TORONTO—On June 15, 2013, The New York Times declared effusively that the election of Hassan Rouhani represented the victory of “a mild-mannered cleric who advocates greater personal freedoms.” One year into his presidency, 411 Iranians had been killed in a six-month spate of executions carried out by the regime in Tehran, often in gruesome public ceremonies. According to the UN report on which these shocking statistics are based, offenders guilty of “adultery,” drug possession, alcohol consumption, and “enmity against God” are all eligible for the death penalty.
Readers will therefore understand my skepticism in response to headlines this past week proclaiming a “reformist” victory in the recent Iranian parliamentary elections. As history demonstrates, such a scenario is impossible under Iran’s election laws, which require all candidates to be vetted in advance by Iran’s staunchly repressive Guardian Council. Reports have revealed that the Guardian Council disqualified some 60 per cent of all prospective candidates, including 99 per cent who could be categorized as “reformists.”
These denuded “reformist” factions then proceeded to back a number of appalling but approved candidates for the Assembly of Experts, which will be tasked with choosing the country’s next supreme leader. This includes two former intelligence ministers alleged to have organized the killing of political dissidents, radical clerics with virulent anti-Western agendas, and another cleric who has endorsed violence as a means to force Iranian women to adhere to dress codes.
This is not to disregard the many pro-democracy activists working to bring about democratic change and respect for human rights in Iran. But the tragic reality is that they are either imprisoned, working fearfully underground, or—like me—living abroad. There is no place for meaningful dissent in the Islamic Republic, and the recent election reaffirms this unfortunate reality.
Having fled Iran in the 1980s with my family, I have spent years raising awareness here in Canada about the regime’s ongoing human rights abuses. I regularly explain to my colleagues that, as in many autocratic states, there is a world of difference between the Iranian people and the regime. The people of Iran are remarkably educated, moderate, and engaged with the world. In stark contrast, the regime is a regressive theocracy with an expansive structure of oppression in Iran and a ruthless, hegemonic agenda for the region.
Tehran works systematically to identify and destroy any source of potential challenge to its rule and agenda. The regime also targets any community that undermines its utopian vision of a Shia theocracy—including LGBT and Baha’i citizens, as well as Christian pastors the regime believes could entice Muslims to convert.
What far too many in the West fail to recognize is that superficial elections—which represent the transfer of nominal power to the people on a limited basis—are not only consistent with an authoritarian theocracy. These “democratic” exercises are central to the regime’s efforts to manage public discontent at home and alleviate Tehran’s public relations challenges abroad. The international community must send a united message to the regime that it will never enjoy global legitimacy so long as it restricts public office to a select group of candidates, rejects pro democracy candidates, jails political dissidents, and imposes archaic religious laws that victimize women, religious minorities, and LGBT Iranians.
For its part, Canada should continue to exercise extreme caution in dealing with Iran and should maintain sanctions against elements of the regime implicated in the sponsorship of terrorism and the abuse of human rights. For as we have seen in countless troubled parts of the world, a ballot box can be a convenient prop for a decidedly undemocratic state to deflect attention from an insidious record.
Sayeh Hassan is a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto and a pro-democracy activist fighting to change Iran’s Islamic regime.