Iran’s Presidential Election: What to Watch For

June 5, 2009

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.

The State of Play in Iran

Elections are a routine feature of political life in the Islamic Republic, a legacy of Iran’s uniquely bifurcated system of power that incorporates both democratic and divine legitimacy. Starting with the initial referendum on the future of the post-revolutionary regime, Iranians have gone to the polls in national campaigns for the presidency, the parliament, and other representative institutions at least 30 times in as many years. The electoral system is highly restricted, and the regime aggressively vets prospective candidates to permit only those committed to a perpetuation of the revolutionary system.

And yet despite these limitations, Iran’s ballots have proven unexpectedly competitive and capricious time and again. No one, not even his supporters, anticipated that the symbolic candidacy of Iran’s national librarian would catapult Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in 1997 and launch a short-lived bid for reform. Eight years later, Iran stunned itself and the world yet again, with the election of the little-known Ahmadinejad, a radical populist whose biting condemnations of the corruption of the country’s power brokers managed to overcome the vast advantages and slick campaign of Iran’s political godfather, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had already served two terms as president. Thanks to this proclivity for electoral surprises, Iranians at both the popular and elite level take their campaigns quite seriously.

The upcoming ballot is particularly hard to handicap. During his four years in office, Ahmadinejad has managed to polarize Iranians and much of the world as well by deftly deploying outrageous rhetoric on Israel and stoking nationalist opinion on the nuclear issue. His disdain for technocrats and reckless spending habits have fueled record inflation and squandered the epic bounty of recent high oil prices. His confrontational international approach helped undermine Iran’s relationships with all of its historic partners and draw United Nations multilateral sanctions.

Ahmadinejad’s chief opponent is Mir Husayn Musavi, a revolutionary veteran who is revered for stewarding the nation through the long war with Iraq as prime minister. After a self-imposed withdrawal from political life, Musavi has aggressively taken up the public mantle of reform, with the vigorous backing of former president Khatami. Although he is less well-known among Iran’s vast youth bulge, Musavi has waged a vibrant campaign that appears to have energized many Iranians who had become wholly disengaged from politics in recent years. In a recent campaign debate with Ahmadinejad he blasted the president’s track record and accused him of driving the nation toward dictatorship.

Still, Musavi faces a number of challenges, not the least of which is a history of friction with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and competition from another reformist candidate, former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi. Karrubi’s candidacy is perhaps the most quixotic bid of the presidential race. The septuagenarian cleric is a revolutionary stalwart who has emerged as one of Ahmadinejad’s most dogged opponents since finishing third in the 2005 presidential election. In the wake of that loss, he established a political party, a newspaper, and has attracted support from many of the reformist political operatives who helped launch the reform movement at its outset. He is tracking third yet again, but polling is a particularly inexact science in Iran and Karrubi is a wily political player.

Ahmadinejad also faces disquiet among the most orthodox supporters of the Islamic system, who have been unnerved by the president’s audacity, his messianic rhetoric and his destabilizing policies. Many have sounded the alarm that international isolation and economic pressures stoke social unrest. However, Khamenei’s quiet but surprisingly consistent support for Ahmadinejad has meant that most of Iran’s patriarchs have been reluctant to renounce the president.

The younger generation of conservative politicians has been less easily mollified, and former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai has launched his own strident campaign for the presidency. Rezai is unlikely to command a plurality at the ballot box or even among his own conservative faction, but his bid stakes a claim to future leadership that will intensify the rivalries among Iran’s elites and potentially sow the seeds for broader political competition in the future.

Despite his powerful challengers and manifest unpopularity among many segments of Iranian society, no one should count Ahmadinejad out. He wields the powerful advantages of incumbency – no previous Iranian president has lost a bid for a second term – and the system’s capacity for manipulating at least a modest proportion of the vote. Moreover, although he is easily lampooned and reviled in the West, Ahmadinejad boasts formidable political skills and has articulated a defiantly nationalist defense of his tenure that may well have broader appeal.

Given the history of upset victories and the fluidity of the current political environment, no seasoned observer of the Iranian political scene would dare to predict the outcome of a fiercely contested Iranian election. The only certainty in advance of the ballot is that Iran’s political landscape is set to be transformed yet again, and with it potentially the future of its relationship with Washington.

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 constitutencies. Ahmadinejad’s radicalism may well drive traditional conservatives to embrace Musavi, whose long association with the revolution and its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, give him impeccable revolutionary credentials. Equally possible is the prospect that Karrubi 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 Musavi or Karrubi prevails, it is unclear how they expect to advance their objectives more successfully than 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 acknowledgement 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.