The BBC has a nice primer this morning on the upcoming Iranian “elections”. We are happy to report that the the article is prefaced by a strong reminder regarding the legacy of the 2009 “election”.

Four years later, two of the candidates are still under house arrest, hundreds of political activists are in prison and hardly any of those behind the killing of dozens of protesters have faced investigation or trial.

On 23 May the Guardian Council, all 12 members of which have been either directly or indirectly appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will announce which candidates have been permitted to run in this year’s poll.

For the Islamic Republic, which is governed under a mixed clerical and parliamentary system, the elections are seen as key affirmation of the system’s legitimacy, however flawed the process may be.

While we appreciate that the Beeb has to be viewed as impartial, and that they are correct in their assessment that the “elections” are key to the regime’s perceived legitimacy, the fact is that any “democratic” system in which viable candidates are hand-picked by an unelected and unaccountable council of religious leaders is not democratic. Any system as rife with inconsistencies and corruption as the Iranian one; any system that incarcerates candidates for demanding impartial consideration of their claims; any system that kills peaceful protesters, jails dissidents, and cracks down on potential opponents, is NOT democratic, and deserves no such credit. The process isn’t merely flawed. It is fundamentally illiberal, and we should not confuse the process of voting for democracy in any meaningful sense.

With that being said, there are serious divisions within the regime going into June that are worth exploring. From the BBC:

This is the first time in almost two decades that, instead of two main conservative and faction reformist faction, at least four factions will compete for the presidency.

Traditional conservatives: Members of this faction adhere most closely to the Supreme Leader’s school of thought, and many of them have expressed an interest in running for president. If the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, the Supreme Leader’s chief advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati or the mayor of Tehran were to run for president, they would representing the traditional conservatives. This faction controls most of the state institutions and constitutes the most powerful tendency within the establishment. President Ahmadinejad was believed to belong to this group until about two years ago, when differences in opinion between him and the Supreme Leader surfaced.

Ahmadinejad is hoping to send his aide to office
Right-wingers: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies now belong to this faction following the deterioration in his relations with Ayatollah Khamenei, caused by a dispute over Mr Ahmadinejad’s attempt to dismiss one of his cabinet ministers. A populist with radical opinions, many think that President Ahmadinejad would try almost anything to hold on to power. He may attempt to persuade his right-hand man, Esfandyar Rahim Mashaei, to put himself forward as a presidential candidate in a move reminiscent of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev alternating power-sharing scheme. But if Mr Mashaei were to fail to gain the required approval of the Guardian Council, the president would possibly opt for another ally such as Ali Nikzad, the minister of housing, who has supervised popular state-financed homebuilding projects.

Centrists: Members of this faction gather around former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. They are mainly technocrats who want an open economy and moderate foreign policies. In recent years they have moved closer to the reformists. Iran’s former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani belongs to this group.

Reformists: Members of this faction believe that change should come from within the regime. The most prominent leader of this group is the former president, Mohammad Khatami. Reformists are typically more politically moderate than members of the other factions. Opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Mehdi Karoubi, both currently under house arrest, belong to this group. In recent weeks, a number of prominent reformists have been calling on Mr Khatami to run, but he has made no public statements one way or the other. If Mr Khatami were to decide against running, other lesser known members of this group would likely try their chances.

The BBC gets the factions right, but there is a real question of whether anyone other than the “traditionalists” (i.e. Khamenei backers) will be allowed to run. Beyond that the real question here is will there be any impact on Iran’s nuclear or human rights policies? In a word; doubtful.

Nuclear program: Iran’s nuclear policy, like any other national security policy, is determined not by the president but by the Supreme Leader. But the president’s general foreign policy could have an impact upon the outcome of the negotiations with Western powers over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Nothing says democracy like elections in which the candidates are loyal to an unelected dictator, and when they are “elected” don’t get to make decisions about the most important policy questions facing the country!

So where do the Iranian people stand on this? Many analysts have identified five core groups.

Regime supporters: These are people who are either financially dependent or ideologically attached to the regime’s ruling conservative faction. They regularly take part in state-organised marches and would typically vote for the Supreme Leader’s preferred candidate.

Ahmadinejad supporters: People who would vote for Mr Ahmadinejad’s chosen candidate because they appreciate his populist rhetoric and admire his boldness and willingness to stand up to the Supreme Leader.

Reformists: These are people who believe democratisation is possible under the current regime. They believe in political participation under any circumstances. They will vote for the candidate who carries the clearest hope for reform.

Boycotters: This group is expected to form a higher proportion of the electorate than before. Many of them voted for reformist candidates last time but accused the government of “stealing” their vote by rigging the elections. They say they would only vote if Mr Mousavi and Mr Karoubi are freed and a fair election is guaranteed.

Floating voters: By definition, anything that happens between now and 14 June can affect this group’s decision as to whether they vote at all, and who they vote for.

We reckon that the “boycotters” will be larger than ever, and that the reality is that many of these people are not just boycotters but people whose faith in the viability of the Iranian political system has been destroyed by three plus decades of brutality, economic failure, and international isolation. June is only likely to cement those beliefs.