My friend and I cast our votes for the Iranian Presidential Election in Christchurch last Friday knowing full well the election was effectively rigged in advance by unelected clerics who had decided who could and couldn’t run.
Inside Iran, some 40 million people participated in the election- a huge turnout of about 70 percent.
The election was presented by most mainstream media in the West as a race between “moderates” and “hardliners”.
But both candidates, the incumbent President, Hassan Rouhani, and, Ebrahim Raisi, had one goal in common: the longevity of the Islamic Republic.
Rouhani, considered as the more moderate of the two, is known to talk about freedom, women’s rights and the opening up of Iran to the outside world but a quick look at the latest report by Human Rights Watch on Iran tells a horrifyingly different story.
Executions, mainly for drug offences, are rife; political prisoners including many journalists and bloggers continue to face torture and inhumane treatment in jail; women suffer from discrimination and the imposition of compulsory hijab; cultural and political activities of minorities remain restricted and, for Baha’is, forbidden; social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, remain blocked and intelligence services continue to heavily monitor citizens’ activities online and arrest users who make controversial comments.
Moderate? I don’t think so. Although to be fair, it is the supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who wields the ultimate power in Iran.
Khamenei selects half of the Guardian Council, the vetting arm of the Islamic Republic. The other half is chosen by the Judiciary Chief. Who selects the Judiciary Chief? You guessed it. The Supreme Leader.
But if things are bad under Rouhani, most people knew they were likely to get much worse under his main election rival, 56-year-old Ebrahim Raisi.
Many Iranians consider Raisi as one of the key members of the so-called “Death Commission”.
Starting on 19 July 1988 and lasting for five months, an unprecedented and terrifying wave of political executions swept across Iran.
Amnesty International confirmed 300 executions but reported the numbers could be in thousands. The Iranian regime has always denied its involvement but the opposition groups claim the deaths were state-sponsored.
But Raisi’s questionable past was not the only problem.
His campaign was based on dragging Iran and its relationship with the West, back to the pre-nuclear deal era.
He was beating the drums of isolationism, just as the Iranians were seeing a glimmer of hope with the lifting of sanctions and the removal of the economic stranglehold on their country.
So, if the election was a sham, and the option was between ‘bad’ and ‘worse’, why validate the authority of the ruling clergy and signal its legitimacy to the world by bothering to vote?
Iranians do not have to look far to find the answer.
Syria and Iraq are good examples of what happens when the system collapses and foreign powers intervene.
For the first time ever, my anti-regime friends in Iran were saying they sooner have the autocratic mullahs reign over them than be engulfed in the same chaos and violence they were witnessing in Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
In 2005, many Iranians boycotted the election as an expression of their disappointment with the reform movements of the outgoing president Mohammed Khatami.
The result was an unforgettable disaster called, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s equivalent of Donald Trump.
Iranians vowed never to repeat that mistake again.
In 2009, a record 85 percent of the eligible population voted in the presidential election in an effort to kick out Ahmadinejad and his cronies out of office.
But much to people’s surprise, Ahmadinijad was reelected. The obviously rigged election sparked massive protests and produced the Green Movement with its popular slogan, “Where is my vote?”
Although, no satisfactory answer was ever supplied to that question, the authorities learnt never to underestimate the patience of Iranians and their hunger for reforms.
So, although we know our votes sustain the Islamic regime, we also understand that our electoral participation preserves a political system which, at the very least, prevents Iran from tumbling into the same instability and chaos that have brought untold misery to the Syrians and Iraqis.
Many opposition groups, based outside of Iran, urged their supporters not to vote. For them, chaos and foreign intervention provide a quick route to power.
But, those of us who still remember the bitter lessons of the Iranian revolution, will never again be fooled into thinking that the alternative would be any better.
We have experienced enough bloodshed and disappointment to know that those who promise the earth, deliver tears and broken dreams only.
The Iranian history shows that, ultimately, the will of people will prevail.
So, with an aching heart I voted for Rouhani and was relieved to hear he won with a comfortable majority.
As Reuters reported, the message is clear: “Iranians want more freedom at home and less isolation abroad”.