By Amir Taheri*

"We must turn a page and move on". This is the advice that Ali Khameneh’i, the supreme guide of the Islamic Republic in Iran, gave to his compatriots earlier this week. He was referring to the parliamentary elections to be held on Friday and pre-arranged to ensure almost total victory for his own faction within the regime.

Even a month ago, many would have predicted such an easy victory for the faction of which Khameneh’i is the figurehead. The rival faction, whose standard-bearer is supposed to be President Mohammad Khatami, was expected to put up a real fight. It did not, because, lacking a popular support base, it did not have the stomach for a real fight.

The Iranian election experience puts an end to several illusions.

The first of these is that the mere holding of elections is a sign of democratization. Now, however, we know that although there can be no democracy without elections, it is possible to have elections without democracy.

The Iranian electoral recipe is simple and efficient. It starts by making sure that all the candidates are handpicked for their total loyalty to the leader. Next it makes sure that there is no real election campaign. The candidates are not allowed to criticize the leadership. Nor can they offer programs that differ with the essential options of the leadership.

The whole campaign lasts only one week and candidates are not allowed access to the heavy mass media such as radio and television. All material put out by the candidate must be approved by the authorities; and no one is allowed to spend more than $10,000 on a campaign. Finally, winning a majority of votes does not mean getting elected. A candidate’s win must still be confirmed by no fewer than 11 different layers of authority, the final one of which is the Council of the Guardians that could nullify any or all of the results.

The purpose of elections in such a system is not to challenge the government of the day and to offer alternative policy choices. It is to pay allegiance to the rulers.

No system can be reformed unless it opens itself to new, especially rival, forces. And that means sharing power with groups and parties that, for one reason or another, have been excluded from decision-making. Reform does not consist solely of new ways of doing things. It also requires that different people do at least some of those new things.

The third illusion to die in Iran is the belief that we now have a united domestic opposition force with a coherent analysis of the nation’s situation and a clear vision of its future.

Now, however, we know that the so-called "reformist" camp did not exist except in the imagination of some Western commentators.

This election has broken that "camp" into no fewer than 18 different mini groups some of which have boycotted the elections while others, although denied the right to field candidates of their own, have opposed the boycott in the name of revolutionary solidarity.

The so-called "reformist" camp, which, in fact, presented absolutely no major reform program in any field, consisted of a crowd as random as that of a group of people waiting for a bus who have nothing in common except a desire to get on the next bus.

A credible opposition cannot be made of occasional student riots, sit-ins in the Parliament and speeches about Schopenhauer and Hegel. Before anything else it needs to show why the present system is bad and how and with what it should be replaced. In the past decade or so Iranian opposition has generated much heat but little light. It has shown a great deal of passion but little thought. Romantic preoccupation with vague generalities has been its wont, while the conservatives have focused on the concrete issues of power and its practice.

In other words, the Iranian system is blocked not only because the establishment does not wish to share power — which establishment would? — but also because there is no credible opposition force on the scene. It is not enough for a majority of the people to be unhappy with a regime for that regime to consent to change and reform.

There can be no democratisation without an opposition capable of offering clear alternatives to a government’s analyses and policies.

With the death of these illusions, the Iranians, and others interested in Iran, must review some of their recent assumptions.

The key lesson to Iranians is that the alternative to this regime cannot emerge from within it. It is possible, and to some extent even happening now, that large segments of the establishment drift away from it. But, unless they are absorbed into an opposition, they will amount to nothing but flotsam and jetsam of a turbulent political life.

The conservatives have always claimed legitimacy on the basis of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and not from any elections in the normal sense of the term. The reformists tried to muddy the waters, so to speak, by claiming that the revolutionary regime had been re-legitimised through the ballot box.

The Iranian election shows that the present regime’s legitimacy does not come from the ballot box but from its ability to impose its will by force if necessary. It obliges Iran’s neighbors, and the major powers interested in the region, to abandon their illusions.

The death of illusions in Iran also means the death of the European policy of "constructive dialogue", first proposed by the Germans in the 1980s and now most actively pursued by the British. That policy was based on the assumption that the regime can reform itself, peacefully and speedily. It is now clear that it cannot.

Thus the Europeans face a stark choice.

They can decide to, holding their noses, continue dealing with the Iranian regime because they need its cooperation on a number of issues, notably nuclear non-proliferation, Iraq and Afghanistan. Or they can orchestrate a set of new diplomatic, economic and even military pressures on the regime as a means of encouraging the emergence of a genuinely democratic internal opposition.

The Bush administration for its part needs to develop a coherent analysis of the Iranian situation. It must decide whether or not Iran is, in the words of the State Department’s number-two Richard Armitage, a "sort of democracy", or a despotic regime.

Short-term "realpolitik" may counsel an accommodation with the present regime in Tehran, much as it has determined Washington’s China policy. But that kind of "realpolitik" would mean the premature death of plan for "a new Middle East". ENDS OF ILLUSIONS 19204

Editor’s note: Mr. Amir Taheri is a veteran Iranian journalist, writer and commentator covering for international media.

He wrote the above article for The Arab News of Saudi Arabia, which published it on 18 February

Highlights and some editing are by IPS