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Why Iran’s Presidential Election Matters

Suzanne Maloney

In conversations with policymakers, journalists and analysts about the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, one question looms: does it even matter? Iran is, after all, an Islamic theocracy, a state in which the supreme leader is the ultimate decision-maker and elections are heavily stage-managed from start to finish. The president’s powers are explicitly limited, and whatever sense of electoral unpredictability that may have characterized Iran in the past— for example, in 1997, when a reformist cleric upset the heavily-favored front-runner— appeared to have ended with the contested 2009 reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Millions of Iranians outraged by the unusual speed and dubious margin of Ahmadinejad’s ostensible victory took to the streets chanting “where is my vote?” This violence that greeted this appeal, and the show trials and other Stalinist tactics that followed in its wake, seemed to suggest that Iran’s quirky system had devolved to a more banal authoritarianism, where polls serve as mere pageants and institutions are unabashedly manipulated.

It would be tempting, then, to dismiss the election scheduled for June 14 as mere window-dressing or to disregard the brewing antagonisms within Iran’s political establishment as irrelevant. This would be a mistake, however, and yet another misreading of Iran’s complicated domestic dynamics. Don’t get me wrong— I don’t mean to suggest that the election will bear any resemblance to a truly democratic enterprise; even in the best of times, the Islamic Republic fell far short of meeting international standards for free and fair elections. However, while the outcome will be engineered, the element of improvisation is real, and the outcome of this latest twist in the thirty-four year power struggle within Iran will have significant implications for the future of the country and its role in the world.

If the past eight years of Ahmadinejad’s antics have taught us nothing else, they have demonstrated over and over again that Iran’s presidency matters. Despite its electoral illegitimacy, its institutional constraints, and the assiduous efforts of a system built around a divine mandate, the office of the presidency has emerged as one with real power to shape the context for domestic and foreign policy. The post exerts considerable authority over the Iranian budget, the framework for internal political activities, the social and cultural atmosphere, and even the most sensitive aspects of Iran’s security policies. Whoever assumes the office in August of this year will find himself near the apex of power, at a time of unprecedented external pressure and at the cusp of generational change within the Iranian regime. For this reason, the election and its outcome will have enormous sway over the future course of the Islamic Republic.

To appreciate the significance of the much-maligned Iranian presidency, simply consider the track records of its most recent occupants. During his two terms in office (1997-2005), reformist president Mohammad Khatami managed to curb some of the worst abuses of Iran’s own citizens and establish new avenues for political participation and speech. His tenure attracted foreign investment to Iran, unified its exchange rate, and established an oil stabilization fund to promote responsible economic stewardship. He repaired Iran’s relationships with much of the world, and even helped push through a multi-year suspension of the most worrisome aspects of its nuclear program.

It was not an unadulterated success by any stretch of the imagination; Khatami’s ambitions for change were inherently limited by his steadfast loyalty to the theocratic system and many of its most problematic policies, and even his mild reforms were thwarted at every turn by hardliners’ opposition. Still, compare those years to the two terms of his successor, who oversaw a crackdown against technocrats and the media, squandered an epic boom in oil revenues, and indulged in hate speech that helped alienate the world and isolate his country. It’s clear that Iranians as well as the international community were better served by Khatami’s halting moderation than by Ahmadinejad’s impetuous antagonisms.

It’s almost certain that the June election won’t produce a shocking upset or a reformist victory, and that whoever manages to secure the presidency this time around will offer continuity on the issues that matter most to Washington, particularly the nuclear issue. However, elections— even ones that are heavily rigged— represent critical junctures in the lifecycle of political systems, and in Iran they have repeatedly sent the revolutionary system careening in new directions. At times, these changes in course were deliberate, as in 1989 when Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani ran virtually unopposed in order to spearhead the country’s post-war reconstruction. At other times, the shifts have been wholly unanticipated, such as the advent of the reform movement or even Ahmadinejad himself, whose mid-term transformation from the Supreme Leader’s acolyte to his whipping boy has given the Iranian political establishment whiplash.

Iran’s revolution was the product of a deeply divided coalition that agreed on little beyond their opposition to the Shah, and throughout its history, the Islamic Republic has experienced a intense, evolving competition for influence. That contest remains as dynamic as ever, and the election will offer an opportunity for external observers to gauge the state of play. For those within the system, the campaign provides endless openings for ambitious contenders and rival factions to position themselves for future influence and reframe Iran’s political climate, just as Khatami and Ahmadinejad did. The election will help determine what becomes of a regime stalwart, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; the future prospects of the quixotic and enterpreneurial Ahmadinejad; and the rise or fall of a curious array of aspiring Iranian leaders.

And because the legacy of the revolution and Iran’s century-old struggle for representative rule has made popular participation incumbent even upon its theocracy, the election will mobilize millions of Iranians in ways that often prove difficult to control, even with a well-orchestrated repression. Over the course of the forthcoming weeks, we’ll be watching all these factors closely and seeking to interpret what the campaign and its outcome mean for Iran’s domestic evolution and its ongoing conflicts with the international community.

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