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Iran's Presidential Elections, Part I: The Landscape

28 Feb 2009 16:463 Comments
an-fajr-afarinanIran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Second National Congress of "Fajr Afarinan," honoring Muslim political prisoners before the revolution. January 29, 2009. Photo/TehranBureau.
By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

[Tehran Bureau] Iran will hold its presidential elections on Friday, June 12, 2009. Although some Iranians, particularly those who live in the diaspora, may dismiss the elections as being ineffectual and devoid of any possible meaningful consequence, the truth is that the significance of the upcoming elections cannot be over-emphasized. The reasons are twofold. One is that at no time in the past 100 years has Iran faced as many problems and crises as it is grappling with now. (I will return to this point shortly.) The second reason has to do with the fact that no other election in Iran has held such importance in the contrasting and fundamentally different views it represents in the path Iran should take domestically, as well as internationally.

One side espouses a fundamentalist, confrontational approach to both domestic and international problems. Internally, it wants to suppress all the dissidents, even among its own ranks, and silence any voice of moderation. Internationally, it advocates an aggressive and uncompromising approach. In contrast, the opposite camp favors an open society at home, which can move on a democratic path, albeit slowly, while advocating a rational and sober diplomatic approach to the international problems that Iran is facing.

Therefore, no election in Iran has ever been so polarized.

In this article and the sequels, I discuss the main players in Iran's upcoming elections, the messages that they have, the political groups that support the candidates, and the possible implications of the victory of the reformist or fundamentalist candidates on Iran's future. In the present article, I describe Iran's political landscape; that is, present conditions, on both the domestic and the international level. Part II will describe the political groups in Iran, and the extent of popularity that they enjoy. Part III will describe the main candidates and their chances for getting elected. Part IV will discuss the implications for Iran of the victory of each of the main candidates.

The International Landscape

Consider first the situation and problems that Iran is currently facing in the international arena. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there have been many developments in the Middle East that have benefited Iran and its national security. Although in his infamous speech of February 2002, former U.S. President George W. Bush made Iran a charter member of his absurd "axis of evil," and even though the situation looked totally bleak for Iran after Saddam Hussein was easily overthrown by the British and American forces in April 2003 and Bush declared "mission accomplished," we now know that the invasion has benefited Iran's national security. While Iraq's invasion was illegal, and has resulted in the destruction of much of Iraq's infrastructure, human loses and suffering at catastrophic scales, its net result for Iran has been the elimination of its arch foes Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi branch of the Ba'ath Party (the Syrian branch has been in a strategic alliance with Iran over the past 30 years). The fact that the Shiite groups that spent their exile years in Iran and were supported and armed by Iran are now in power in Iraq can only benefit Iran. Moreover, because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has been in no position to pose a serious military threat to Iran, at least in terms of a land invasion.

At the same time, the overthrow of the Taliban in the fall of 2001 eliminated another of Iran's bloody enemies on its eastern borders. Recall that Iran and the Taliban almost went to war in September 1998, after the Taliban murdered 8 Iranian diplomats and a journalist. Given that the enmity between Shiite Islam and the Wahabi sect of Islam, to which the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) adhere, has deep historical roots, elimination from power of the Taliban was also greatly beneficial to Iran. Although the Taliban are now resurgent, they are mainly preoccupied with defeating the Western forces; and from a military point of view, they do not yet pose a major threat to Iran's national security.

The steep increase in the price of oil, rising to almost $150 a barrel in the summer of 2008, could have also been beneficial to Iran, both economically and strategically. But while the economic benefits to Iran of the oil boom has been minimal (see below), its strategic significance cannot be overlooked. For the next few years at least, the world would not be easily able to replace Iran's oil exports if they are eliminated from the international market by military attacks on Iran, for example. This fact, together with Iran's effective control of the Strait of Hormuz, implies that Iran will continue to play an important role in the energy sector.

Therefore, given such developments, it would be natural to think that Iran, with its size, natural resources, young and dynamic population and strategic position, is on its way to become the most powerful nation in the Middle East. While Iran does have such potentials, it also faces major hurdles, many of which have to do with the aggressive, yet what I consider naive, foreign policy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in particular, and the Iranian fundamentalists, who control all major centers of power, in general. To see this, consider two of the most complex issues that Iran is facing, namely its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, and the possibility that Israel may attack Iran's nuclear facilities, especially now that a far-right government is emerging in Israel after its recent elections.

Even during its peak revolutionary zeal in the first several years after the 1979 revolution, Iran was not the subject of so many intense discussions and speculations at the international organizations. There were no United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions against it. In fact, aside from going to the UNSC to express its grievances against the United States or Iraq, it was neither forced to go to the UNSC to defend itself, nor was it condemned at the UN General Assembly. Aside from the United States, no country of any importance had imposed any significant sanctions on Iran.

Compare that with the present situation. There are four UNSC resolutions against Iran, namely resolutions 1737, 1747, 1803, and 1835, all filed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter that deals with peace and international security. Although solid arguments can be made against the legality of the resolutions, the fact is that they are there, and so as far as a significant part of the international community is concerned, Iran must abide by the resolutions' demands, which Iran has so far refused to do. The resolutions have also imposed some economic sanctions on Iran that have begun to hurt the ordinary people in Iran. At the same time, gross violations of human rights in Iran have been the subject of debate at the UNGA and the Human Rights Council of the UN.

The February elections in Israel have brought to power a coalition of right-wing and ultra-right wing parties that are hell bent on attacking Iran's nuclear facilities. If the attacks do take place, they will not only give rise to a war that would engulf the entire Middle East, but also threaten Iran's territorial integrity, not to mention the great destruction that the war would inflict on Iran. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric about Israel (even though what he said about Israel disappearing has been mistranslated), his denial of the Holocaust, and the Holocaust conference that he held in Tehran, only exacerbated the animosity between the two nations.

But that is only half the story. Pakistan has been in a chaotic state for at least 2 years. The Pakistani allies of the Taliban have made great gains, particularly in the Swat valley, to the point of being able to force the Government of President Asif Ali Zardari to sign a peace treaty with them, and allowing them to impose the Islamic Sharia in the regions that they control. The possibility that Pakistan's Sunni fundamentalists might overthrow the government and take control of the 60 or so nuclear warheads that Pakistan has is truly terrifying. Add to that the fact that a low-intensity war between the great Sunni majority and the relatively small Shiite minority has been going on in Pakistan for several years, and recall that the separatist Jundallah forces have been staging terrorist attacks against Iran in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, and the result is a huge threat to Iran's national security.

The Internal Landscape

Iran is in a terrible economic situation. Since 2005 it has earned at least $250 billion, and probably as much as $300 billion, from its oil exports. Yet now that the price of oil has collapsed and is hovering around $40 a barrel, the government has difficulty meeting its domestic obligations. Iranian economists predict a budget deficit of at least $30 billion for the new Iranian year that will begin on March 21.

Aside from its fundamental structural flaws, Iran's terrible economic conditions have mostly to do with the mismanagement -- some say incompetence -- of President Ahmadinejad's government, which appears to have no long-range plans for the country. It has scuttled Iran's 4th five-year development plan, started by former President Mohammad Khatami, and has even ignored the so-called Twenty-Year Outlook -- a long-range vision for Iran's economic development proposed by the Expediency Council and approved and supported by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Close to 60 of Iran's leading economists warned Ahmadinejad in an open letter that his policies would ruin the economy, but he ignored their advice. The Ahmadinejad administration has dissolved many of Iran's fundamental institutions, even some that had survived the revolution of 1979, such as the Organization of Budget and Planning.

Many of Ahmadinejad's actions and policies have been opposed even by some in his own cabinet and administration. He has so far replaced 10 of his ministers, and three Central Bank governors. If he replaces one more minister, there would be a constitutional crisis, because he would have to obtain the approval of his entire cabinet from the parliament again. The Iran parliament, which is supposedly controlled by Ahmadinejad's supporters, has also fiercely opposed some of his policies.

The Ahmadinejad administration has also been embroiled in one scandal after another. Many of the senior positions in his administration have been filled by young, and relatively inexperienced people. Each Minister who was fired went on to harshly criticize the government and reveal some behind-the-scene developments that the public was unaware of. One of Ahmadinejad's ministers, former Interior Minister Ali Kordan, turned out to have not only a fake doctoral degree, but also fake M.S. and B.S. degrees, and was forced to resign. His vice president for parliamentary affairs, Ali Reza Rahimi, is strongly and credibly rumored to also have a fake doctoral degree. Another vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Moshaei, who is also a close relative, spoke favorably about Jewish people, and was harshly attacked for it. The present Interior Minister, Sadegh Mahsouli -- the third under Ahmadinejad -- is known as the "billionaire minister," for the wealth (close to $200 million) that he has reportedly amassed illicitly. Ahmadinejad's chief spokesman, Gholamhossein Elham, holds three official positions, which is against the law. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly replaced deputy interior minister for political and security affairs, who is also in charge of administering the elections. Elham's wife, Fatemeh Rajabi, has been attacking viciously and with immunity all the reformist and pragmatist leaders, from Khatami to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; others, who have criticized the government or its policies, have been jailed.

Politically, Ahmadinejad's government has been repressive. It has closed all but a few reformist newspapers, which are however heavily censored. It has banned many university student organizations, has jailed many student activists and has clamped down hard on the activities of advocates of respect for human, women, and children rights. Two months ago, the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, founded by the Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, was closed, her law office was attacked, and she was viciously criticized by right-wing newspapers. No major reformist group is allowed to publish a newspaper, but there are tens of right-wing newspapers and publications. Bloggers have been increasingly attacked and jailed, and the parliament is contemplating a law that would make it a capital punishment to cross certain red lines.

It is against this bleak backdrop that the Iranian presidential elections are going to take place in June. Part II of this series will describe the main political groups, their positions and their likely roster of candidates.

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3 Comments

that's not Kantar in the picture with iranian president. you have a mistake.

Anonymous / February 27, 2009 9:01 PM

Dr. Sahaim writes: 'Even during its peak revolutionary zeal in the first several years after the 1979 revolution, Iran was not the subject of so many intense discussions and speculations at the international organizations. There were no United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions against it. In fact, aside from going to the UNSC to express its grievances against the United States or Iraq," He forgets those were the Cold War years and no resolutin would have been passed against Iran - whereas during those years, many resolutions were passed against Israel. As fro Ms. Ebadi, maybe she should stop turnign up at the Hoover Institute (they like to think they promote "democracy - Iraqi style).

Anonymous / February 28, 2009 1:31 AM

Re Photo: Thanks, Anonymous No. 1. Do you know who it is?

Golnoush / February 28, 2009 3:15 AM