Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Iran’s Presidential Election: Plenty of Problems and No Real Change

By Barry Rubin

In June 14 elections are supposed to be held to elect Iran’s new president. The outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tumultuous time in office has left many dissatisfied especially since he has mismanaged the economy and made Iran’s international situation worse by his provocative behavior.

Now, however, the election process  itself may have broken down or at least is developing very much to the regime's dislike. With less than a month to go before the elections--the campaign is only three weeks long to make things harder for the opposition--it isn’t even clear who the candidates are going to be. The six-member Council of Guardians has not yet decided who will be allowed to run. This council is controlled by the country’s real ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the complex maneuvers leading up to the election have given him a huge political headache.

The core of the problem is that there are three factions. Khamenei doesn’t want two of the factions-- the super-hardliners and the reformists—to win, while the third group, the hardliners, are having trouble picking a candidate.
The super-hardline faction’s candidate is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s son-in-law and man widely seen as a puppet for him. Khamenei hates Mashaei and it is quite possible, though not inevitable, that Mashaei will be disqualified. At any rate, Mashaei won’t win the election

The potential “reform” candidate is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani but one must hesitate to call him a true reformer. Rafsanjani is an insider, indeed a former president (1989-1997), who used to be an ally of Khamenei but now is a fierce rival. Rafsanjani is pragmatic and reportedly conspicuously corrupt. He does not want to overturn the regime but change its direction, keep it more out of international trouble, and find some way to shed the sanctions imposed to stop Iran’s nuclear program. He would try to pull Iran back from international confrontations.

The 78-year-old Rafsanjani is a dubious hero. He is not part of the reform movement yet he is the best bet they have. The Iranian ruling elite hates him, too. There are genuine differences between him and Khamenei about the country's direction. But even if he were to be allowed to win, there is the precedent of the relatively moderate President Muhammad Khatami who served eight years and was unable to change a single thing.

The first question is whether Rafsanjani would be seen as a real alternative by those who are discontented with the country’s current situation.  The second question is whether he would be allowed to run. The third question is whether he would be allowed to win if he received the most votes.

So far that means two “oppositionists,” though both could be considered part of the broader establishment. But who does the elite want to win? The problem is that they are not united and if that doesn’t change they would split the “conservative” vote.

There have been three potential establishment candidates. Perhaps the most likely consensus candidate and eventual winner is Saeed Jalili. He is very close to Khamenei and has been his head negotiator on nuclear issues. He is a former deputy foreign minister and member of Iran’s national security council who was badly wounded in the Iran-Iraq war.

Other possible Khamenei picks are former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and former speaker of parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, both of whom are also close to the supreme leader.

Will Khamenei get his political troops in line? Can voters be intimidated or Rafsanjani be credibly smeared? Things are going to get very messy and the results are hardly likely to improve Iran’s image.

If Jalili wins, any attempt to portray him as a moderate will be ridiculous. He might be less provocative than Ahmadinejad, who seemed to delight in stirring up antagonisms and making statements that even Western leaders had to brand as provocative but the differences will be meaningless. And Jalili  or the other Khamenei loyalists will not retreat one step on pushing Iran’s nuclear weapons’ program.

Ironically, the main impact of the Iranian election may be on the West where articles and arguments are already appearing claiming that a post-election Iran will be more moderate and that the next Iranian president would be willing to abandon the regime's subversive foreign policy and the nuclear weapons' program. The idea of giving Iran a chance to show it has changed will probably take up Western negotiating policy for the rest of 2013 and into next year.

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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His next book, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, written with Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2014. His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, also published by Yale. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine ConflictThe Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

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