State Of Play As Iran’s “Epic” Campaign Grinds To An End

Iran’s presidential campaign formally ended early Thursday, thanks to the Islamic Republic’s idiosyncratic electoral system, which empowers heavy-handed intervention in candidate selection and then seeks to protect the ballot’s “integrity” by curtailing last-minute electoral activities. Still, the pause before tomorrow’s storm offers an opportunity to take stock and highlight the uncertainties and issues to watch over the course of the next few days.

FYI, tomorrow I will be on Reddit to answer questions relating to Iran’s presidential election. If you’re a Redditor, please log on Friday from 12:00-1:00 PM EDT and join in the conversation.

The Players

The fundamental difficulty in anticipating the outcome of Iranian elections is their peculiar amalgamation of official orchestration and popular engagement. Obviously, this is in no way resembles an exercise in Jeffersonian democracy, but at the same time, the regime has sought in the past to reinforce its claims to popular legitimacy through elections that demonstrated at least some deference to public sentiments. The blatant manipulation of the vote in 2009, and subsequent repression that continues to this day, dispensed with such niceties. However, it also raised the specter of a mishandled ballot leading to sustained instability— a development that the regime can readily suppress but would still prefer to avoid. Which makes this current contest particularly difficult to call.

At the outset, the game seemed to be stacked in favor of Saeed Jalili, the prim nuclear negotiator whose rise through the ranks of regime functionaries has been greased by his apparently full-fledged devotion to the Supreme Leader and the principles of Iran’s unique theocratic system. However, despite a well-financed campaign, Jalili seems to have underperformed, even by the undemanding standards of a rigged race. As Iran @ Saban foreshadowed early in the race, the frontrunner mandate was applied a little too casually. Prominent conservatives were carping from the outset about his lack of administrative experience; Jalili’s remarks on women’s primarily maternal role surely unnerved many of Iran’s well-educated and increasingly economically active female voters; and the readiness of his rivals to take Jalili to task on national television over his handling of the state’s most important national security priority may have made the risks of a weak chief executive all too obvious for the Supreme Leader’s liking.

As a result, there is a sense that Jalili’s support may have waned in the campaign’s final days. In recent hours, Jalili’s own campaign has tweeted complaints that the state media failed to cover his final campaign rally, which could portend a late-stage shift in horses by the establishment. And rumors continue to circulate via Twitter that Jalili may withdraw from the race in a final act of political martyrdom.

The candidate who stands to benefit if Jalili has indeed jumped the shark is Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and former Revolutionary Guards commander. Qalibaf has been running a near-permanent campaign for the presidency since he came up short in 2005 against Ahmadinejad, failing to even qualify for the second round. His loss then was attributed to a disquiet among the clerical establishment over his copious self-confidence and less-than-optimal deference to Islamic proprieties. This was epitomized by the oft-quoted (but correspondingly difficult to find in the original) phrase attributed to Qalibaf during that race in which he portrayed himself as a “Reza Khan of the Hezbollahi type” in reference to the soldier who founded Iran’s pre-revolutionary Pahlavi monarchy.

Over the course of the past eight years, Qalibaf has worked assiduously to secure a robust popular base, a quest that has been greatly advanced by his stewardship of the country’s capital, with metropolitan population of 12 million and the heart of Iranian political life. And he is running an exceptionally cautious campaign this time around, boasting of his days cracking protestors’ heads as a means of reinforcing his ideological bonafides. His viability is his biggest electoral asset, but what remains unclear is whether his simultaneous blandishments to every possible constituency will boost him or undercut him behind scenes as well as on the street.

The real wild card in the race now is Hassan Rouhani, the only cleric in the running and a seemingly sudden convert to the role of barnstorming outsider despite the fact that his political resume is one of the ultimate insiders. That background includes five terms in parliament, key leadership positions during the war with Iraq, positions on elite bodies including the Expediency Council, the Assembly of Experts, and the Supreme National Security Council, where he led the early talks on Iran’s nuclear program. Despite the sense of astonishment at his evolution on the stump, Rouhani’s rhetoric today is consistent with his public track record, which includes blunt criticism of Ahmadinejad and repeated admonitions against “plans based on idealism and principles [that] ignore the realities,” particularly on the nuclear issue. This pragmatic perspective, as well as his role in the 2004 agreement to suspend Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing activities, has earned Rouhani the deep animus of regime hard-liners. Khamenei himself referred to the agreement last year as a “retreat” through which “the enemies advanced so much that I had to step in personally,” adding “if those retreats had continued, today there would be no nuclear advances and no scientific dynamism and innovation in the country.”

Rouhani’s mantra of “hope and prudence” has benefited in recent days from the endorsement of former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, which has helped spark a surge of popular excitement that at least some sources are comparing to the 2009 campaign of reformist Mir Hussain Musavi. Despite the obvious risks, the candidate has not shunned the comparison. In fact, just the opposite, he seems to be inviting it, with his color-themed campaign (albeit purple not green), slogan about big keys for big locks’ (which inevitably prompts his audiences to roar for the release of political prisoners) and even Khatami’s endorsement video which calls for voters to release a “wave” to boost Rouhani to the presidency. This go-for-broke strategy underscores the reality that only the most massive demonstration of public support is likely to persuade the regime’s security-conscious leadership to concede a Rouhani win. The real unknown surrounding Rouhani is whether the system will ever permit him to prevail.

The Polls

Fars News, the Revolutionary Guard-affiliated news agency that with fascinating precision managed to predict the turnout and margin of victory in Ahmadinejad’s dubious 2009 re-election victory, is once again calling the ballot in advance of the actual voting. Fars predicts that Qalibaf and Jalili will go to a runoff, after a first-round turnout of 74 percent of Iran’s 50.5 million person electorate. The forecast was apparently based on nearly 23,000 respondents in 31 provinces.

On the other hand, the daily tracking survey conducted by the Information and Public Opinion Solutions LLC, a U.S.-based firm with unique access and credibility in mapping Iranian opinion, shows a late surge favoring Rouhani, who appears to have edged out Qalibaf for the lead. Still, even the iPOS poll suggest that a considerable amount of flux remains in the electorate, with 42 percent still undecided on the day before the ballot.

I’m watching the poll as with interest but also a high degree of skepticism, which derives not from any capacity to critique the methodology of either survey but from an incredulity at the notion that Iranians are willing to reveal their true political viewpoints in anonymous phone interviews.

The Process

Ideally, Khamenei seems to have preferred an election that was quick, controlled, and at least tolerably credible in the eyes of regime loyalists, if not the broader population. Alas, even the autocratic, divinely-empowered leader of a revolutionary theocracy can’t always get what he wants, and so the challenge before Khamenei this week has been to prioritize what he really needs. A highly controlled environment remains at the top of the list, although the Rouhani frenzy may suggest even there he has been persuaded to let loose just a bit.

So the real question is whether he sacrifices quick or credible. The easiest option would seem to be for Khamenei to indulge the Revolutionary Guards commanders who make no pretense of respecting the republican elements of Iran’s hybrid system and simply steal the ballot without remorse on behalf of Jalili or whoever offers the best Plan B for the hard-liners. That path has the advantage of getting the whole process over with, and avoiding any further Rouhani street parties.

The alternative is to give the people what the want, to a point, and permit the process to play out in a second round. By this logic, the regime has successfully neutralized the perceived threat posed by the Green Movement, and its security forces have maintained an overwhelming presence particularly around the Rouhani rallies. And Khamenei seems oddly eager to refute the allegations that the system’s legitimacy has suffered as a result of the turmoil and repression of the past eight years, probably as a means of bolstering Tehran’s image at a time when the regime is under unprecedented international pressure. In the campaign’s final hours, Khamenei made an unusually benevolent public appeal for broad-based participation, explicitly referencing those who do not support the theocratic system, which has been the longstanding red line for political participation in the Islamic Republic. “Public presence is the most important thing for this country, so even those who simply love Iran must be present in the election,” Khamenei proclaimed

So a second round now is presumed to be the game plan, since there now appears to be little expectation that any one will win a plurality tomorrow. However, the prospect of a runoff only further muddles the odds. It is difficult to imagine that the hard-liners will swallow another week of opportunities for the forces they have denounced as seditionist to mobilize more strenuously. Which leaves the more tolerable alternative of a Jalili-Qalibaf face-off, or even the possibility of inserting former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei into the mix.

The Predictions

Ha! No self-respecting Iran analyst will offer any specific forecast— especially in writing!— until a minute and a half after the vote has been called. Then we will all claim to have seen it coming from the start.

On a more serious note, I’m guarding myself against allowing my preferences to skew my analyses. The exuberance of the Rouhani rallies inevitably evokes parallels with the mobilization on behalf of Mousavi four years ago, and revives the prospect that the election could begin to right the balance a little bit more toward the sort of government that the majority of Iranian citizens, and their neighbors, desperately want. Still, whatever the outcome, there are silver linings. Despite the scars and losses of the past four years, the reformists’ capacity to organize themselves far exceeds that of the conservatives. Even in the face of long odds, many young Iranians remain willing to embrace political activism. As one Tehran resident commented in a Facebook chat reported by The Guardian‘s Tehran Bureau, “(w)e are finally bidding farewell to Ahmadinejad, and that alone is something to welcome.” And for a short time anyway, the world’s focus has returned to Iran’s domestic political twists and turns, rather than the spinning of its centrifuges.