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.

28 comments

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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

Anon,
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

Anon,
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