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Iran’s Election Goes Nuclear

“The genies are out of the bottles. And the bottles that once contained them are cracked.” So said Iranian intelligence operative-turned-journalist Akbar Ganji in 1999, when it was still possible to imagine that Iran’s path to post-revolutionary redemption would be swift or at least relatively durable. That assumption, like so many others about Iran, was shattered long ago by the conservative backlash sparked by the theocracy’s tentative moderation, a reaction that consigned Ganji to a six-year prison term and put the state’s institutions firmly back in the hands of hardliners.

Still, the cracks remained, and they were only deepened by repeated shocks to the system: the provocations of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; the grinding inflation generated by sanctions and mismanagement; and of course the 2009 elections upheaval. And on Friday, in the third and apparently final debate in the race to succeed Ahmadinejad, another revolutionary shibboleth was cast aside, as the eight official candidates engaged in a no-holds-barred clash that imploded the official narrative on the nuclear issue. This was a historic moment, and while its immediate consequences are still uncertain, the escape of Iran’s nuclear genie offers new reason for long-term optimism on Iran and modest hope for a peaceful resolution of its stand-off with the international community.

In the Islamic Republic, as an artist who was forced to flee has quipped, there is freedom of speech but often not freedom after speech. The press indulges a political establishment that is rife with conflicts over turf, ideology and personalities as well as the substance of state policy. On the streets, Iranians are often unguarded on even the most controversial subjects. And yet, alone among almost all other matters, the nuclear issue remained off-limits for official argumentation, both because it lies at the center of the regime’s security anxieties and because it appeared to command a reasonable degree of consensus.

To the extent that such consensus ever existed, it was blown wide open over the course of the past week, when several contenders in this Friday’s election for the presidency launched a full-frontal assault against the track record of the candidate perceived to be the front-runner, nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. The insertion of the nuclear issue into the campaign began early in the week with a series of sharp exchanges between Jalili’s camp and Hassan Rouhani, a rival who first led the talks with the international community on this issue and who appears to be gunning for reformist votes. It culminated in Friday’s debate, a four-and-a-half hour foreign policy fisticuffs which laid bare the deep strategic divide within the Iranian establishment over nuclear diplomacy.

Analyses written by veteran journalists Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Scott Peterson, among others, provide riveting summaries of the back-and forth in the debate that was broadcast live on state television to an audience estimated at about 45 million people, or 64 percent of the population. The live twitter feed undertaken by the campaigns was amplified by talented Iranian analysts who managed to keep up with a fast-paced discussion in both English and Persian (see here and here for just a smattering of their work). For Persian speakers, watching the full broadcast is well worth the investment of time, if only because there was much of interest and significance beyond the headline moments.

The altercation over the nuclear issue precipitated most of those headlines. Rouhani can claim credit for opening this door, and on Friday, he managed to work in several unsubtle digs at the widely-held perception of Jalili as an unsophisticated puritan and his reliance on verbosity as seemingly his only tool of negotiations. Rouhani also argued that Iran needs factories that work as well as its centrifuges, and within moments, his campaign tweeted a variation on this line.

The most powerful blows to the official narrative were delivered by other conservatives. Former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei questioned why Iran did not obtain a deal last year in talks that took place in Istanbul and Baghdad, and demanded whether another defender of the current nuclear policy, former parliamentary speaker Gholamali Haddad Adel, supported resistance even at the price of keeping Iran’s population hungry.

However, it was Ali Akbar Velayati, the long-time foreign minister who owes his entire career in politics to his close relationship to Khamenei, who delivered the most devastating repudiation. After an initially sleepy performance, Velayati suddenly launched a broadside at Jalili, lecturing the presumptive front-runner on the difference between diplomacy and philosophy class (diplomacy, he noted archly, is intended to obtain results and lessen sanctions). We can’t expect everything and give nothing, Velayati scolded his younger nemesis, asserting that people see only fruitless talks and more sanctions, adding it’s obvious you don’t want to solve the nuclear issue. Jalili did not take the onslaught lying down, but his spirited defense of his own track record— celebrating, for example, that only one United Nations Security Council resolution was passed during his tenure— offered cold comfort.

Jalili has been pegged as the Supreme Leader’s unquestioning acolyte, and his performance on Friday reinforced that perception, as he took pains to underscore that he was only implementing Khamenei’s mandate at the negotiating table. This association only makes the televised rebuke of his handling of the nuclear issue that much more of a mutiny. That is why the debate was far more significant than simply another internecine food fight among an elite that is prone to sharp elbows. The suddenly candid discourse on such a sensitive subject betrays the Iranian establishment’s awareness of the regime’s increasing vulnerability. It was an intervention, initiated by the regime’s most stalwart supporters, intended to rescue the system by acknowledging its precarious straits and appealing for pragmatism. And it was an acknowledgement that the sanctions-induced miseries of the Iranian public can no longer be assuaged with the nuclear pageantry of the Ahmadinejad era, or even the reliable appeals to the regime’s unique blend of religious nationalism that have been deployed since the war with Iraq. However hard the regime may try to revert to absolutism on the nuclear issue, its bluster has been thoroughly exposed as a facade, and that can never be undone.

For Washington, the debate offered stark confirmation that its strategy is working, at least to a point. The fundamental objective of American policy since the very inception of the estrangement with Iran in November 1979 has been to persuade Tehran, through pressure as well as incentives, to adopt more responsible foreign and domestic policies. Friday’s debate demonstrated that sanctions have succeeded in prompting much of the Iranian establishment to disavow defiance on the nuclear issue. Before the Obama Administration launches its victory dance, however, the revelations also underscored the importance of renewed American efforts to build Iranian confidence in the negotiating process itself. The debate confirmed that political will for a nuclear deal exists within the Islamic Republic, but the deep-seated (and not entirely unjustified) paranoia of its ultimate decision-maker will require patience, prodding, and a real investment of the leverage that Washington has already amassed to overcome. 

Beyond the nuclear issue, the debate offered fascinating insights into Iranian politics, including the Stasi-like obsession with secrecy and recordings, the residual bitterness from the upheaval over the last election, and the profound generational divide that lies just beneath the surface of the political establishment. This latter point came through in several exchanges surrounding the legacy of Iran’s long war with Iraq, including a bitter reproach from Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf to Velayati that the then-foreign minister was off having coffee with (then French president Francois) Mitterand while he was at the front, strafed by the Mirage fighter jets that Paris sold to Saddam. Jalili piled on, castigating Velayati’s own negotiating skills over his failure to obtain reparations from Iraq and deriding the cease-fire he negotiated as ineffective.

This repartee highlighted the resentments harbored by Iran’s second-generation conservatives, and the challenge facing the establishing in bridging the prospective chasm between a disproportionately young citizenry and an aging leadership. This was one of the motivating factors behind Ahmadinejad’s elevation eight years ago, and Khamenei is clearly struggling this time around to find a younger standard-bearer who will extend the appeal and the viability of the Islamic Republic without upsetting the system’s unsteady equilibrium.

In the short-term, the biggest uncertainty is how this surprising debate discourse will impact the impending presidential election. It has already forced the departure of two of the eight candidates, with also-ran Haddad Adel withdrawing to boost the hard-liners and Mohammad Reza Aref (grudgingly) bowing out to facilitate a united reformist front. But Friday’s fierce debate leaves the questions of who wins, and by what margin, more difficult to predict than ever. The fall-out from the debate only sharpens the dilemmas posed by Jalili’s candidacy; if he loses at the polls now— after his rivals’ blistering attack on Iran’s nuclear diplomacy— it would severely undercut Tehran’s credibility in any future talks with the international community. And while Jalili’s base may rally around his vehement defense of the status quo, a resounding victory on his behalf would likely require heavy-duty electoral “engineering.” The uncertainties surrounding such a gambit are undoubtedly the cause of rumors, since denied, that Jalili himself may withdraw.

In addition to a Jalili “victory,” the range of possible outcomes includes an unlikely repeat of the 1997 reformist upset by Rouhani, or the more plausible passing of the conservative baton to the eminently electable (and endlessly ambitious) Qalibaf. Despite my prediction only a few days ago, it seems more difficult to envision the regime avoiding a second round. Still, much can shift in the final days and hours, and we will be watching to closely in hopes of anticipating with greater accuracy as the vote draws near.

Looking into the future, this heightened uncertainty, and the substance of the debate itself, demonstrates the subversive utility of pseudo-democratic institutions in an authoritarian state. This is a reminder yet again of why Iran’s elections matter: because they provide openings for candidates to challenge the official narrative on thorny issues, for journalists to push the envelope of state censorship, and for large gatherings of voters to demand the release of political prisoners, including the very candidates detained after the last rigged ballot. Elections— even explicitly orchestrated ones that offer only a highly imperfect array of options— release the genies from the bottles. Every vote cast and every voice raised is another cracked bottle along Iran’s long and winding road to real democracy.

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