Iran Election: What Is At Stake

The question weighing on many foreign policymakers' minds for Iran's June 12 presidential election, in which incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will try to secure over 50 percent of the vote against three other candidates, is: what is at stake? For the past four years Ahmadinejad has captured the world's attention with his bombastic rhetoric in defense of Iran's contentious nuclear program. However, domestically, Iran's troubled economy -- plagued by high inflation and unemployment -- often matches nuclear development on many Iranians' list of priority issues. Thus, the significance of Iran's president for the next four years ultimately depends on one's perspective and priorities.

As far as the economy is concerned, there is much room for improvement. According to Reuters:

Ahmadinejad's spending policies have been criticised as inflationary and wasteful of windfall oil revenue earned by the world's fifth biggest crude exporter. He has promised to alleviate poverty and reduce dependence on oil income, which accounts for 80 percent of hard currency earnings. His power base rests on poorer segments of Iran's 70 million people.

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani of the Brookings Institution, for his part, believes the outcome of June's election will have a slight bearing on Iran's future economic policy, but that "choices are limited" regardless. Writes Salehi-Isfahani:

The lessons learned by Iranians during this most recent populist-managed oil boom may become clear in June, when the outcomes of the election come to light. The precise course the economy will take in the next few years depends on who is elected, but choices are limited. Not surprisingly, the candidates are not talking about what they will do if elected, and the current Ahmadinejad administration is postponing adjustment until after the election.

Nevertheless, as the June 12 presidential election approaches, all three of Ahmadinejad's rivals have brought foreign policy (and thus, what matters more to Western officials) more to the forefront by criticizing the incumbent for needlessly provoking international censure -- meaning the election may be a referendum on the past four years' foreign policy, rather than economics. So says Iran expert Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations' Bernard Gwertzman:

"More than anything else it makes a difference in Iran who is elected president in terms of foreign policy. The three candidates who are running against Mr. Ahmadinejad are all running on a platform that questions Mr. Ahmadinejad's bombastic foreign policy style. They question his emphasis on issues surrounding the Holocaust and his approach to Iran's nuclear negotiations even though they may not question Iran's stance in the negotiations. They have all taken a more moderate stance in terms of how Iran's foreign policy should be conducted.

All three candidates have used the language of détente with the outside world. Mr. Karroubi made a statement that he would reestablish relations with all countries of the world with the exception of Israel. Foreign policy unexpectedly has become a very important issue in Iran and obviously centers on the argument that Mr. Ahmadinejad has been unduly provocative. Of course Ahmadinejad himself takes the opposite view, saying he is in fact the one who has inserted foreign policy in the Iranian campaign by suggesting what the past administration has done, particularly Mr. [Mohammad] Khatami's administration in its negotiations with the United States, was shameful."

However, Iran's actual nuclear and foreign policy is dictated by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the candidates themselves have pointed out. Thus, what is at stake in the election is not so much what the policy will be going forth, but rather, how it will be negotiated and presented to the international community.

Indeed, the role Khamenei plays in Iranian politics, though often understated, should not be underestimated. Akbar Ganji, an Iranian journalist who was a political prisoner from 2000 to 2006, writing in the November/December 2008 Foreign Affairs, doesn't seem to think Iran's president amounts to squat:

The real decision-maker in Iran is Supreme Leader Khamenei not President Ahmadinejad. Blaming Iran's problems on President Ahmadinejad inaccurately suggests that Iran's problems will go away when Ahmadinejad does.

As it happens, a similar sentiment is perhaps implied by the Obama administration's approach to Iran thus far. As CNN reported in May, the administration wanted engagement talks with Iran to actually begin before the Iranian election, indicating that Obama is willing to begin talks with one president while continuing them with another. This willingness, needless to say, suggests that who sits in the Iranian presidential seat doesn't really matter much to the administration. And indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reported in March:

American and European officials say Mr. Khamenei is the only Iranian leader who can make the ultimate decision to suspend or freeze Iran's nuclear program.

"The key issue is now to find a channel to Khamenei," said a senior Western diplomat briefed on the Obama administration's policy review in recent days. "If the supreme leader moves, he's going to do it in a very prudent and incremental way."

History tends to support the above. Popular reformist former president Muhammad Khatami -- who entered this year's election only to withdraw and support Mousavi -- entered office in 1997 as a surprise victor on the promise for change. However, over the course of two terms Khatami's reformist ambition proved inadequate to overcome Iran's entrenched powers. As The Economist puts it:

At the time, Mr Khatami's double electoral triumph was seen as a rebuke to the harder ideologues who had dominated revolutionary Iran's hybrid theo-democracy. His fractious reformists, however, proved no match for the conservatives entrenched in the power structure. Not only did they block most reforms. They also succeeded in pinning blame for their failure on the reformists themselves and in alienating enough voters to pave the way for Mr Ahmadinejad's ascent.

But despite the lesson of history, there are still some who regard the upcoming election with much import and anticipation. For example, historian Mohammed Javad Mozafar, speaking to Newsweek's Maziar Bahari at a rally for reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, comes off as more fatalistic. From Newsweek:

"The choice is now between democracy and an authoritarian government," said Mohammed Javad Mozafar, a historian in the crowd at Milad Hall. "If Ahmadinejad wins, that means the end of this reformist dream for a while. Many of these young people will be depressed and even leave the country. But if Mousavi wins, that means the citizens have won despite Ahmadinejad's deceitful policies and the support he receives from above." Although Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei doesn't stoop to publicly endorsing a candidate, few Iranians doubt that Ahmadinejad is his man.

Others who are eagerly awaiting the June 12 election as an opportunity for a new era are Iranian human rights advocates, who have been increasingly subjected to government heavy-handedness at the behest of the Ahmadinejad administration. According to AFP:

It is no easy matter battling for human rights in Iran, which has grown increasingly suspicious of such groups, but activists hope this month's presidential election will mean a more tolerant government. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is seeking re-election on June 12, Iran has seen scores of feminists, rights campaigners and student activists jailed on suspicion of "harming national security" and anti-regime propaganda.

"We expect the next government to provide a safe environment where activists can work without intimidation," activist and freelance journalist Asieh Amini told AFP in an interview.

The answer to the question that asks what is at stake probably falls somewhere in the middle of these two perspectives. The Iranian president's policymaking power is subject to the direct oversight of the Supreme Leader, especially in foreign policy matters, but this is not to say the president is powerless. As Ahmadinejad clearly demonstrated, the president can be the face and voice for the entire nation -- and how he behaves with the international community has a direct effect on the issues that are most important to Iranians. Moreover, the president does actually have more leeway to implement domestic -- economic and human rights -- policies as he sees fit. Ahmadinejad demonstrated this fact as well with his far-reaching, populist economic reforms that are now subject to such criticism. The outcome on June 12 will not change the world in a day, but it should not be readily dismissed either.

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