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Iranian Presidential Election: A Path to Reform

By Henry "Chip" Carey

Last month, the Iranian Interior Ministry announced that the next presidential election had officially been scheduled for June 14, 2013. Despite mechanisms already in place to limit reformers’ influence in the government, including the vetting process performed by the Guardian Council and the willingness to falsify election results as occurred in the 2009 presidential election, Iran’s presidency remains an avenue to liberalize the Iranian government. For this reason, the Supreme Leader considers the presidency a potential threat and will likely influence the upcoming election to make sure one of his allies comes to power. However, the dire economic straits that Iran finds itself in are likely to make an anti-reformist hijacking of Iran’s premier elective office a much harder sell this time around.

The current incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is term-limited, but it is unlikely that he could succeed in another open election. Having come into office with promises of renewed prosperity, he has become the scapegoat for Iran’s economic troubles in the eyes of the people and the Supreme Leader, and is now the weakest of Iran’s six post-revolutionary elected presidents. Ahmadinejad is expected to recommend his chief of staff and protégé, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as a candidate for the next election, but the Guardian Council wants to eliminate any of his preferred loyalists, and Mashaei is at risk of either arrest or disqualification as presidential candidate, given his leadership regarding the “deviant current” of the current president.

Following the June 2009 electoral fraud, when the same Interior Ministry announced the results before the votes were counted, an estimated three million took to the streets in protest. The government did not take kindly to this outpouring of democratic support. The paramilitary Basij spray-painted demonstrators to identify them for subsequent arrest, interrogation, and possible torture in the notorious Evin Prison. Despite the crackdown, presidential elections still represent the moments when reformist candidates and movements have found the greatest success since the clergy took power in 1979. As the highest directly elected official and the second most powerful leader in the clerical regime after the Supreme Leader, the president still represents an opportunity for advancement in Iran’s long, but steady, democratization process.

The 2013 election field could contain a Dubček- or Gorbachev-type reformer willing to challenge the Supreme Leader’s Putinesque grip on Iran (together with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, he directs or own about half of the Iranian economy through religious foundations). Two of the previous three Iranian presidents, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, sought to reform the Iranian state from within, and both have been looked to as potential candidates in 2013. No consensus among reformers has coalesced around either, though the ranks could close if a single opposition candidate is chosen or one emerges as the frontrunner, as occurred in 2009 with Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Though well-respected, both candidates have issues that could harm their candidacy, with Rafsanjani being seen as very corrupt and Khatami as an economic failure as president.

So far, Rafsanjani has been coy about running and said last week that he would prefer a younger reformer to run. Many feel that he would be the strongest candidate and expect him ultimately to announce his candidacy and dare the Guardian Council to exclude such a well-known former President. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s references to “hypocrites" and "secular clergy" are widely perceived as attacks on Rafsanjani, suggesting how much Khamenei still fears Rafsanjani’s potential to undermine his current sultanistic control of Iran. In an undoubted sign of intimidation, Rafsanjani’s two children were recently arrested and placed in Evin prison on charges of causing a threat to national security by protesting the 2009 election fraud. His daughter, Faezemi Rafsanjani, is a former legislator who is serving a six-month sentence for participating in an opposition rally in February 2011. His son, Mehdi Rafsanjani, was detained at the Tehran airport two days later as he returned from three years in exile to face similar charges for protesting the 2009 presidential election.

Rafsanjani and Khatami are the most prominent potential reformist candidates, but they are far from the only ones. Mohammad-Reza Aref, Khatami’s Vice President and former Chancellor of the University of Tehran, has been mentioned as a possible candidate. Hossein Kamali, Labor Minister for both reformist presidents and Esmaeil Haghparast, both from the Workers Party, have also expressed interests in running. More likely to pass the Guardian Council’s muster are another Tehran mayor, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf; Saeed Jalili, the chief nuclear negotiator and Khamenei confidant; and Ali Larijani, chairman of parliament and another past nuclear negotiator from a prominent political family. The latter is regarded as the preferred choice of the Principalist parliamentary faction, whose full name is the Principled Followers of Guardianship. Larijani, who increasingly appears likely to run, and Ghalibaf are seen as perhaps too independent of the Supreme Leader, who will probably object to anyone who might emulate President Ahmadinejad.

However, Khamenei’s ability to prevent reformists from competing in the Presidential election is likely to be limited in 2013. The Guardian Council, which vets candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections, is composed of a dozen members, half chosen by the Supreme Leader, and half proposed by the head of the judicial system, who is also a Supreme Leader appointee. But the Guardian Council could not prevent such well-known former Presidents as Rafsanjani and Khatami, nor the unjustly defeated Mir-Hossein Mousavi, from running without threatening to lose all appearance of democratic legitimacy in the election. The possibility of electoral fraud in 2013, of course, remains. Iran has never had an independently verified presidential election, or even a quick count sample in the presidential votes. However, if a candidate emerges who begins to arouse public passions, then this time, the opposition to the preferred candidate of the Supreme Leader might be better organized to counter the official voting results announced by what is, in effect, the intelligence apparatus of the Interior Ministry.

Khamenei’s strategy of using selective violence to minimize the costs of repression worked in 2009, but it might not be as effective four years later. In early October, the value of the rial fell at an all-time low, at roughly 35,000 to a dollar, the most striking symbol of an economic crisis that draws Iran ever downward. The combination of Western sanctions and government mismanagement has caused many businesses to close and prices for staples like rice and chicken to skyrocket. If a strong reform candidate is allowed to compete in 2013, and the Interior Ministry were to again alter electoral results, the protests could be much larger than in 2009, and a violent crackdown would be much harder to pull off without seriously jeopardizing the legitimacy of the Iranian government in the eyes of its own people.

For all the checks on democratic uncertainty, the electoral process remains unpredictable. Given the potential of elections to stir populist angst in the population, the Supreme Leader even floated the idea earlier this year that the presidency should be abolished. Such a constitutional change would not be unprecedented, since revolutionary Iran eliminated its equally unpredictable prime ministerial system in 1989. As Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is supposed to be the country’s spiritual leader and only intervene politically to resolve constitutional crises, has repeatedly sullied his hands in Iranian politics. Khamenei suppressed the first non-clerical president, incumbent Ahmadinejad, because he sought to exert his own authority as kingmaker. Eliminating the presidency would likely force the Supreme Leader to become even more directly involved in politics.

Taking measures to end the economic sanctions by dealing with the West, therefore, is an expected talking point for any opposition candidate. The regime has always thrived on the threat from the West, however, to justify its hybrid of theocratic and military institutions with semi-democratic ones like the presidency and the parliament. Without an embassy in Iran, the U.S. is not positioned to influence elections, and doing so might well backfire in a regime ideologically poised to object to any sign of imperialist interference. As it is, according to the UN human rights office, the regime has been arresting critical journalists and human rights activists like Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, whose nine-year prison sentence was upheld in April, in addition to the arrests of Rafsanjani’s two children two weeks ago.

The key reformist candidates in the 2009 election, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest and Khamenei’s faction has shown little sign of wanting to reach out and meet even the basic demands of the reformist movement. How Khamenei will respond to the crippling economic sanctions will partly depend on whether he feels confident that an ally will emerge from the presidential sweepstakes next year. Before the March 2, 2012 parliamentary elections, the Guardian Council vetted about one-third of the aspiring candidates competing for the 290 seats, including many Ahmadinejad allies. If the Guardian Council agrees to do the Supreme Leader’s bidding for the 2013 presidential elections, then he can deal with Western pressure on the nuclear issue without fear of an internal split.

The stakes are higher than ever as Iran’s next election approaches—with economic sanctions that have already proven debilitating to the country’s currency and a crackdown on activists that has received international attention—but what remains to be seen is how effective the Guardian Council will be as a mechanism through which the Supreme Leader can maintain control. Iran stands at a precipice amid the political and economic instability. Khamenei has shown no sign of relenting to the opposition and wants a president who will do the same, but he is relying on the Guardian Council’s cooperation. If unfair elections makes the West discredit the regime, so much the easier to speak of another threat to the revolution, the regime and Islam. Though unlikely, Khamenei’s overriding control could evaporate in the face of too many Principlist conservative candidates dividing their votes in the first round, with a reformer gathering steam that could make it impossible for a repeat of the regime rigging the first-round vote to prevent a second-round showdown over the future of the Islamic Revolution.

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Henry "Chip" Carey is Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is the author of:  Privatizing the Democratic Peace: Policy Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding and Reaping What You Sow: A Comparative Examination of Torture Reform in the United States, France, Argentina, and Israel.

[Photo courtesy of Kappazeta]

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