Days before election, Iranian Supreme Leader has quelled potential for dissent

Iranians sit next to electoral posters of Hassan Rowhani (L) and Mohsen Rezai (C) in the religious city of Qom some 130 kilometres south of the capital on June 9, 2013.

Four years after Iran’s last presidential election led millions of protesters onto the streets, the Islamic Republic has yet to fully recover. Two former candidates remain under house arrest, and preparations for Friday’s presidential election have been stern.

In the months leading up to the vote, Iran has attempted to prevent similar unrest among a politically polarized population.

International media and nonprofit organizations have reported on changes in election law, the banning of election candidates, and a crackdown on activists, which so far has included the execution of two men, the arrest of activists, the questioning of campaigners and the revoking of political prisoners’ parole and visitation rights.

Speaking to The Guardian on condition of anonymity, human rights campaigners in Iran said “state repression has intensified in the runup to the polls on 14 June amid authorities’ concern of a repeat of the anti-government protests that followed the 2009 election, which was described as a sedition led by the country’s foreign enemies.”

Some experts say the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s intensified repression has been successful in quelling any anticipated upheaval.

“I don't expect any serious repetition of past unrest on this occasion,” said Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. “The military, security, and intelligence apparatus of the ruling regime have very carefully controlled and orchestrated the proceedings so far.”

Hassan Rowhani, the last cleric in the race, is one of eight candidates remaining after the purging of hundreds of potential contenders. The large number of disqualifications, Dabashi said, is an attempt by the Guardian Council — a council of six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six lawyers appointed by parliament, which supervises the elections—to preempt social uprising. Unofficial and often-unreliable state polls expect Rowhani to take the reformist vote, the party to which Mir-Hossein Mousavi, one of the 2009 candidates under house arrest, belongs. However, The Guardian reported, “almost all analysts still place Rowhani’s better-known conservative rivals well ahead of him in the race.”

While the discrepancy and the crackdown are causing tension, the attitude surrounding the election may be more a combination of cynicism and exhaustion caused by the authoritarian measures taken to prevent another passionate uprising.

“Of course, the government has already used and will use a strong show of force to dissuade potential disturbances,” said Lucian Stone, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Dakota, and co-editor of a book series titled Suspensions: Contemporary Middle Eastern and Islamicate Thought. “1) there will be a low turn out; and 2) they will not be as invested in the so-called results of the election—thus, the chances of repeat demonstrations or massive coordinated dissidence is narrow.”

Still fearing that voters will stay at home as some experts predict, and despite recent cramping of human rights, Khamenei has called for a “high turnout on June 14 to bolster the legitimacy of the vote”— a move some would call predictable at this stage.

“The climate of meticulous security and intelligence control of the media and the public spaces will continue, while the propaganda machinery of the state will project a massive turnout,” Dabashi said.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), agreed. He explained that even the candidates may be surrounded by a defeated air.

“The political climate is sober, almost deflated,” Adib-Moghaddam said. “None of the candidates has an interest in repeating the 2009 scenario.”