The One Thing 39 Million Iranians Decisively Voted For

Out of 46.2 million eligible voters, a staggering 39 million came out to vote, making a strong, unequivocal statement: Iranians value democracy
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There has never been any reliable polling data that has come out of Iran. Even when opinion polls have been conducted, restrictions on what the Iranian people can and cannot say have made it practically impossible to figure out what they really think.

Are they more pro-theocracy or pro-secular? Pro-US or anti-US? Pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear? How do they really feel about the idea of an unelected Supreme Leader being the head of their national media networks? No one really knows for sure.

But voter turnouts of over 85% cannot lie.

Most Iranians knew that this election wasn't really going to change anything, thanks to the dictatorial leadership of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Still, out of 46.2 million eligible voters, a staggering 39 million came out to vote, making a strong, unequivocal statement:

Iranians value democracy. A lot.

At this point, the results of the election should be considered irrelevant. These protests -- of, by, and for the people -- are about a much bigger picture, shaped by history and rooted in the kind of idealism that hundreds of thousands of Iranians have decided is worth risking their lives to try and rejuvenate. This is the culmination of a powerful grassroots dynamic that has been bubbling for decades, and has finally boiled over.

Since 1979, elections in Iran have never truly been elections, and democracy in Iran has never truly been democracy. Most Iranians know that the elected president has always had little power to influence anything of significance beyond economic policy. It is the Supreme Leader who commands the armed forces, drafts foreign policy and national security policy, runs all national media services like radio and television, acts as the supreme judiciary, selects candidates eligible to run for president through the Council of Guardians, and (as we all now know) certifies election results.

This Supreme Leader is an unelected figure who operates under the Velayat-e-Faqih theory in Shia Islam, mandating guardianship of an Islamic jurist over a population. Since the revolution of 1979, only Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei have held this position.

Even though Khomeini was a charismatic leader with widespread popularity and legitimacy, the selection of Khamenei as his successor was controversial, and thought by many members of Iran's clerical establishment to be politically motivated.

According to Iran's Constitution at the time, the Supreme Leader had to be a marja'a, the highest rank in the Shia hierarchy of religious and spiritual scholarship. Only a marja'a was worthy of the title of Grand Ayatollah, and Khamenei wasn't quite there yet. So, three months before his death, Khomeini -- unsatisfied with the list of marja'as available to potentially succeed him -- revised the Constitution to allow for Khamenei to be eligible, and also promoted him to an Ayatollah virtually overnight from his more junior rank of Hojjat-ul-Islam.

This wasn't the first time Khomeini had tweaked his own rules for Khamenei. Khomeini had initially expressed an opposition to having clerics in the office of President, but conveniently relaxed his opinion when Khamenei successfully ran for the position in 1981. He served until Khomeini's death in 1989, when, as per Khomeini's selection, he became Iran's second Supreme Leader. At the same time, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another powerful founding father of the revolution, became President.

Rafsanjani is a reformist who also ran in the 2005 election (losing to Ahmadinejad), and has conspicuously showed his support for the protesters over the last week. He has always been a vocal critic of Ahmadinejad, and one of Khamenei's fiercest rivals. Ahmadinejad, in turn, has always been an ardent supporter of the Supreme Leader, who Iran's powerful Assembly of Experts has the constitutional power to remove. And the chairman of the Assembly? Rafsanjani.

So Khamenei has several good reasons to be worried.

Because of the somewhat sketchy politics surrounding his selection as Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has always had some rivals in Iran's clerical establishment. To add to that, the massive uprising against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can comfortably be looked at as an uprising against Khamenei, or maybe even against the whole idea of a Supreme Leader. Although calling this a revolution is a little premature, this is clearly the result of much more than a single election. This time, it's not just the people that are deeply divided; the rift within the clerical establishment has also been exposed, more prominently than ever, with the Supreme Leader himself now seriously vulnerable.

The last time Iran had an election with an 80% turnout, Mohammad Khatami, a reformist candidate, won 70% of the vote. Shortly before he completed his two terms as president in 2005, he wrote a 47-page "letter for the future" expressing his frustration at the hard-line clerical establishment's obstruction of his attempts to reform Iran's theocracy, warning of the dangers of "religious despotism". The parliamentary election that year had demonstratively played that warning out. The Council of Guardians, headed and appointed by Khamenei, had barred over 8000 candidates, most of them moderate, many of them allies of Khatami, from running. (They still have the authority to do this.) Knowing that this would be a selection, not an election, many pro-reform voters stayed home, clearing the way for Ahmadinejad's subsequent 2005 victory.

In the four years since, Khamenei strengthened the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, army, and secret police in unprecedented ways: members of the Revolutionary Guard held most of the top government posts, and consequently gained significant control over the economy, one of the few areas that the elected president once had some latitude with.

Thus, Iranians watched their country go from a theocratic state to a virtual military dictatorship.

They may have hoped that their votes would allow them to have some say in how their government should deal with at least some limited domestic issues like rising inflation and unemployment (estimated at close to 20%), but in the end, they knew it wouldn't really matter.

Yet, they still came out and voted. Over 39 million of them. Over 85% of eligible voters. And now they are out on the streets, passionately expressing their will to express their will. Why?

The answer has very little to do with either Ahmadinejad or Mousavi. The Iranian election of June 12, 2009 wasn't just a referendum on Iran's political process, but on democracy itself -- the real kind.