How Iran’s election could make history

How Iran’s election could make history


There’s something that might seem confusing
about Iran. The country has an unelected Supreme Leader
at the top, but it also has a president who’s democratically elected in votes that are far
from perfect, but sure look pretty important. So is Iran a dictatorship or is it a democracy? As it turns out, it’s both, and seeing that
goes a long way to explaining why the country is the way it is. Iran as we know it today began with a revolution
in 1979, which culminated in a simple referendum that March: Islamic Republic, Yes or No? But what is an Islamic Republic? How can a country’s government be both theocratic
and representative? Iran’s revolutionary leaders didn’t really know the answer either, and they never agreed. So they ended up creating a government that has these two systems mashed together. Some parts are elected, some are unelected,
and they’re all tangled together in this kind of mess.. There’s a real tension between those two systems. Iranians elect (more or less democratically)
the president, the parliament, which is called the majles, and a really important
body called the Assembly of Experts. We’ll get to that later. At the same time there’s the unelected theocracy:
the Supreme Leader, the judiciary, the military, and others. Still, the Supreme Leader really does dominate
Iran. He sets the tone for the country’s politics
and policies, including its nuclear program and its official hostility to the West. But what happens when the Supreme Leader dies
or gets sick? This turns out to be a really important question. The Supreme Leader is picked by a group of
about 90 senior Iranian political and clerical leaders that’s called the Assembly of Experts. But here’s where Iran’s Islamic Republic system
gets important: the Assembly’s members are elected in a national vote. This year, on February 26, Iranians will elect
an entirely new Assembly of Experts for an 8-year term. Even Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader,
has acknowledged that he’s like to die in that time. Iranian politics are really split right now,
with moderates rapidly rising after the nuclear deal helped open the economy. If they do well in February’s election, then
when Khamenei dies, they might pick a new Supreme Leader who shares their views. That could change Iran as we know it for a
generation. This all goes to show that we think of Iran
as just another dictatorship, and indeed it does have a dictator at the top, but it’s
also a democracy. It’s got loud political disagreements and
vigorous debates over its future. This election in February is a rare moment,
once in a generation, when Iran’s democratic elements become more powerful than its theocratic
elements. Iranians have an opening here to try to transform
their country. If the take it, and if they’re successful, Iran could look very different
in for quite awhile.