Today (18 June), millions of Iranians are voting in a Presidential election that many activists and dissidents say should be the subject of a boycott.
The run up to the elections has been marred by widespread apathy, with preliminary estimates suggesting that only 42% of the 59 million eligible voters will take part, a sharp drop from the 73% turnout in 2017 and the lowest voter turnout in the 42-year history of the Islamic Republic. At midday local time, many polling stations were already deserted as shown by videos received by Iran International.
Shiva Mahbobi, human rights activist and former prisoner in Iran commented on the Iranian elections, stating that:
“Under no circumstances, in any country, should this be called an election.”
Critically evaluating the selection of the nominated pro-government candidates, Mahbobi said that “in Iran no opposition group, no woman, obviously, no one who is not part of the regime” can reach the ballot paper.
“If you look at the candidates, they all have had blood on their hands, in terms of massacring people, and three of them stand out in terms of committing crime against humanity.”
Of the 592 prospective candidates, only 7 were approved by Iran’s unelected Guardian Council and 3 have since dropped out. Ebrahim Raisi, the hardline conservative candidate expected to win, is known for being involved in the massacring of thousands of political prisoners in the late 1980’s. Already the subject of US and EU sanctions, Raisi has overseen the deaths of at least 3 political prisoners in state custody, all of whom were held captive after criticising regime policies.
“These people are people who have shown that they have no mercy on people. So someone like Raisi, or any of these candidates coming under power, the first thing they would do [is to] tighten the restriction, they would suppress more, they would arrest more. So it’s actually the situation would be even worse, not better.”
Mahbobi identified two specific laws that have been raised during the election period. The first, championed by Raisi, would place more restrictions on the internet in a way that receiving messages from the outside world would be monitored. The bill, which has attracted the signatures of 170 parliamentarians, focuses on cyberspace regulation and would require all social media networks and messaging applications to register with a supervisory board, effectively allowing the regime to deepen its restrictive censorship policies. It would be in the hands of the ministry of communication and information to approve websites and content, while the mandatory Iranian representatives of the foreign and domestic companies would be held accountable if they do not follow the rules set by the regulator. Iran, which only scored 15 out of 100 on the Freedom House’s Internet Freedom Score, has already blocked social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Many Iranians evade these restrictions by using VPNs and circumvention software. With the proposed laws, Iranians bypassing limitations and accessing blocked sites could face increased fines and imprisonment.
The second proposed change in the law would target “dual nationals” or anyone accused of “assisting foreign countries”. The proposal calls for execution of any person that is or has been arrested because of what the regime deemed to be “espionage” or aiding foreign interests against Iran.
Dr Amadreza Djalali, a dual national Swedish Iranian disaster medicine specialist, is already held in Iran’s notorious Evin prison incarcerated and on death row with this charge. If this law was passed, then it would also mean that other dual nationals, like British Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosh Ashoori, who are caught as bargaining chips in Iran’s hostage diplomacy, could be placed in even greater jeopardy.
Speaking on the fate of the dual nationals in prisoned in Iran today and whether a new president would make a difference to the practice of taking dual nationals as leverage for gain, Mahbobi highlighted that:
“internationally the Islamic regime wants to use prisoners as leverage in the negotiation. So it doesn’t matter who comes to power, they will continue [hostage diplomacy], because ultimately they don’t participate in a negotiation as any other government would, they actually use force.”
Concerns also remain as to the relationship a Raisi presidency would pursue with the West, with experts suggesting that his policy could be moulded by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds deep suspicions toward the US and the West in general. Raisi has, however, affirmed that his government would not shift Iran’s nuclear stance, confirming in an interview with state TV that:
“We will be committed to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] as an agreement that was approved by the supreme leader.”
Speaking about the international community response to a new president, Mahbobi expects no major shift:
“Obviously, they want to have a stable economic situation with Iran. And sadly, if I take it back to human rights, none of them put the matter of human rights before any negotiations. For example, they have negotiations with Iran over the nuclear programme. There is no question of, we’re not going to negotiate until they free political prisoners or dual nationals.”