May 26, 2009

NIAC Memo: Why Iran’s Presidential Race Could Make a Difference

Washington, DC – Iran’s presidential election is promising to be a major showdown. In what is shaping up to be a highly contested – yet limited – political arena, the upcoming election arrays competing factions that range from pragmatic conservatives to liberal reformists. These factions are all seeking to redistribute power, which has increasingly shifted to the militant Right since the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. In view of such intense factionalism, the race could pose a serious challenge to the hard-liners in power and provide an opening for a change in U.S.-Iranian relations.

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Surprisingly, Ahmadinejad’s most formidable rivals are emerging from the “Principalist” faction, a coalition of pragmatic and some ideological conservatives who have increasingly grown weary of Ahmadinejad’s performance for the past four years. Highly critical of his reckless economic policies, which have led to higher inflation and unemployment, they see the president’s combative rhetoric and populist domestic politics as undermining the prestige and national interest of the state both at home and abroad. The recent announcement of the candidacy of the pragmatic conservative, Mohsen Rezaie, a former Revolutionary Guard Commander, underlines the growing clout of the anti-Ahmadinejad camp, which now includes a conservative opposition front with the apparent approval of the Supreme Leader.

Yet the president’s conservative opponents are creeping out from all sides. The Association of Militant Clergy, a major Principalist clerical organization, refused to endorse a candidate last month. There are rumors that the clerical bloc might throw its weight behind the reformist candidate, Mir Hussain Mosavi, an affront to the sitting president who was counting on the hard-line clerics to support his bid for reelection. In another instance, the conservative-dominated parliament rejected a bill that would have decreased the voting age to 15, a major blow to Ahmadinejad, who had hopes to capitalize on the under age population for electoral support. The most devastating setbacks for Ahmadinejad came in May 2009 when the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, rebuked the president by publically reversing his decision to merge the Hajj Organization, an institution supervised by the Supreme Leader, into the Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicraft Organization. This development underlines the possibility that Khameini is increasingly taking sides with the traditional conservatives who see the militant Right as a major threat to their political interests.

The current situation has enabled the reformist candidates to forge ahead with the bluntest and most aggressive electoral campaign in the post-revolutionary era. Mehdi Karobi, the former speaker of parliament and a relatively popular reformist figure, has emerged as the most outspoken of all candidates. Since his failed bid for office in 2005, which he believes to have been caused by electoral fraud, Karoubi’s thinking and discourse has become bolder and explicitly more pro-democratic. He has even broken a major taboo in the country’s electoral politics by calling for certain constitutional reforms. While defending his position to ban capital punishment for under-age offenders, Karoubi recently wrote a very combative letter to the pro-Ahmadinjead editor of Keyahan, charging him and his ideologue allies of illiteracy and a lack of understanding of Islamic values. For his courage, Karoubi is attracting the younger generation, ethnic minorities and women to his side.

Mousavi is leading the so-called “Third Wave,” seeking to go beyond the reformist and conservative schisms of the past. Mousavi has built his campaign around the idea of “reforms through return to the core principals,” and has the support of diverse political figures like the former reformist president Khatami and his brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami. As an abstract painter and a post-modernist architect, Mousavi has creatively based his campaign on the platform of social and basic economic issues.

Mousavi is also calling for increasing social freedoms and strengthening civil society, rapidly building a base among the middle-class urban population and its youth.  Meanwhile, his public events are increasingly attracting workers in various urban regions of the country, along with the disillusioned bureaucrats and technocrats who form the backbone of the state’s large administrative apparatus. As one of the most formidable opponents of the president, Mousavi has also publically denounced Ahmadinejad’s belligerent statements and has explicitly stated his desire to meet with President Obama.

In many ways, a reformist or a pragmatic conservative electoral victory could present fresh opportunities for diplomacy. A new president would likely undo some of Ahmadinejad’s more adversarial positions, which have increased the risk of further economic sanctions against Iran and a possible military confrontation with the West. As the Obama administration continues with its tentative outreach to Iran, a shift in Tehran’s rhetoric and behavior on the presidential level could play a critical role in lessening animosity and pushing the conservative establishment toward direct talks with Washington.

Many of the people who plan to vote in June will likely cast their votes not in favor of a particular candidate, but against Ahmadinejad. This rejectionist impulse is what lies at the heart of the 2009 presidential campaign, and it could be a potential source of trouble for the fractious anti-Ahmadinejad campaigners, who might see their candidates get defeated in a second round of elections again. With the support of the security-intelligence apparatus, Ahmadinejad could still deliver another surprise victory, much to the astonishment of the same political observers who dismissed him in the previous election.

The reelection of Ahmadinejad, however, would not preclude diplomacy. Ahmadinejad’s letter to the judiciary likely helped hasten the appeals court review for Roxana Saberi, and her release has been widely interpreted as a diplomatic overture. However, the question remains, is Washington willing to negotiate seriously with Tehran regardless of who becomes the next president?

Babak Rahimi is an assistant professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He was recently a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.




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