Surveying The Terrain Of Iran’s Elections

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

PD*29370358Tomorrow, Iranians will go to the polls to choose their next president. This election (and the possible run-off) will be far from free and fair – who can and cannot run for president is determined by the Guardian Council, the unelected theocratic body that approves all candidates for elected office. Despite this circumscribed choice, Iranians do have options in these elections.

Current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, well-known as a radical conservative to the outside world for his inflammatory rhetoric, faces the internal opposition of reformists and pragmatic conservatives in his quest for a second term. These groups believe Ahmadinejad’s outlandish behavior on the international stage and economic mismanagement are driving Iran to ruin. They include people like former president and 2005 Ahmadinejad opponent Hashemi Rafsanjani, who recently accused Ahmadinejad of lying about his [Rafsanjani’s] public service record in a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ahmadinejad faces three challengers, two relative reformists and one moderate conservative. Of these, the challenger perceived to have the greatest support is the moderate reformist Mir Hussein Mousavi. A former conservative and prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war, Mousavi has cultivated the support of students and women. In a recent televised debate, Mousavi accused Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy of “adventurism, illusionism, exhibitionism, extremism, and superficiality.” Other opponents include Mehdi Karroubi, another reformist who promises to appoint a female minister if elected, and Mohsen Rezai, a pragmatic conservative and former Revolutionary Guard head who warns Ahmadinejad is leading the country to a “precipice.”

The biggest issue facing Iranian voters, like those in much of the rest of the world, is the economy. Ahmadinejad’s economic policies have bought him the political goodwill of the rural poor at the cost of rampant inflation – 23.6 percent according to Iran’s own central bank. The IMF estimates that Iran’s economic growth has slowed from 8 percent in 2007 to 4.5 percent in 2008, and projects that it will further decrease to 3.2 percent this year. All three alternatives are promising to end the current president’s economic mismanagement and take a less confrontational approach to foreign affairs.

But will it really matter who wins? As Laura Secor observes in The New Republic, all four presidential candidates are playing on essentially the same rural, conservative political terrain. Urban Iranians with more liberal attitudes “are so disenchanted with the Islamic Republic that they are as a whole increasingly disinclined to vote.” And even if one of the alternatives to Ahmadinejad wins in the end, he will not be the most powerful person in Iran’s convoluted political system. That honor goes to the Supreme Leader, to whom all roads of political power ultimately run in the Islamic Republic.

To be sure, an Ahmadinejad defeat would be a good thing. Replacing an ideological blowhard with a more pragmatic or even reformist figure will certainly make it politically easier for the United States and Iran to engage one another after 30 some years of estrangement. But the United States can’t bank its Iran policy on who occupies an office with powers that ebb and flow on the whim of an unelected senior cleric. We must deal with the byzantine Iranian political structure as it is, not place unfounded hope in individual changes in positions with fluctuating status and power.