IT HAS BECOME a truism among those who promote and observe the development of new democracies that elections alone do not make democracy. Without other characteristics of democracy -- free press, free speech, the right to form political parties -- elections can even be counterproductive, since they give spurious legitimacy to "winners." In a noteworthy speech this week in Cairo, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice underlined this point, rightly telling the Egyptians that if they want their coming elections to be considered legitimate, "opposition groups must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media. Voting should occur without violence or intimidation. And international election monitors and observers must have unrestricted access to do their jobs." That her Egyptian counterpart, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, immediately felt obliged to insist that his country's elections would be "free, fair and transparent" proves that this kind of rhetoric has its uses. At the very least, Mr. Gheit's words can be recalled to him as Egypt's elections unfold.

This brings us, however, to the odd case of Iran, where, by the standards Ms. Rice laid out, elections are not legitimate at all. True opposition candidates are not allowed to run for office. Elected officials are not meaningful figures anyway, since they are subordinate to religious leaders. The outcome is usually predetermined. When there is some conflict -- as there appears to be in advance of the final round of the current presidential election -- it is more likely to represent a battle within the ruling elite than a popular struggle. It is even possible that the current turmoil has been deliberately stirred up by a regime that wants to persuade the millions of Iranians who boycotted the first round to return to the polls. The front-runner, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is styling himself a "reformer" fighting against a "conservative," although, in his previous tenure as president, he was responsible for massive human rights violations, repression and no meaningful "reform" whatsoever.

Nevertheless, there is a sliver of a silver lining in the fact that the regime is so anxious to make itself appear democratic, to its own people and to the outside world. During this election campaign, posters were deliberately printed in English, with the hope that they would be photographed by foreign reporters. Mr. Rafsanjani is suddenly promising money, student loans and even drug rehabilitation services to young Iranians, aiming to attract them to the polls in the second round. The more loudly the regime insists that its legitimacy is based on "democracy," the more loudly Iranians might well insist in the future that this "democracy" become authentic. Neither Iranians nor Americans should be fooled by the charade. But both should take comfort in democratic procedures increasingly being seen as a requirement for legitimacy, even in the most despotic parts of the world.