What to watch for in Iran’s presidential election

June 8, 2009

Suzanne Maloney— Dr. Suzanne Maloney is a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Maloney, a former U.S. state department policy advisor, recently  published the book “Iran’s long reach: Iran as pivotal state in the Muslim world.” The views expressed are her own. —

Iranians go to the polls on June 12 in what is shaping up to be the most contentious ballot in the thirty years since the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy and the establishment of the world’s first modern theocracy. The ballot will determine the political fate of Iran’s provocative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and more broadly will signal the future of the country’s volatile political course and the prospects for improvement in its long-troubled relationship with Washington.

Iranian politics have become intensely personalized, focused for better and for worse around Ahmadinejad, a remarkable development considering his prior inexperience in national politics and the relatively limited authority of Iran’s presidency. By inserting himself in all of Iran’s most contentious debates and by asserting himself both on the domestic and international stage, Ahmadinejad has emerged as the focal point of Iran’s contemporary political landscape. As a result, the vote will serve as a referendum on Ahmadinejad’s notorious personality and policies – a reality underscored by the thinly-veiled vitriol directed at the incumbent in recent weeks.

Coming on the heels of a change in American administrations and a shift in U.S. policy, Iran’s presidential campaign has also featured a remarkably frank discourse about engagement. While no election outcome will single-handedly transform Iran’s relationship with Washington – in part because Iran’s presidency is not its ultimate authority in any case – the conclusion of this week’s election will shape the outlook for diplomacy in ways that are unlikely to be straightforward. A change in leadership would strengthen the Obama Administration’s case for engagement, but could also revive the factional infighting that paralyzed Tehran during the reformist heyday. Conversely, a second Ahmadinejad term might bolster Tehran’s recalcitrance but also intensify the international community’s urgency for dealing with Iran.

What to Watch For

Turnout: Iranians actually participate in their electoral process in numbers that are more than respectable by American standards, with at least two-thirds of the eligible electorate turning up to vote in most of the past contests. Historically, Iran’s inchoate opposition has been unable to rally around mass boycotts, but some disaffected voters have stayed away from the polls. The real wild card is turnout in the major cities, where reformists typically have an advantage.

Vote-Splitting and Run-Off: Iran’s political factions are diverse, contentious, and often overlapping. There is little certainty on either side that Iran’s factions will hold together and preclude defections from crucial constituencies. Ahmadinejad’s radicalism may well drive traditional conservatives to embrace former Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi, whose long association with the revolution and its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, give him impeccable revolutionary credentials. Equally possible is the prospect that Mehdi Karoubi, a former parliamentary speaker, could siphon crucial votes and dilute the prospect for a reformist victory. The uncertainties are likely to mean that no candidate wins a plurality of the vote, paving the way for only the second presidential run-off in post-revolutionary history. If however any candidate wins on the first round, it will suggest an unexpectedly strong popular mandate that the next president can use to considerable advantage.

The Future of Reform: Win or lose Iran’s reformists have a lot to prove and a lot to gain in this ballot. Their marginalization in the 2005 election appeared to firmly close the door on the reformists’ particular political strategy, which endeavored to rehabilitate the Islamic Republic by strengthening its representative institutions and guarantees. Today, Iran’s erstwhile reformists see this election as a golden chance to recapture a pivotal political office and revive their public mandate to press more directly for incremental openings in the system. Still, even if Mousavi or Karoubi prevails, it is unclear how they expect to advance their objectives more successfully than former President Mohammad Khatami did.

American Response: Calibrating an appropriate U.S. response requires walking a fine line between criticism of the immense constraints placed on political competition within the country and acknowledgment of the genuine political achievement that the elections – and more importantly, popular participation in them – represent. This challenge is even more acute today, with the Obama Administration seeking to jumpstart direct negotiations with Tehran. In 2005, the Bush Administration botched its bid for moral superiority by denouncing the elections as flawed even before they took place, and official American statements may have actually bolstered popular participation. Equally problematic, however, is an overly effusive response, particularly if Ahmadinejad loses; an embrace of any individual Iranian politician would likely taint him and limit his room for maneuver. The Clinton Administration’s concerted outreach after the March 2000 victory of reformist parliamentary candidates intensified the conservative backlash and helped doom that movement. The Obama Administration would be wise to maintain a strategic silence while monitoring the fall-out within Iran for openings on the diplomatic front.


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Why does the USA have to monitor anything “openings on the diplomatic front?”

Things are very simple: lift the unjust US economic sanctions and let the Iranian people determine their own future.

That is where the opening will come from. The sanctions have been there long before Ahmedinejad, so the notion that success for “reformists” will open the door is false.

The source of the fight between Iran and the USA was the refusal of the USA and Britain to allow Iranians to determine their own future and manage their own natural resources, specifically the CIA-led overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government and the imposition of a britral dictator.

The first step is to lift those sanctions and signal an intention not to interfere.

Posted by Vincent | Report as abusive

No mention of the fact we assasinated their last genuinely elected, secularist leader. Even Obama has come clean on that one. Maybe not important to this article but it’s always good to see it acknowledged when discussing Iranian democracy.

Posted by wub | Report as abusive

Quite frankly, the West has no true concept of what political life is like in Iran and therefore continues to have flawed ideas about it. This election, while perhaps meaningful in a symbolic kind of way, will not change anything in Iran – period, full stop. The attitudes of the ruling council and supreme Iatollah – the men who decide Iranian foreign policy and control it’s military, among MANY other things – will not be effected one bit by the results. So Americans, listen up!: if you really want change, you have to show the ruling council that you are willing to take the lead in change. So far, all you come to ‘the table’ with are demands… that is not a way to bring about peace or understanding. Make gestures of goodwill, take the first steps towards peace and understanding and I’m sure you will see the grand council make similar steps. These ideas are the basic tenets of Islam, much like Christianity.

While I’m sure your more aggressive political leaders will say this is appeasing the aggressor, the truth is Iran has made no real aggressive moves against America in almost 30 years, and that was during the revolution. Iran only threatens Israel, a country that is outwardly and openly beligerent against Iran and constantly threatens attack against Iran. And these threats are simply rhetoric to show strength and resilience against the Zionist aggression. Is it not wise to show strength when a bully comes up to you?

Pinning your hopes on this election outcome is ludicrous since it is, in fact, meaningless; it’s just another excuse to delay bringing about real peace and further attempt a forced peace.

Posted by the Shah | Report as abusive

Wub look at Hamas and Saudi Arabia, that’ll tell you everthing you need to know about what the US really thinks of democracy.

It’s meaningless, we don’t care what style of government has as long as their willing to be puppet governments. That’s why we love Egypt. We can just torture all our terror suspects there and no one cares.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

“Iran has made no real aggressive moves against America in almost 30 years”.

Hezbulla in Lebenon. Hamas in Gaza. Taliban in Afganistan. Shia insurgency in Iraq.

I would bet many innocent people, and American soldiers, have ended up dead courtesy of a ‘made in Iran’ IED.

Still, the good news is that once Iran goes the way of Iraq, that will be it for the powerful anti-west regimes in the middle east.

Then it’s just a case of cleaning up shop, and dealing with the smaller groups which the Iranians have supported.

It’s all part of the long term plan, see.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

We all know how dirty American foreign policies can be at times, carried out in the name of “exporting democracies” most of the time!!

As far as the forthcoming Iranian election goes, as someone who has been observing things as they’ve happened on the streets of Tehran, this election seems to be different from the previous ones due to the fact that Mr Mousavi and his wife seem to be offering (promising) lots of positive stuff to the people in a believable fashion — the idea of giving more freedom to women is one of those promises, which has brought masses of female population to rally behind Mr Mousavi’s campaign.

People of Iran for long, have known that because of Ahmadinejad’s extreme opinions on a number of foreign issues including the Holocaust, Iran has been isolated internationally and they resent this notion profusely — this very same issue was raised to Mr Ahamadinejad by Mr Mousavi on their “head-to-head TV debate” and Mousavi condemned Ahmadinejad accordingly — hence adding to the number of supporters Mr Mousavi has been gradually accumulating during his campaign — in short, I have been extremely impressed by Mr Mousavi’s campaign and at times he has given people the impression that even if Mr Obama and Gordon Brown were competing against Mousavi, the later would have been the people’s choice!!

Posted by Hamid – Tehran | Report as abusive

Anon most of the terrorists and almost all terrorist funding comes from Saudi’s, you wanna go to war with them, our allies?

You talk about dead Americans that number will skyrocket if you want war with Iran. Iran isn’t some struggling, turmoil filled country like Iraq was before we attacked. Soldier casualties would be in the tens of thousands, the recession could turn into a depression, it’s even highly possible that the war could come here to our own soil. 8 years and we still haven’t won a war against the 3rd poorest country in the world. With our past support of Iran, Saddam in Iraq, Bin Laden in Afghanistan and our current support of Saudi Arabia/Egypt/Israel I dunno why anyone would have any faith in what we do over there anyways.

How many of your fellow countrymen are you willing to sacrifice for your political idealogue?

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

So the Saudis are funding all the anti-american terrorist groups? I could have sworn it was Iran. Better tell the CIA. Make sure to include your proof, though.

Iran is no different to Iraq. Big tough dictator. Supposedly resolute population. An army that looked very big and nasty on paper. And it will take all of three weeks to defeat.

Insurgency means nothing. So what if 30 soldiers die each month? Compared to a real war, those casualties are a drop in the ocean. Which is why an insurgency is not referred to as a war.

An insurgency might annoy an army, but never defeat it. The population of an occupying nation decides to defeat itself, when it decides to pull out.

And if America decides to trounce Iran, and not occupy it, then the problem will never arise in the first place.

As Russia, Sri Lanka and Israel have recently showed, you don’t need to occupy an enemy to win your war goals. You just need to beat the crap out of the enemy quickly and decisively, before the UN has a chance to complain.

And yes, all of those nations did succeed with their goals. That is the moral of the story.

As for your final off the cuff remark? How many soldiers? My answer is ‘as many as are needed to successfully defend our interests’. Just like every other war since ape-man clubbed man-ape over the head with rocks.

As you are obviously an anti-war guy, my answer will be unacceptable to you. Such is life.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Why would I have to tell the gov’t something they already know regarding Saudi’s and terrorist funds?

US News
http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articl es/031215/15terror.htm

Even a US gov’t site

I’ll provide as many links as you prefer.

Iran is very different than Iraq

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Why would I have to tell the gov’t something they already know regarding Saudi’s and terrorist funds?

US News
http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articl es/031215/15terror.htm

Even a US gov’t site

I’ll provide as many links as you prefer.

Iran is very different than Iraq, much more stable, much stronger military, more advanced weapons, more money, 1,000,000 soldiers. Iran has the 2nd best military in the area after Israel, which is just an extension of our military.

If the US destroys Iran than get yourself ready for the daily attempts at another 9/11, as long as you’re comfortable with that.

Parts of Georgia wanted to be Russian before the little conflict, that meant nothing. Israel is slowly gaining land but at the expense of peace for it’s citizens, Sri Lanka was fighting a group that wanted a separate state but didn’t have it so they gained nothing.

It is amazing how easy it is for you to say how willing you are to have American soldiers die in the name of what Washington bureaucrats want.

I thought everyone was anti-war?

(sorry about the posting error everyone)

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Don’t bother with more links. I checked them, and are far from impressed. Or at least, I don’t accept them to the blind extent that you do.

As for your assertions via Iran? Like I said, Iraq thought so too. And look at what happened. America has the capacity to rain ruin on Iran, without even setting foot on Iranian soil.

Were you surprised at how easy Iraq was beaten? Once the ‘great satan’ actually started knocking at the door, the enemy troops started to run. And America achieved it’s goal of finding out about Saddam’s WMDs, even though they were ultimately not able to account for them.

Russia wanted to secure areas of Georgia, specifically the costal area for a new navy base. And it used military force to settle the issue. Also called annexation.

Israel was under attack from rocket fire from Hamas. Since Cast Lead, the area has never been quieter. A new ceasefire is in place, and the global community is assisting Israel to stop Hamas rearming. Something no amount of negotiation was able to achieve.

And through an entire month of bombing Gaza, Hezbolla didn’t lift a finger to help their brothers. Despite it’s supposed ‘divine victory’ against Israel in 2006.

After 30 years of ceasefires, negotiation and terror attacks, Sri Lanka had enough. In mid-2008 they decided to take back the rebel regions by force. Now the longest civil war in recent history is over.

So while you might be dismissive of recent world events, the moral of the story is this: Where negotiation fail to achieve political goals, military force succeeds. All wars are political, after all.

And if Iran continues on it’s course, that is what will happen. Even with Obama in the big chair.

I could say I am anti-war as well. War should be avoided. When practical.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

You can ignore the facts and blindly compare an outcome with Iraqi forces with Irani forces but ti’s not going to change the reality.

You think Iraqi soldiers were as willing to fight for Saddam as Irani troops are to fight for their gov’t? Iraqi’s originally did view us as liberators, that mindset would never be the case in Iran.

Those Georgian sections WANTED to be Russian, I think that’s the part of the equation that angers conservatives the most. If Cubans wanted to be part of the United States and were rising up fighting the government, you can rest assured we’d be ready to send troops down.

Throughout the 65 years of Israel’s existence they’ve had short moments of “peace” like what they consider is happening now. By “peace” we mean only Palestinian civilians are being killed right now. There was a great peace agreement 15 years ago, one that was supposed to end the conflict. The continued push of Zionism and empire expansion of Israel will ensure there will never be longterm peace.

You’re right Hezbollah did nothing, most of the Arab governments are full of nothing but cowards who bow down to Israel and the US.

The fighting in Sri Lanka has been going on for 25 years if not more.

You’ll have to refer me to these negotiations you speak of, I don’t remember those. Holding a gun to someone’s head then making demands isn’t negotiating.

All wars are political and done by ruthless, greedy bureaucrats, and even though you seem to know this you still support it.

We couldn’t handle a war with Iran, if we can’t handle a war with the 3rd poorest country you can rest assured that War with Iran would be as successful as War with Vietnam was.

War should be avoided at all costs, not just when it’s practical. Sometimes doing something deemed impractical is worth doing rather than slaughtering 130,000 civilians and destroying 2 countries.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

To return this to topic… my expectations are;

Turnout: If unrestricted will be massive. As far as I know ACORN does not ‘organize’ in Iran urban areas so any efforts to stifle voting will to maintain TPTB (grand potentates)!

Vote-Splitting and Run-Off: Mehdi Karoubi’s candidacy serves as a distraction to split votes for reforming Iranian policy making a first round victory by Ahmadinejad (pronounced- Ima Nutjob) possible and crucial if he is to win. Persian people can see ‘thru the veil’ and value life more than death, dialogue more than despair and peaceful coexistence.

TPTB are content to cast the spell of blame on anyone, they deem ‘less worthy’ (aka infidel), as the reason for Iran’s
problems. Perhaps they realize they are in denial since many voters are aware of their schemes to demonize and distract.
If reform is to have a prayer, fear must be conquered by faith so seeds of true representative government can grow.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~
“In A Perfect World war would not be taught or practiced…”
— Folklight —

Posted by Folklight | Report as abusive

“Holding a gun to someone’s head then making demands isn’t negotiating”

One of the most inaccurate statements I have ever read. Negotiation is about offering compromise, under threat of consequence.

Sooner or later, you are going to have to accept the practical realities of the world you live in. Both in diplomacy, and in war.

Do you think it *mattered* whether the people in those Georgian regions wanted to be part of Russia? The reality was that military force dealt with the issue.

Same with Gaza. The point is that the missile fire from Hamas has stopped. A month before the conflict, Hamas refused to extend the ceasefire on the same terms as before. But now the rockets are silent.

Governments can come and go. But politics and practicality remain the same, whoever is in office. And in some cases, practicality involves a steel cap boot.

So continue to dig your heels in the ground and sulk. Reject the world you live in. Feel superior to the warmongers, if it gives you any pleasure.

If you deny war, you do so in complete denial of history.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

And are we even talking about the same “Iran Army” here?

I checked up on it, just to figure out why you were making those claims about Iran’s military capability.

Cold war era missile systems. A main battle tank based on the Patton. An airforce consisting of flying junk. An army who’s size is only matched by their poor equipment. And a “devoutly loyal” population, who supposedly count as part of the military.

God knows how they could even mobilise their army without economically collapsing. Or running out of supplies within a week.

We have seen this all before.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

I’ll never accept the political realities of the Republican/Democratic mess in this country, I have higher standards.

Do I think it mattered? Sure, this isn’t World War 2 and Russia isn’t going to conquer a land where ppl don’t wanna be ruled under them. The Ossetian people wanted to be Russian and will be, that’s all that matters.

You can rest assured the missile fire will start back up as long as Palestinian homes continue to be bulldozed and their children murdered in the street.

I’d much rather reject most of the world’s governments, again I have higher standards than approving or at minimum being complicit with the monsters in our capital allowing the genocide in the middle east.

I’m not saying the Iranian army is anything amazing, doesn’t have to be. Look at how pathetic our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been. 8 years later and we haven’t won a war with the 3rd poorest country and the southern part of Iraq is now being bombed the same way the Northern part has been the entire duration of the troop withdrawel.

Sure war is sometimes the only answer, it’s just become the U.S.’s only answer. We desire constant war, we’re in it now with Iraq/Afghantistan and neocons like you want it with Iran and probably a host of other countries. To hell with the middle class and the economy’s effect on all our livelihood, to hell with American soldiers, to hell with the safety of our country, bottomline is we need to nation-build constantly and Americanize the whole world, right?

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Michael Ham, while I agree with most of your points, and it is clear that Anon is willing to ignore the vast majority of facts in order to press his own militaristic views, I find your characterization of Israeli military action rather unjust and false.
Israel’s territory, historically, has only expanded as a cause of wars against neighboring Arab nations which attacked it first (such as the Six Day War and more egregiously the Yom Kippur War) and in which Israel’s forces just seized the opportunity to capture more territory from a beaten foe. While I don’t agree with Netanyahu’s settlement policy, it must be recognized that Israel has replied with military force only to terrorist attacks (from Hamas and Hizballah) or unprovoked attacks from neighboring countries.
Although Israel’s policies of self defence have caused many (possibly thousands over the years) of civilian casualties over the years, there is no viable alternative. So long as large numbers of Muslims are willing and eager to commit terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, Israel has no choice but self-defence. It would also be hypocritical to ignore the enormous numbers of civilian casualties caused by American invasions in recent years.

Posted by E. B. | Report as abusive

The challenge for the US in dealing with Iran is that Iran does not accept the US as the world’s leader, whereas the US only views itself as such. Success in moderating Iran will follow a less bellicose approach from both sides.

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive

I usually don’t comment on these pointless discussions, but Anon has inspired me. You really think we are winning these wars? Are you missing the part where are country has been completely and utterly bankrupted? I am an anti-war dude, but if the stuff starts flying against the fan with regards to Iran, the only comfort I have is knowing that your holy American empire and lifestyle come slamming down to the ground like the world has not seen in a great many years. There is no recovery coming my friend. This is not 60 years ago. While we have been robbing and raping, Russia and China have been signing trade deals and building their empires up. America is done. 1-2 more years tops.

Posted by NonAnon | Report as abusive

Don’t worry I know the US gov’t is more monstrous than the apartheid Israeli gov’t.

You’ll have to prove to me, I find it impossible that Israel would have essentially been at war almost all 64 years of it’s existence without any of it being because of their own aggression. I refuse to believe they needed to drop phosphorous gas on UN buildings to defend themselves. I refuse to believe they have to drop bombs on refugee camps to defend themselves. I refuse to believe ambulances needed to be shot up to keep from saving the bleeding out children in the street to keep Israeli citizens deaths.

If you get upset at every instance of an Israeli citizen death, how as a human can you not be driven to near insanity by the THOUSANDS of palestinian civilians murdered.

Is an Israeli citizens life worth a thousand Palestinian citizen’s lives to you?

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Higher standards? Or just conceit? Only you can know that, I suppose.

But I note we seem to differ about our interpretation of the term ‘victory’. My question for you is this:

Say you somehow become the POTUS. Under what conditions would you call victory in Iraq?

For that matter, when would you call a victory in any war?

(And no “You win a war by avoiding it” or “Nobody wins a war” answers. Let’s focus on the technical aspect.)

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Hmmm. So lets see.

1. Russia wants America to cut back plans for a missile shield in Europe.

2. If America wants to invade Iran, it would be preferably without Russian interference or arms sales.

3. The europe missile shield is ostensibly to protect against Iranian missiles.

I think there is the potential for creative and horrifying diplomacy here….

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive

I guess I’d call it higher standards if you approve of the current conduct of the American gov’t, which is essentially a modern version of the Britist gov’t ruling this land in the 1700’s prior to the revolution.

Victory in Iraq would be hard to define, that’s a good question. How many millions of families have been ruined by murder, refugee, injury or poverty from this war which was based on a lie?

My version of victory at this point, with very low expectations, is simply us having every single troop out of Iraq. That would be a great victory for the Iraqi people, however it’ll probably never happen. I dunno if we’re able to have a victory.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

That’s a shame. I was hoping to get a fresh perspective from the other side.

If you can’t define “victory”, then how can you feel so confident in defining “defeat”?

For that matter, do you believe we are currently at war with Iraq? In the technical sense?

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Tell me how I should feel we can win a war than I don’t feel we should be in? Especially when we’ve already destroyed the country’s infrastructure and economy, not including all the murder and refugees.

I’ll have a feeling of victory when I know every single troop is home and safe, which again, will never happen under the Bush-replica prez we have now in Obama.

Of course we’re at war in Iraq, I don’t care about technicalities.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Never reject the technicalities. Sooner or later, something is or isn’t.

Rejecting the technicalities means you don’t want to accept the implications of those technicalities.

Words such as ‘illegal war’, ‘war crime’ and ‘genocide’ have very concrete technical meanings. And shouldn’t be used cheaply.

Yet these words can easily be stretched to situations they don’t belong, just by dismissing the technicalities.

And it can work the other way. Recall what happened when the technicalities of ‘torture’ were (allegedly) ignored by a previous government?

Just something to think about. Ignore the possible double post.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

And I actually just noticed…

You said “Of course we are at war in Iraq”

My question actually was “Do you believe we at war *with* Iraq?”.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Sorry Anon,
I guess what I was trying to say is I’m not concerned with the title of whatever is going on in Iraq. Whatever it wants to be called, I’m against it.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive