Before every presidential election, every four years, Iran gets to enjoy a warm-up act.
Long lines of eccentrics, bankrupts and buffoons form outside interior ministry offices across the country – all of them wanting to register as presidential candidates. The most bizarre ones get their 15 minutes of fame, as they are turned into national jokes on TV, or hilarious memes online.
The Iranian media loves it.
The people love it.
The Guardian Council loves it even more.
These misfits, with their political dreams, are exactly the excuse the Council needs to justify its vetting of all presidential candidates. It claims it must weed out the incapable and the mad. Well of course. But really, its wants to eliminate anyone who might threaten its own grip on power.
This year the Council whittled the list of approved nominees down to six, including the incumbent Hassan Rouhani. In recent times, those on the short list have then taken part in a live televised debate.
This year, though, there was a last-minute hitch.
Salman Samani, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, let slip to the semi-official Iranian Labour News Agency that the 2017 debate would not be live, but recorded and broadcast later – presumably so it could be edited for political spin.
There was an immediate and deafening outcry.
The media condemned the move. The candidates pontificated about their “inalienable rights” to a live debate. (A term they used to use only when talking about nuclear enrichment!)
As the fuss and indignation raged, I was reminded of an old joke that critics of Iran’s regime like to tell.
Once upon a time, there was a tyrant who was both negligent and despotic. His people suffered shortages of basic goods, unemployment was high, taxes were crippling – you name it. And of course the tyrant’s spies were everywhere, making sure no one complained.
Things went from bad to worse, and eventually there were serious rumblings of discontent.
“What you need, Your Imperial Majesty,” said the tyrant’s clever and devious vizier, “is a crackdown to teach the people who’s boss.”
“Increase taxes by 15 percent, cut salaries by half, impose a curfew and send all university graduates to work in the cabbage fields.”
“Also, ban farting,” said the vizier. “In public and in private.”
“Farting?” said the tyrant, surprised. “But why should I do that?”
“Sire,” said the vizier. “A ban on farting is sure to get them riled up. They will want to defy you – and they’ll do it by farting in public, convinced they’re struggling bravely against repression. They won’t be thinking about any of the other stuff.”
And, the story goes, the tyrant, guided by his vizier, continued to rule for many long years.
As it turned out, the decision to censor the live presidential debate was like the ban on farting.
There was a deafening hue and cry. The chattering classes talked a mile a minute about what a disgrace it was, and how to subvert such a draconian measure.
Then, inevitably, the decision was overturned. The live debates will go ahead amid gales of relief and self-congratulation.
No one complained. No one expressed fury that the election was a charade from the moment the regime intervened to deprive the voters of a real democratic choice, but give them instead a tame roster of six collaborators as candidates.
Fart on – people of Iran!
Footnote – This farting tale is a favorite in Iran to draw attention to the diversion invented by the government to keep our minds off the lack of basic political freedoms. So-called “immodest dress” (bad hijab) for women in a classic. And versions of the same story were told in the Soviet Union.
We who live under tyrants share a sense of humor.