What to watch for in Iran’s presidential election
— 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.