Meeting the Tea Party in Tehran

It wouldn't be an Iranian election without an American interjection.

As Iranians head to the polls on Friday for parliamentary elections, three Republican congressmen have taken it upon themselves to seek visas from Iran to serve as election monitors. "We're the perfect people," Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas told POLITICO, of himself and Lee Zeldin of New York and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey. "The Iranians should be demanding that we come."

The trio wrote a letter to go with their visa applications. Addressed to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, it reads like a proclamation from teenagers trolling their Model United Nations chapter. "The primary reason for our visit to Iran is to observe your elections scheduled for February 26, 2016," they write. "What a historic occasion. We look forward to seeing Iranian democracy in action. It would be a shame if there weren't any Americans present to validate that the elections were free and fair, for the first time in the clerical regime's history."

The signatories' relative lack of stature may be beside the point for some in Tehran. The three congressmen are members of the far-right American tea party, and their blustery entitlement is pure propaganda for their far-right Iranian counterparts.

Ever since the 1953 American-backed coup overthrowing the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, the perception of American interference in Iran has been prime political fodder for nationalists. The 1979 Islamic Revolution was the culmination of decades of resentment at being treated like a colonial sphere of influence. After Iran's 2009 presidential election ushered in another term for the conservative firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, protests erupted, which hardliners in Iran accused the United States of fomenting after even the most tepid statement of support from President Obama.

Hardliners make hay from any evidence, no matter how tenuous, that their opponents are acquiescent to the West. After President Rouhani flew to France for post-sanctions trade talks, the conservative newspaper chief Hossein Shariatmadari wrote in his reactionary rag, Kayhan, that Rouhani had "shown contempt for the Iranian people" by letting the French foreign minister greet him at the airport, instead of insisting on President Hollande's presence on the tarmac.

If bilateral meetings between unequal officials show "contempt for the Iranian people" it would be difficult to show more contempt than the congressmen have. Even the facetious (one must believe) supposition that Ayatollah Khamenei would be interested in meeting with three grandstanding congressmen is contemptuous. Even more so the request to visit Fordow, Arak, and Parchin - three contentious nuclear facilities - and for meetings with President Rouhani and the head of the Revolutionary Guards Corps to receive extraordinary assurances of Iran's good faith in its international agreements.

It is in this atmosphere of sound and fury between sarcastic anti-Iranian, anti-Ayatollah rhetoric and histrionic anti-American, anti-Western bombast that Friday's elections are taking place. 290 seats in parliament are up for grabs, as are 88 spots on the Assembly of Experts - a clerical and judicial body responsible for appointing the supreme leader. (The latter takes on additional importance this election cycle because the 76-year-old Khamenei is reported to be in ill health.) The elections are the first since the historic nuclear agreement signed last year lifting sanctions, and are widely seen as a referendum on the relatively moderate Rouhani's policies of globalization and modernization.

It is difficult to overstate the difficulty Rouhani's allies will have winning seats in a parliament dominated by conservatives, or even getting on the ballot. Because Iran is not a direct democracy and (as in Hong Kong) candidates must be approved by a constitutional oversight body, only half of the original 12,000 candidates who wanted to stand for election were approved. The vast majority were disqualified for being too liberal, and analysts suggest that only 10% of those allowed to compete are moderate and pro-reform. The composition of the current parliament includes only 30 reformists. The same holds true in the council, where only 161 of 800 aspiring Assembly of Experts members were allowed to stand.

Many people can acknowledge that their own countries are neither internally homogenous nor unified in their international objectives. But other countries are less commonly afforded the same consideration. The symbiotic relationship the tea party troika and Iranian hardliners have entered into - each whipping the other's base into indignation, strengthens the hands of those they claim are archenemies. Unless, of course, both factions consider moderates in their own countries more formidable foes - demographics in both Iran and the U.S. suggest that reactionary conservatism is aging its way out relevance. From such calculations are strange political bedfellows such as this made.