“However much you remove yourself from politics, you’re still inside this system” read the meme imploring me to vote during my last visit to Tehran in 2016. It was one of the many dozens of Facebook, Telegram, and text messages delivered by grassroots activists anxious to secure a friendly parliament for Iran’s incumbent president, Hassan Rouhani. Their shoestring get-out-the-vote campaign—loosely advanced on social media and amplified by a sprawling network of classmates, teachers, and second cousins—ran alongside an official state apparatus determined to signal its legitimacy to the world by producing a healthy turnout on election day. All told, more than 61 percent of Iran’s eligible voters showed up to vote in an off-year legislative election, nearly double the 36 percent participation rate in the 2014 U.S. Congressional elections.
As Iran nears the end of another election season, its 12th for president and the 35th overall since 1979, dozens of analysts are already explaining why elections in Iran do not really matter or, should Rouhani lose, why they do. Most point to the limited range of choices offered to Iranian voters as proof that the vote there is mostly theater, cover for the feckless pursuit of power between elites in an autocratic system. Some use the perceived charade as a pretense to renew the call for regime change in Tehran, left dormant under the Obama administration and its peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue in 2015.