In a couple of weeks, Iranians will go to the polls to choose a replacement for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who's held power since 2005. Although "choose" might not be the right word. Of the hundreds of candidates who applied to run for the top job, just eight have been selected by the "Guardian Council," a crusty cabal of senile theocrats, who make sure Iranians never really have a choice each time the election party rolls around.
Even between the eight—each of which has been approved for his piety and dedication to the "Supreme Leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—it's unlikely to be a fair fight. Following the last election back in 2009, millions of protesters accused the ruling elite of vote rigging, censorship and suppression of reformist candidates. The government cracked down hard. On one occasion that would be totally unbelievable if it wasn't happening in the world's least democratic democracy, a candidate's real-time vote count actually fell on live TV.
There's no reason to think this election will be any more transparent. Last week, Facebook and Twitter and were blocked, probably to head off a 2009-style youth protest movement. The press is on lock more than ever. Iran has the sixth least free media globally, according to Reporters Without Borders. And while the country falls apart, the eight candidates are locked in a complex and Westerosian power struggle.
To get an insider's view of the race, I called Hooshang Amirahmadi, one of the candidates who failed to make the Guardian Council's cut last week. A joint US-Iranian citizen and academic, he campaigned on a platform of reform, engagement with the US, human rights, and nuclear non-proliferation. We discussed his campaign, nukes, press freedom, and gay people.
VICE: Hi Hooshang. Why did you decide to run?
Hooshang Amirahmadi: Iran is going in the wrong direction. The country's problems are accelerating every day—it's very factional and has a terrible relationship with the US and major economic issues. People are suffering tremendously and they need and want change. Iranians are very nervous.
The options at the moment are a continuation of the status quo, or more sanctions, or even the possibility of war. Iranians don't want any of these outcomes, and each is terrible for the international community. That's why people inside and outside the country have been pushing me to run for president. They don't want the status quo to continue and they certainly don't like the other options.
And you were pressured to withdraw from the race?
Yes, I was forced to withdraw. I was told by the authorities that my campaign was too popular and that I was becoming controversial – people were saying that I was the only hope for Iran. The government is very concerned and doesn't want to face another controversial, unpopular election. So they suggested that I stay away and preserve myself for running in the future.
Were you threatened?
Not really, but I was told I wouldn't be welcomed by the government and that I would be disqualified. They told me it would be better to stay away. They never really threatened me. They were respectful.
What do you think of the Guardian Council?
[Laughs] I think they are too old! They belong in 19th century Iran, not in the 21st century. I think the whole institution is a major obstacle to free and fair elections and that the time has come for it to disappear. It's my goal, at some point, to get rid of it. It's the job of the Iranian people, not the Guardian Council, to decide who gets to be president. We'll get rid of it at some point.
So you plan to run again?
Yes. The purpose of my candidacy was to create a better Iran and better domestic politics, so I will run again. We have to realize that the future of Iran is extremely important, not just for the Iranian people, but for the region and for the world. I want the future to be better than what we have now.
Do you think Iran should be secular?
I'd prefer to follow China's example. Deng Xiaoping kept the communist system there but started massive change, so although the Party still exists, the foreign and domestic policies have all changed. In Iran, the old, secular dictatorship of the Shah was overthrown by millions, so the urgent choice isn't between secular or non-secular, it's about change. There has to be freedom and there has to be a political process in which everyone has a say. I'm not a regime changer.
Could there be a Persian Spring?
I hope not. Iran is in a mess and full of factional fighting, so any weakening of the central government could easily turn to civil war, dragging in others outside the country. Iran needs major change, but not another revolution. An Arab Spring-type movement, unfortunately, couldn't be contained at this point. It would be messy.
But do you think we'll see more protests, like in 2009?
It depends. I don't think so, but we'll see in the coming weeks. The press is under heavy control right now and the people who could have created trouble aren't really in that mindset. We could see millions out on the streets, but I think that's unlikely.
If you ever get in, how will you change things for women in Iran?
Iranian women have come a long way, but are still subjected to tremendous controls. I'd like to bring them into social and political life—making sure they're represented in politics for starters. I would promote entrepreneurship among Iranian women and girls, and bring a lot of women into my administration. Within the current theocracy there are certain things that can't be changed, but these restrictions will loosen over time. Women deserve freedom, including over the clothing they wear.
What about press freedom?
The Islamic Republic claims press is free, but only if it runs within the "Islamic system," which is highly restrictive. So freedom of the press is fundamental, but the press should also regulate itself, kind of like the New York Times and the Washington Post, who know what to say and what not to say. At the moment, Iranian journalists don't know how to be journalists. I'd like to send them for training in Europe and the US at the government's expense so that they know what the press is like in a democracy.
And gay people?
Gay people have been free in Iran forever. As long as Iran has existed it's had gay people, and I've never heard of a gay person being persecuted here. It's natural. They are human beings just like you and me. They are citizens and have the same rights as anyone else. We shouldn't discriminate.
Actually, people have been sentenced to death for being gay in Iran before.
I don't think that's true, and I haven't heard about that. But if it's being done outside the law then it shouldn't be the case. Gay people are free in Iran.
Right. Who will win the election?
I don't know. Maybe Saeed Jalili or Ali Akbar Velayati. I just hope it's conducted fairly, unlike in previous years. It's not a fair process, but I hope it's at least fair between the eight.
Should Iran give up its nuclear program?
Iran has every right to a civilian nuclear program, but also every obligation to nuclear non-proliferation. The problem is one of trust with the US, and I would have got over that pretty quickly. That said, I think nuclear technology is a technology of the past and we need to move beyond it. But they have the right to use it.
How will you treat Israel, if you ever get in?
Nicely. I don't see why Iran and Israel should be enemies; they have no territorial dispute or major religious differences, and there's no historical animosity between the two. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution it's been in the constitution that Iran must support oppressed people. From their perspective, the Palestinians are an oppressed group, and because they're oppressed Iran has a revolutionary duty to support them. So when the Palestinian problem is solved, let's say through a two-state solution, then the animosity will stop.
Thanks Hooshang. Better luck next time.