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Analysis | Another Presidential Election


24 Oct 2012 23:23Comments

What Ayatollah Khamenei, and the reformists, may be looking for.

Gareth Smyth, a frequent Tehran Bureau contributor, has covered Middle Eastern politics since 1992, and was Tehran bureau chief of the Financial Times in 2003-07. All opinions are his own.

[ comment ] There are some in Iran's political class who proclaim American domestic politics an irrelevance, there are some who follow it in detail, and there are some who pretend to ignore it while they quietly do the opposite. Though I can't be sure, I would guess that the second and third groups together make up the majority.

Hence the suggestion that a reelected Barack Obama would open one-on-one negotiations with Tehran should remind us of what historian Paul Kennedy famously called "the realities behind diplomacy," that foreign policy does not exist in isolation from domestic factors. And this is true of Iran as well as of the United States, however different their conditions.

The legacy of unpredictability

Like the United States, Iran faces a presidential election, albeit not until June next year. And like the U.S. election, it is caught up with the economy and foreign policy. The latest spat between the Majles and the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- with deputies apparently limiting his ability to divert oil revenue into cash payouts to the population -- shows that the long-running battle between supporters and opponents of the president is far from spent.

One thing we do know is that the presidential election, scheduled for June 14, will see Ahmadinejad leave office, given the two-consecutive-term limit set in the Constitution. We know also that the end of Ahmadinejad's tenure will be welcomed by many in Iran's establishment, including senior clerics and close associates of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader.

The election comes at a crucial time, as tightening Western sanctions have halved oil exports to around 1.1 million barrels a day and encouraged a fall in the value of the currency, which has dropped around 50 percent since January, leaving Iranians facing vastly higher prices for imported goods and a whiff of fear in the air.

State leadership in general does not like unpredictability, and Iran's is no exception. And yet three out of the last four Iranian elections, despite all the efforts to manage them, have proved unpredictable. In 1997 Mohammad Khatami confounded many by trouncing the "favorite," Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri. Khatami's reelection in 2001 was foreseen, but then in 2005 Ahmadinejad was more or less written off before his landslide victory over Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and his reelection in 2009 unexpectedly produced the largest street protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Khamenei will thus be keen to ensure this poll is well managed, passes off smoothly, and is won by a less volatile figure than Ahmadinejad.

116358.jpgThe tumult of the Ahmadinejad years

Of course the clock cannot be turned back. Ahmadinejad's eight years in office have been tumultuous for Iran domestically and internationally. The son of a blacksmith who held Qur'an-reading classes in his village, Ahmadinejad was an outsider to a political class linked by marriages and political relationships forged often in underground work against the Shah, during the 1979 Revolution, or in the trenches of the 1980-88 Iraq War.

The upset of the 2005 election was only the start. Ahmadinejad has presided over escalating tensions with the United States and the European Union centered on Iran's nuclear program, which he conflated with his mission to bring "justice" to the earth in the name of Shia Islam and its awaited messiah. Relations with the Arab Sunni regimes, especially the Saudis, are arguably worse than at any time since 1979.

Domestically, the Ahmadinejad government has followed populist economic policies that have encouraged inflation and unemployment, and has diverted resources away from productive investment into consumption, undermining the 8 percent growth target of the Five-Year Plan. A follower of the popular religions traditions and skeptical of Qom, Ahmadinejad first provoked senior clerics in 2006 by ordering sports authorities to lift the ban on women watching top football matches, prompting a startled Khamenei to overrule him. By 2011, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi was reportedly "more than 90 percent certain" that Ahmadinejad had "been put under a spell." (Clerics regard some religious practices as little better than black magic.)

The dark shadow of 2009

The differences in the principlist camp closed quickly in 2009 as reformist candidates urged supporters to the streets, alleging Ahmadinejad's reelection had been rigged. The suppression of protests sent Iran into a new period of tightened political control. While the authorities asserted themselves, this was at the price of a loss in legitimacy as leading opposition figures were arrested and reformist newspapers closed.

Despite the clear support Ahmadinejad received from Khamenei over the poll, tensions soon resurfaced between the two, prompting the Leader to clip the president's wings. The sticking point was often Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close ally whom Ahmadinejad tried to appoint in 2009 as first vice president and, when overruled by the Leader, made chief of staff instead. In that post, Mashaei became for many clerics the sorcerer casting spells on the president. And last year, Khamenei insisted Ahmadinejad reinstate Heydar Moslehi as intelligence minister after the president had forced his resignation.

After his reelection in 2009, whether he believed the decision was ultimately made by the voters or by those above, Ahmadinejad overreached himself. He simply failed to make the usual compromises needed for a working relationship with parliament, the Central Bank, and the Supreme Leader's office. And as a consequence, he has apparently failed to create a sustainable political current that could produce a successor from amid his close allies, who have done relatively poorly in local elections and, most recently, in parliamentary elections this past March.

Ayatollah Khomeini's priorities: a quiet election and a safe pair of hands

From the start, Ahmadinejad was a double-edged sword for Khamenei. On the one hand, his 2005 landslide victory appeared to show the continuing strength of the egalitarian values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution as he pegged back Rafsanjani as a man associated, rightly or wrongly, with wealth and corruption. Here was a renewed revolution of the mostazafin (dispossessed) that could replace the reformist agenda of social and political freedom that held sway during the early Khatami years.

On the other hand, from the off, Ahmadinejad's strident foreign policy -- particularly his rhetoric over Israel and conversion of the nuclear program from a matter of state to a crusade -- made measured diplomacy difficult. And his heating up of domestic politics allowed Mir Hossein Mousavi, a skilful operator prepared to confront the incumbent on day-to-day economic issues, to engage with and further enliven the electorate in 2009, when his supporters claimed he was cheated of victory.

The priority of Khamenei, and those around him, will now be for a quiet presidential election that produces a chief executive who can employ a safe pair of hands and a measured tongue in domestic and foreign policy.

Of course, Iranian presidential elections are managed, but their recent unpredictability suggests 2013 may not be without surprises. The Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog charged with vetting wannabes, may well weed out Mashaei, or any close associate of Ahmadinejad. Can we assume it will weed out reformists?

Probably. It is a long time since Khamenei in 2005 overruled the council when it barred two reformist candidates, Mostafa Moien and Mohsen Mehrali Zadeh. There is talk of Mohammad Reza Aref, a vice president under Khatami, running. But could Khamenei now run the risk of a reformist victory, and the likelihood of continuing conflict within and between state institutions? Surely not.

Possible candidates

Contrary to what political organizers sometimes think, elections are not just about results but also about process. Khamenei needs not just a president with a safe pair of hands but some kind of mandate. And he needs an election that goes somewhere to restore whatever legitimacy was lost in 2009. He needs not just a steady president, but one who can inject enough meaning and presence into the election to motivate voters.

So who might fit the bill? Ali Larijani -- parliamentary speaker, son and son-in-law of ayatollahs, and a reliable member of the political establishment -- could be suitable. But while a capable politician, Larijani lacks charisma and polled badly in 2005, winning only 5.9 percent.

Mohsen Rezaei, commander of the Revolutionary Guards between 1981 and 1997, is another possibility. But his appeal to voters is also doubtful. In 2005, he withdrew as a candidate nine days before the poll, apparently because of fears in the conservative camp that too many principlist candidates could allow a reformist to win.

A more effective candidate might be Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, mayor of Tehran since 2005 and a former senior Guard officer. Ghalibaf is charismatic and ran an effective campaign in 2005 as a conservative modernizer. However, his apparent decline in support toward the end of the campaign -- he came in fifth of seven candidates with 13.9 percent -- may have reflected his slick election campaign alienating senior clerics.

Other names bandied about are Manouchehr Mottaki, the former foreign minister; Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a former parliamentary speaker; and Saeed Jalili, the top security official who has represented Iran in negotiations with the West over its nuclear program.

A further possibility might be an ally of Rafsanjani, perhaps Mohammad Ali Najafi, the former education minister. And there has even been speculation that the man himself, now 78, might enter the fray. What would the Guardian Council do then?

The role of the reformists

There is a further complication, though. Even if the reformists and the "Rafsanjanites" do not field a candidate, they can influence the election, as was pointed out in a recent interview with Etemad by Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of Iranian studies at the University of Tehran, in which he argued that like-minded advocates of change should support a "moderate" candidate from the principlist camp.

Zibakalam argued for the putting aside of "idealism" as the best way to achieve progress, over freeing or improving the conditions of political prisoners, easing legal restrictions on the reformist parties, and regaining the admission to university of dissident students. Zibakalam reiterated his belief in "reformism with all my being," but also stressed the need for "national reconciliation" between reformists and principlists, and even within the principlist camp itself.

The logic of Zibakalam may extend also into the Rafsanjani camp, where a large number of pragmatic conservatives and technocrats, among whom I would number Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign minister, would like a more unified approach in both running the economy and conducting foreign affairs. Perhaps even the reformists and pragmatic conservatives can seek a price for supporting a "moderate" principlist, or in other words can make some kind of deal.

For, as Zibakalam argued in Etemad, if the reformist leaders urge supporters to back a certain candidate, then a certain portion -- he suggests "five or six" out of every ten -- will do so. That he feels will encourage "national reconciliation." It would also perhaps encourage turnout and reduce the chance of surprises -- and that would be very much to Khamenei's liking.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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