x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

Iran's elections limit chances for diplomacy

Iran's election has many parties, but little real choice – and too much blustering against the US, when the times call for calm and contact instead.

First-round parliamentary elections in Iran today offer voters a bewildering array of parties but very little real choice. Arbitrary disqualifications, intimidation, politically-manipulated legal processes and other measures have relentlessly narrowed the spectrum of political debate to just a few shades of grey.

That is not to say that nothing is at stake. With two years left in his term, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is striving to maintain his influence, while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who under Iran's theocratic constitution is entitled Supreme Leader, appears determined to undermine the president in the next legislature.

For the 48 million Iranians who are eligible to elect 290 lawmakers, however, the results will mean little. Real choice has been more theory than practice in Iran's politics ever since the western-engineered overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. And after Mr Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009, widespread street protests known as the Green Revolution were ruthlessly suppressed as the president received full support from the Supreme Leader, the powerful Revolutionary Guard and menacing semi-official goon squads.

Green leaders remain in jail, or under house arrest, and since 2009 Green activity has been cautious, not to say furtive. Meanwhile, the ruling hardliners have divided into a welter of splinter parties. The electoral process was further discredited when hundreds of candidates, including at least 32 sitting MPs, were summarily disqualified by the unelected Guardian Council of senior clerics. No wonder reformists have called for a ballot-box boycott. Today's voter turnout figures will be closely watched.

These elections come at a perilous time for Iran, and have increased the risks. At a time when Israeli or US attacks on Iran's nuclear programme are being discussed, the need to impress voters with resolute nationalism has raised the campaign's bluster level.

This is an unfortunate mirror image of the fist-shaking about Iran by US Republican presidential hopefuls as they vie to woo their party's hard-line voters. Starting Sunday, the meeting of the US-Israeli lobby Aipac, attended by President Barack Obama, may see similar belligerent posturing. Countries can drift into war this way.

In 2009, the newly-elected President Obama offered Iran a fresh start, and was rebuffed. Currently there is no appetite for reconciliation evident in the politics of either country. This does not bode well for Iran, the US or the rest of the world.