The parliamentary elections in Iran this month resemble the work of a clumsy illusionist. A Guardian Council of clerics and jurists disqualified about 90 percent of the reformists who wanted to run. The campaign was confined to a week, and public rallies were banned. Iranian liberals claim the official turnout figure was greatly exaggerated and a certain amount of finagling entered into the counting of votes.
Nevertheless, what makes Iran different from other authoritarian states is that Iranian politicians compete for power in a uniquely hybrid system: democratic institutions draped over a rigid autocracy. The founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, invented rule-by-the-supreme-Islamic-jurist out of whole cloth. Thanks to that system, Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rules Iran as a grand puppet master.
All the strings dangle from his hands. The chiefs of the armed forces and the Revolutionary Guards report to him. He has representatives in each of the ministries. All important decisions on foreign and security policy and on Iran’s nuclear program are his. And he has ultimate control over the intelligence and security services.