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Iran’s Presidential Election: An Equation with too Many Variables

Election Mirage-Cartoon by Mana Neyestani

Election Mirage – Cartoon Courtesy of Mana Neyestani

As the Islamic Republic of Iran approaches its eleventh presidential elections in June 2013, ambiguity and uncertainty have clouded analyses and projections regarding its potential outcomes and implications. On one hand, Iran’s election should not be entirely unpredictable given its restricted democratic attributes that do not allow for free and fair elections. On the other hand, the political fragmentation within the ruling elite seem to have reached a climax that even an election of somewhat ceremonial nature as opposed to a democratic practice instigates anxiety and agitation to maintain power within the Islamic Republic.

The Green Movement of June 2009, a protest movement against the tenth presidential elections, indeed caught the ruling elite by surprise given its large scale and assertiveness. It was a classic case of a ceremonial election of an undemocratic government held to create a democratic resonance that turned against itself. It was the masses chanting “Where is my Vote?” slogans and calling out the government on its fraudulent elections.  In response, protesters were arrested, sent to prisons, subjected to sexual violation and humiliation, and an unspecified number killed.  This is all while the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karubi, remain under house arrest.

In the Green Movement the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who serves as the Commander in Chief, chose to take sides with his favorite presidential candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He lined up the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and other armed and intelligence entities of the Islamic Republic to keep Ahmadinejad in office and to repress the Green Movement as forcefully as possible. In making this choice, little did Khamenei know the threat that Ahmadinejad would pose to his power in his second term.

Over the last few years, Iranian politics have undergone a series of fundamental disputes instigated by the executive branch led by Ahmadinejad and his cabinet against the rest. These internal disputes among the ruling elite seem to have reached such climax that today Supreme Leader Khamenei’s most imminent threat is the very presidential candidate he threw his weight behind him in 2009: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

While the ruling elite restlessly await the election, the Iranian public does not seem to anticipate any victory or loss the way it did four years ago. Of course, depending on their political orientation and background, people have some preference for one possible candidate over the others. But no political hero of sort has emerged as a key contender. Thus, most probably unlike the Green Movement of 2009, the battleground of the upcoming presidential election will not be the streets of Tehran and mass demonstrations, but instead it will be fought out in Iran’s corridors of power. In short, this election will stage the worsening confrontation of the hardliner camps that were once united in hijacking popular power from the reformists and the Green Movement leaders. Today, that unity has visibly turned into a fierce rivalry.

The hardliner factions of the establishment, including the Supreme Leader, are restlessly waiting for the closure of Ahmadinejad’s term so that he finally leaves the sphere of executive power. Yet, even though he is not eligible to run for a third term, Ahmadinejad and his team are determined to keep their hold on the executive branch. While Ahmadinejad cannot hold on to his position as a president, he has other strategies in mind to remain highly influential at least in the executive branch.  His policies are in confrontation with the conservative fractions aligned with the Supreme Leader.

Ahmadinejad’s first candidate of choice is Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, his close aide, advisor, and father-in-law to his son. Mashai will run if the Guardian Council approves of his eligibility as a presidential candidate. It is uncertain whether the Guardian Council, influenced by the Supreme Leader, will grant Ahmadinejad’s number one choice eligibility to run for president.

No one will know until May when the final candidates eligible to run will be announced. However, what is known is the proven loyalty of Ahmadinejad to Mashai. Even when ordered by the Supreme Leader to step down from his role as the vice president, Mashai remained a top advisor and close confidant of Ahmadinejad throughout his presidency. Thus, if the Guardian Council rejects Mashai’s eligibility to run, it would not be surprising if Ahmadinejad made life difficult for the Supreme Leader and his allies in the ruling elite.

In spite of their determination to endorse Mashai, the Ahmadinejad front is expanding its presidential choices in case the Guardian Council rejects Mashai. In Late March 2013, Ali Nikzad, the Minister of Transportation and Urban Development in Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, announced his intention to run in the presidential election.

During the election in June 2013, Ahmadinejad will remain entitled to his constitutional powers as the president of the Islamic Republic to administer the election and its outcome.  In other words, the Interior Ministry, tasked with monitoring elections to ensure no fraudulent activity, will still be administered by Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, leaving little room for his opposing hardline candidates backed by the Supreme Leader. To this end, Mashai in an interview with the state news agency IRNA on 24 March 2013, stated that “the President has announced that he will be ready to confront even the slightest shadow of doubt about running the elections”. Ahmadinejad himself has also persistently spoken about the need to ensure “no interference” in the election and its outcome, having stressed on his cabinet’s commitment to ensuring a healthy election strictly monitored for fraudulent activities.

Ahmadinejad’s efforts to keep his team in the sphere of power go well beyond pure politics. In the wake of a fiercely competitive presidential election, Ahmadinejad’s controversial populist cash handout policies may come in handy in swaying the votes of the poor. Ahmadinejad may not ever win the support of the urban middle class that protested his re-election in the Green Movement, but he continues to enjoy some level of lower class support that he has worked hard to maintain with strategies such as frequent provincial trips and cash handouts. With the country’s economy fast deteriorating due to weak domestic policies and Western sanctions, the cash handouts today are more significant than ever for underprivileged families whose economic hardships have visibly worsened in the past year.

In fact, the hardliner front supported by the Supreme Leader worries that Ahmadinejad’s handout policy might work against them in the upcoming election. For example, a presidential candidate from the Supreme Leader front and a former Intelligence Minister, Ali  Fallahian, has accused President’s cash handout policy of leading to higher inflation and unemployment and of steering voter tendencies to the President’s base.

Despite this policy, and others that would not fit in the length of this article, the Supreme Leader still has sufficient constitutional power to ensure their elimination. He could denounce the eligibility of Ahmadinejad’s affiliates to run or forcefully buy a victory for his side of the hardliners spectrum.

So, the question becomes whether the Supreme Leader will exercise his power to fully eliminate this crowd. Or, can the Supreme Leader play a more sophisticated role that facilities some level of competition before the election and a victory against the Ahmadinejad front? The political divides and internal clashes have become so fierce that perhaps constitutional powers no longer suffice to save the Supreme Leader and his hardliners of choice. After all, he employed his force and compromised his legitimacy to save Ahmadinejad in the face of public uproar, but Ahmadinejad visibly and publicly betrayed him and his rule. Can Ali Khamenei re-employ similar strategies as the Green Movement against his best man of 2009? How will Ahmadinejad react if Khamenei mobilizes his forces against Mashai and other choices of the current president? Does Ahmadinejad have a plan to become the opposition leader favored among Iran’s less privileged population; the demographics that the former opposition leaders did not succeed to fully mobilize during the Green Movement?

To make things even more complex, some fragments of the reformists who were speculated to unite in boycotting the election have stepped into the election fray. There are talks of candidacy from the former President Mohammad Khatami to run in the upcoming election. The possibility of Khatami’s candidacy for this presidential election has sparked both hope and anger among Iranians of different political backgrounds. Those still loyal to the aspirations of the Reform Movement led by Khatami in the late 1990s equate his candidacy with hope. Others who once supported Khatami and but felt betrayed by his inability to implement fundamental reforms no longer trust him and the prospects of his return to politics. Moreover, there are supporters of the Green Movement who consider Khatami’s potential candidacy the betrayal of the two Green Movement leaders currently under house arrest. Meanwhile, hardliners have also expressed distaste and anger for a potential Khatami candidacy. It is yet to be seen how former President Khatami will play a role in the upcoming presidential election.

Nevertheless, the possibility of a Khatami candidacy can spark a politically and strategically complex situation for those involved in Iran’s power plays. If Ahmadinejad and his front continue with their uncompromising push, the question arises as to whether current rivalries would reach a critical point so much so that the Supreme Leader would be willing to support Khatami, a former threat to his rule, over the Ahmadinejad front, an uncompromising and a more serious threat to his absolute power?

With only a little over two months left to Iran’s presidential elections, the uncertainties seem to spur even more uncertainties. Even if the current political equation does not dramatically change in this election, the way key figures of the Islamic Republic perform will have important implications for the political stability of the country in the near future.




Azadeh Pourzand

Currently a program manager at an international development institution focusing on the Middle East-North Africa region, Azadeh holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) and an MBA from the Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

The editor-in-chief of Women's Policy Journal at Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2009-2010, her writings have appeared in places such as International Herald Tribune, CNN International and the Huffington Post.

Born and raised in Iran, in the past years she has worked and studied in the US, Mexico, Argentina, Bangladesh, China and the Netherlands and India. While in India, she worked at a Mumbai-based foreign policy think-tank, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, where she co-authored a comprehensive policy paper that explored India's view of the Arab uprisings.

Azadeh is the founder and president of a start-up organization (The Siamak Pourzand Foundation), promoting freedom of expression for artists, writers, journalists and creative minds in Iran and beyond.

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