It happens every four years: Iranian go to the polls, over-eager analysts get caught up in the horse race, and journalists fall into the trap of exaggerating differences between the candidates to coincide more with the Western notion liberal-conservative divide than with the differences permissible in the Iranian political sphere. Throw into the mix blind acceptance of Iranian statistics with regard to participation and a conflation of reporting from the capital Tehran with events throughout a country six times the size of Great Britain and the analytical malpractice is complete.
Look at the big picture:
First, the elections aren’t an outlet for the Iranian people to change society; they are a means for the Supreme Leader, like a master marionette, to shuffle around the factions in power to keep any single group from growing too powerful.
Second, Westerners should not project terms like reformism, liberalism, and conservatism upon Iranian politicians. Firstly, just because one figure—Ebrahim Raisi, for example—is hardline does not mean that his opponent, Hassan Rouhani, is liberal, reformist, or even moderate unless, of course, liberalism and moderation mean commitment to the destruction of Israel, support for Hezbollah, continued gender segregation, repression of religious freedom, and commitment to the export of revolution. Likewise, many of the so-called conservatives actually embrace an economic philosophy more akin to socialism than to free market capitalism.
The simple facts are these: Iran’s elections are more about style than substance. The president doesn’t have control over key policies or the security forces. The presence of factions does not mean the divisions between factions are significant. To get caught up in election fever risks playing into Iran’s good cop-bad cop strategy, an…