It happens every four years: The Islamic Republic heads into presidential elections and newspapers, columnists, and analysts — their nerdy attention to Iranian politics suddenly in vogue — start sounding off about this faction or that faction, or one Iranian figure or another. Seldom do the Iran analysts get it right. Mohammad Khatami came from left field in 1997 to win the presidency over now-forgotten establishment pick Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, and in 2005, those who claimed special insight put their bets on Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, only to have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emerge from right field. If Rafsanjani is knocked out of the race by the unelected Guardian Council, it just underscores how undemocratic Iran’s elections remain.
Make no mistake — the Iranian elections don’t matter. The presidency in Iran is more about style than about substance. Control rests firmly with the Supreme Leader — the “Deputy of the Messiah on Earth” — and he need not submit himself to ordinary mortals for affirmation. My colleague Will Fulton is right when he suggests it’s worth tracking voter turnout, but because the Obama administration has curtailed assistance to Iran’s civil society, there are no independent groups to check the government’s figures and so the announced voter turnout is meaningless for analysis. When it comes to such data: garbage-in, garbage out.
Will Fulton is also right that the elections could prove a spark to wider protest, as they did with the blatant election fraud in 2009. But when we look at the history of public protest in the Islamic Republic, one thing is clear: No one predicts the spark ahead of time. In 1999, for example, it was the defenestration of students at a Tehran University dormitory that led to protests. In 2001, it was rumors that the government had ordered the Islamic Republic’s football team to throw a match to Bahrain in order to avoid a celebration in which men and women might celebrate together that led to something decidedly different than celebrating in the street. If there’s one rule of thumb, it’s that the regime is always prepared to repeat the last protest.
So why are the Iranian elections important? The reason is simple: all the analytical energy spent on the elections highlights, by contrast, how little diplomats, journalists, and intelligence analysts know about the important stuff. Take the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC): They control about 40 percent of Iran’s economy and, if Iran becomes a nuclear power, they would likely have command, control, and custody over its arsenal. And yet after 33+ years of enmity with the Islamic Republic, Iran experts and the intelligence community haven’t even begun to have the insight into the IRGC that we do with regard to the political factions that ultimately don’t matter. It should worry the White House and Pentagon to no end that we can discuss to which faction each candidate aligns himself, but we haven’t a clue about what the general who controls a nuclear bomb (or the small boat captain that is buzzing our ships, or the Iranian military engineer who is piloting a “Kamikaze drone”) actually believes. Our intelligence failures with regard to Iran are vast.
Ultimately, however, if we care about peace and reform in Iran, then we have to face the fact that neither is possible until the IRGC cracks. Rather than debate whether the Guardian Council might find Rafsanjani too old, or which president might be most soft-spoken, it’s well past time we focus on the institution which threatens Iran’s neighbors and represses its people, first mapping out its factions and then coming up with strategies to exacerbate them, ultimately with the goal of neutering Iran’s architecture of tyranny.