Con Coughlin, of London’s Daily Telegraph, the piece ledes off (pun intended) with this bombshell: “Only candidates vetted by the ruling clerics have been allowed to stand.” No! You mean that the Ayatollah had some say in determining who was allowed to run for election? I am shocked. Shocked.

Sarcasm aside, it is indeed puzzling why anyone would be surprised by the one part of Iran’s power structure that seems relatively transparent. Twelve members of what is called the Guardian Council — six picked directly by the Ayatollah, six more or less indirectly so — are the ones to pre-approve candidates. This year, though more than 400 offered their name — including women, who were allowed to do so for the first time — only four survived the cut.

This is far from democratic; I don’t know of anyone who argues that it is. But one of the odd aspects of the Iranian political system is that much of what follows is, in fact democratic. And partially due to the actual ability of Iranians to vote, partially because we don’t know what un-democratic dynamics are operating behind the scenes, the foregone conclusion that Coughlin assumes, without evidence — that Ahmadinejad is “widely expected to win re-election” — is simply not substantiated.

While many Iran hawks spend the bulk of their time pointing to Ahmadinejad’s hostile and ham-handed provocations, others contend that Iran is the plaything of the “mad mullahs.” Neither of these oversimplifications is accurate. The Ayatollah and his clerics exercise a good deal of power, for certain. But, in a telling example, Khamenei did not, by all accounts, prefer Ahmadinejad to win the first time around — nor was he at all expected to do so — and it is not clear whether Ahmadinejad or Mir Hossein Moussavi (who is not, as Coughlin calls him, a “conservative hard-liner”) will prevail this year. That all we can expect out of what has been a very interesting election campaign is “more of the same” is also very much not necessarily true.

And I know the phrase “Potemkin” has come to mean any sort of façade, but Coughlin definitely has his history backwards. The original Potemkin village was designed to deceive the Empress Catherine the Great; in this case, it’s the Supreme Leader who knows more about what’s going on than anyone else — though not, most probably, who’s going to win this election.

(image from flickr user Shahram Sharif under a Creative Commons license)