“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient,” wrote Noam Chomsky, “is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
Chomsky’s observation aptly captures Iran’s May 19 presidential election, which has become a two-man race between centrist incumbent President Hassan Rouhani and hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi. Barring major fraud and popular tumult, a win for either one would be positive for 77-year-old Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will remain the most powerful man in the country.
In their book Competitive Authoritarianism, Harvard’s Steven Levitsky and University of Toronto’s Lucan Way write that modern democracies all meet four minimum criteria:
1) Executives and legislatures are chosen through elections that are open, free, and fair; 2) virtually all adults possess the right to vote; 3) political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal, are broadly protected; and 4) elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to the tutelary control of military or clerical leaders.
Iran egregiously violates these criteria. Its presidential elections are a closed competition between pious Shiite males deemed sufficiently loyal to revolutionary principles. All candidates are vetted by the conservative Islamic Guardian Council, whose 12 members are either directly or indirectly selected by Khamenei. Yet not only do virtually all adult Iranians have the right to vote, they are strongly encouraged to vote to confer legitimacy on the system. “Regardless of who wins the majority of votes,” Khamenei said recently, “the main winner is the regime of the Islamic Republic.”