Shades of gray among Iran’s presidential candidates
Few foreign leaders are as provocative as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Known for railing against the West in U.N. speeches, Ahmadinejad is an internationally recognizable mainstay of Iranian politics. Now his term is coming to a close, and on Friday Iran will choose a new president to lead a country in the throes of nuclear negotiations and hard-hit by sanctions.
The field of candidates has been stripped of any serious reformists who would pose a threat to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who claims his power directly from divine authority. In May, Iran’s conservative Guardian Council vetted a pool of over 600 applicants to produce eight candidates, all of whom are basically acceptable to the supreme leader.
With no reformists vying for the presidency, it’s tempting to write off the elections as little more than a dog and pony show. However, the various flavors of conservatives in the race could mean different outcomes for Iran’s foreign policy, including negotiations over its nuclear program.
Last time Iran held presidential elections in 2009, things did not go swimmingly for the regime. Demonstrators took the streets to protest alleged electoral fraud and contest the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and government forces responded with brutal force.
This year, Tehran isn’t taking any chances. Iran wants to orchestrate an election that appears legitimate while ensuring there aren’t any nasty surprises from the opposition.
One way the government has constrained the election and minimized the likelihood of an outpouring of discontent is by axing reformist candidates from the running before election day.
“This is the first election in which the reformists within Iran will not have a major role to play since the 1979 Islamic revolution,” said Alireza Nader, a senior international policy analyst on Iran at the think tank RAND.
Had he passed muster with the Guardian Council, one of the most popular contenders would have been former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had a role in supporting the Green movement in 2009 and is seen as a moderate.
According to Mohsen Milani, the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Rafsanjani’s disqualification shows Iran’s elections are “not as free as they used to be.”
With Rafsanjani out of the picture, the five of the remaining six candidates are all various shades of hardliner.
While predicting the outcome of the election is a bit of a fool’s errand without credible polling, analysts have sussed out a few frontrunners among the six remaining candidates.
The closest thing left to a reformist left in the race is Hassan Rouhani, who received Rafsanjani’s nod of approval on Tuesday. His election would signal the biggest departure from Iran’s current policy with regard to his attitude toward nuclear negotiations and the West.
Rouhani played an important role in nuclear negotiations under two Iranian presidents, including as the top negotiator under former president and reformist Mohammad Khatami.
“Rouhani has a proven record of trying to reach some sort of rapprochement with the West,” Milani notes, citing Rouhani’s campaign speeches and recent presidential debates.
However, Rouhani’s election also could have the unintended consequence of making Khamenei, who ultimately calls the shots on Iran’s nuclear policy, less comfortable with negotiations.
“If he wins, I think it is very likely that Ayatollah Khamenei might not be as flexible about reaching a compromise with the West as he would be if one of his own candidates or one of the candidates that has views similar to him win,” Milani said.
Nader agrees that Khamenei “would very much be threatened by Rouhani’s election.”
On Tuesday, the most reformist candidate left in the race, Mohammad Reza Aref, dropped out. The furthest politically from Khamenei, Aref didn’t have a big domestic base of his own, and his withdrawal is likely to consolidate more support for Rouhani.
On the other side of the spectrum is Saeed Jalili, who the New York Times pegged as an “anti-West hardliner,” as well as a frontrunner in the election. In many ways, Jalili is following Ahmadinejad’s formula of whipping up anti-Western rhetoric on his way to the ballot box.
If Jalili’s name rings a bell, it may be from his role as nuclear negotiator in countless rounds of fruitless meetings between Iran and the P5+1. Since he has been deeply involved in negotiations so far, it’s likely his election would mean business as usual on Iran’s nuclear policy.
Jalili is perhaps the supreme leader’s top choice. He once worked in Khamenei’s office, and his presidency is expected to offer more of the same policies.
Another popular contender is the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. As mayor, Ghalibaf has won popularity by making big infrastructural changes and improving city services.
The remaining candidates include Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a close aide and relative of Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign policy advisor to the supreme leader, Mohammad Gharazi, a little-known independent candidate, and Mohsen Rezaei, a conservative and friend of Khamenei’s.
Friday’s election could produce Iran’s next leader, however if no candidate wins by a large enough margin, the election will go to a runoff. That could serve Ayatollah Khamenei just fine, too.
“If the election goes to the second round, no president then can claim to have a decisive mandate,” Milani said. “That serves the interests of the supreme leader rather well.”
TOP PHOTO: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot in the parliamentary election in Tehran, March 2, 2012. REUTERS/Caren Firouz
CENTER PHOTO: Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani (C), attends a conference called National Unity, Policies and Methods in Tehran, November 12, 2007. REUTERS/Caren Firouz
BOTTOM PHOTO: Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili gestures during talks on Iran’s nuclear programme in Almaty, February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov