Former allies now at odds
“An adviser to Iran‘s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei joined the presidential race on Friday, with powerful conservatives keen to make the June vote a peaceful contrast to the upheaval that followed the disputed 2009 poll,” Reuters reports:
Former parliament speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel registered to run, state news agency IRNA reported, becoming the first of a trio of Khamenei loyalists expected to do so.
Khamenei has the final say on all matters in Iran and in theory stands above the political fray, but it is thought he wants a reliable follower in the presidency after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two turbulent terms in office. Reformist groups have been suppressed or sidelined since 2009 and the next president is likely to be picked from among a handful of politicians known for fealty to Khamenei, minimizing the chances of political rifts leading to post-election chaos.
“While Iran’s theocracy holds many levers in the election, including vetting all candidates and deciding who appears on the final ballot, public opinion remains a legitimate force in Iran,” Associated Press reports:
It gave pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami a landslide re-election in 2001 and unleashed its fury after claims that vote fraud brought Ahmadinejad back for a second term four years ago.
Now, it’s Ahmadinejad’s backers who could rattle the system. No previous Iranian president has left office on such bad terms with the ruling clerics. A cozy landing for the 56-year-old leader in the inner circle or as an elder statesman is highly unlikely. This leaves Ahmadinejad with his big political ego and his still-significant political base.
His main goal has been to get his chief adviser, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (left), on the June 14 ballot. But the chances that his protégé, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad’s son, would be approved are sharply dimmed because of his messy power struggles with the clerics.
“There is no doubt that an Ahmadinejad loyalist is a tough challenger no matter what,” said prominent political analyst Saeed Leilaz. “Conservatives and reformists would have to fight an Ahmadinejad loyalist, who has strong supporters in small towns and rural areas.”
US call for more open, democratic Iran
Many Iranians look upon the poll as a chance to choose “the least worst of the bad.”
But while the electoral process is tightly managed, “the uncertainty regarding the outcome, coupled with the regime’s repeated claims that nuclear sanctions are intended to hurt the people, gives Washington ample room to criticize the highly controlled electoral process and call for a more open and democratic Iran,” says analyst Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Some analysts believe that Ahmadinejad “is pursuing a more subtle agenda — namely, portraying himself as a victim of Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” he notes:
If that tactic succeeds in boosting his faction’s popularity, he would then either introduce another candidate after Mashai’s disqualification or use the momentum to further his own postelection plans. Yet Mashai is probably the only figure in Ahmadinejad’s camp capable of attracting voters, since most Iranians blame the president and his team for years of economic mismanagement, corruption, and international isolation.
Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is also “considering one more run for the country’s top elected post, a prospect that has at once energized and unsettled Iran’s political class,” writes The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian:
Rafsanjani currently heads the Expediency Council, a powerful decision-making body made up of more than 70 senior members of the ruling system, many of them Shiite Muslim clerics. He is considered one of the Islamic Republic’s founding fathers and among its most powerful people.
Rafsanjani, believed to be one of the country’s wealthiest people, is also a symbol of the corruption that has plagued Iranian politics since long before the Islamic Republic was established in 1979. …Others see him as a pragmatic voice in the current political order who could help guide Iran out of its current problems and potentially mend relations with the United States.
“The participation of Rafsanjani in the election as a candidate will alter the electoral landscape, as we have understood it so far, greatly,” said Rouzbeh Parsi, a senior analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies.
The Obama administration has “expanded its roster of those violating Iran sanctions, blacklisting four Iranian companies and one individual suspected of helping the country enrich nuclear fuel,” The New York Times reports:
The penalties announced by the Treasury and State Departments came a day after the Senate introduced legislation that could effectively deny the Iran government access to an estimated $100 billion worth of its own money parked in overseas banks, a step that proponents said could significantly damage Iran’s financial stability. That legislation, known as the Iran Sanctions Loophole Elimination Act, is expected to be integrated into a broader House measure introduced in February.
“With Iran’s nuclear program marching steadily forward, we need to work as quickly as possible to eliminate any sources of funding for the regime,” the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican, said in a statement issued jointly with the ranking Democrat, Representative Eliot Engel of New York.
But the election is unlikely to produce a breakthrough for Iran’s beleaguered reformists who “have been at an impasse for the last several years,” according to a prominent analyst.
“They seem to have concluded that they don’t have the power to reform the system, but they’re opposed to trying to overthrow it, says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The reformists will continue to dither until they manage to coalesce around some concrete aims and decide what it is that they’re trying to achieve,” he tells a Foreign Policy symposium (right). “I doubt, for example, that (m)any of them privately believe that Iran should be ruled by a ‘Supreme Leader’ who purports to represent God’s will , but few if any of them are willing to offer those views publicly.”
“When I read reformists talking about their strategy,” Sadjadpour says, “I’m often reminded of the adage ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.’”
Supreme Leader Khamenei is finding it hard to find a candidate who embodies the conflicting traits he seeks, says Abbas Milani, the director of Stanford University’s Iranian studies program.
“On the one hand he wants someone who is fully obedient — like a facilitator or even less — at the same time he believes that person should be able to solve people’s economic problems and also carry some minor weight on the international scene,” Milani says. “He wants to be the main figure himself.”
Khamenei wants the best of both worlds: “a hand-kissing revolutionary ideologue who is a good manager and has popular support,” says Carnegie’s Sadjadpour, but “I don’t think there is any individual who checks off all of these boxes.”
Ahmadinejad shows no signs of going quietly, says Geneive Abdo, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Stimson Center.
The outgoing president has been positioning Mashaei as a successor for years, she writes, noting that they are both “like-minded in their nationalism and shared disdain for the clerical establishment.”
Ahmadinejad is also trying to avoid the political marginalization that was the fate of his predecessors, writes Abdo, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the recent paper The New Sectarianism:
Former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and his allies, for example, were deprived of continued national prominence due to Khatami’s calls for political reform and his criticism of the system…… Rafsanjani was for his part ousted from influential assemblies, while Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, former regime members and 2009 presidential election candidates, are still under house arrest.
“Ahmadinejad was the surprise winner in 2005 by portraying himself as a champion of the poor” and he “he has remained true to this identity even as he morphed from loyal foot soldier for the theocracy to an agitator who broke taboos and challenged the authority of Khamenei,” Associated Press reports.
His government “redirected oil revenue into development projects and cash handouts in impoverished areas,” adopting a populist approach, building a considerable constituency of loyal supporters by spreading patronage to poor and marginalized Iranians:
His critics called it demagoguery and evidence of gross fiscal mismanagement…. Yet it also earned Ahmadinejad the devotion of millions outside Tehran and other major cities. In a rare message to his eventual successor, Ahmadinejad said last week that government “subsidies belong to the people” and they should continue despite the shrinking resources under sanctions.
A taxi driver likes to recount a story about a 2005 letter he wrote to Ahmadinejad asking for help to expand his small house. ”Two months later,” he said, “I got a call from the governor’s office” offering a loan of about $3,400.
“My family and I will vote for anyone who will be supported by Ahmadinejad, no matter if is Mashaei or somebody else,” said Farsi, who is also an active member of the Basij, a paramilitary force allied with the Revolutionary Guard.
Still, there is little sign of reformist activity in Birjand, which reflects the significant gulf between the pockets of liberal-leaning politics in some of Iran’s urban areas and the deep traditionalism in the provinces.
“A pro-Ahmadinejad candidate will have a good number of votes. There are 2,000 villages in South Khorasan province and most people in those villages have benefited from Ahmadinejad’s government,” said Abolfazl Zahei, a pro-reform activist. “People here care about making their ends meet and welfare, not politics.”
The Obama administration should not ignore the election, “particularly given the regime’s repeated claim that U.S. sanctions aim to hurt the people rather than curb the nuclear program,” says The Washington Institute’s Khalaji.
“To rebut such rhetoric, Washington should show its concern for the people’s democratic demands” by using two clear opportunities to react to the poll:
First, once the final list of approved presidential candidates is announced, Washington should criticize Khamenei for letting the Guardian Council disqualify certain figures and intimidate others into staying out of the race. Second, in the likely event that opposition members inside or outside the country accuse the regime of manipulating the voting process, Washington should express concern about the election’s legitimacy.
“Washington’s relatively muted reaction to the 2009 postelection turmoil failed to improve the regime’s negotiating posture then, so there is little sense in remaining quiet now,” he adds:
In contrast, taking a strong stance against electoral manipulation would show the Iranian people that the target of U.S. pressure is the regime, not them. Supporting their calls for democracy and civil rights is the most effective way to neutralize the government’s anti-American propaganda. Once the election’s trajectory becomes clearer, Washington can turn to the task of assessing how the outcome will affect the nuclear impasse and other crucial issues.