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Iran’s election and Iran’s system

David Hayes Sanam Vakil
21 April 2009

The tenth presidential election in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose first round is held on 12 June 2009, promises to be a decisive event in the country's domestic and international politics. Indeed, the interplay between these two aspects is already evident as leading players and factions seek to position themselves in a way that will maximise public support - and perhaps equally important at this stage, define the agenda in ways that will benefit them. Of no one is this truer than Iran's incumbent president and candidate in the election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Sanam Vakil is an adjunct professor and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. and Bologna, Italy

David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy               
                           Also by Sanam Vakil in openDemocracy:

"Iran's nuclear gamble" (1 February 2007)

"Iran's hostage politics" (2 April 2007)

"The Iran-American dialogue: enemies within" (4 June 2007)

"Iran's political shadow-war" (16 July 2008)

The political signals emanating from the country are as mixed as ever in the present, fluid situation where domestic economic troubles combine with suggestions of a cautious opening to dialogue with the United States. At the same time it is important not to conflate these domestic and international issues and to remain clear-headed when analysing the prospects for change in Iranian policy.

The familiar combination of cautious progress and symbolic retreat in Iran's outward profile is evident in the events of March-April 2009. The Nowruz (new year) celebrations of 20 March were this year accompanied by a video-message from the United States president, Barack Obama, offering in a notably respectful tone a fresh start in relations between the two countries.  The reaction from the Iranian authorities, in particular the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was disbelieving without closing the door entirely. Meanwhile, at the United Nations-sponsored international conference at The Hague on 31 March, Obama's special envoy Richard Holbrooke is reported to have talked with Iran's deputy foreign minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh in the highest-level meeting between the two countries' representatives for many years.

But any suggestion of a straightforward path to reconciliation is made even less plausible by the verdict of eight years' imprisonment delivered on 18 April to the journalist Roxana Saberi (who has dual American-Iranian nationality) on espionage charges. This type of legal persecution of a professional figure with roots both inside and outside the country is again familiar; the cases of (among many others) Zahra Kazemi, Ramin Jahanbegloo, Haleh Esfandiari and Hossein Derakhshan exemplify a similar pattern with varying (and in Kazemi's case, tragic) results. At the same time, the verdict has provoked vigorous protest by the US government and others; and the fact that Iran's justice ministry has followed Ahmadinejad himself in saying that Saberi's lawyer, Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, should be able to present the defence case in a "quick and fair appeal" offers a glimmer of hope for an early resolution.

If the Roxana Saberi case is one possible setback to diplomatic progress between Iran and the west, the United Nations anti-racism conference in Geneva on 20-24 April 2009 is another - and again Ahmadinejad is at the centre. His speech at the conference on 20 April outlining a standard litany of denunciation against Israel precipitated a walkout by western delegates, and reopened an issue of tension that first erupted with his announcements in 2005-07 in Tehran and New York (see Nasrin Alavi, "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fear", 1 November 2005).

The president's project    

The international tensions resulting from Roxana Saberi's imprisonment and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric must also be seen in the light of the election campaign at home. The final stage of the campaign begins on 5-10 May, when the candidates must register with the interior ministry then await the Guardian Council's approval to run; there follows a month of opportunity for the leading reformist candidates - the most prominent of whom are Mehdi Karroubi (a former speaker of the majlis [parliament]) and Mir-Hossein Moussavi (prime minister during 1981-89, the critical years of the Iran-Iraq war) - to impress the voters, and more broadly to nudge the political pendulum back from the conservative, "principalist" side of President Ahmadinejad and in a more moderate direction.

It was the surprise election of the conservative candidate Mahmood Ahmadinejad in June 2005 that substantially changed the direction of Iran's domestic, regional and international relations. Ahmadinejad, who had served as mayor of Tehran but was until his arrival on the national stage relatively little known in the country (and certainly abroad), won his way to power mainly as an economic populist who promised to satisfy the material demands of Iran's poor urban and rural workers.  The combative and sharp style of leadership he has displayed contrasts greatly with his cooperative and mild-mannered predecessor, Mohammad Khatami (president 1997-2005).

Ahmadinejad has sought to return to what he and his supporters perceived as the lost values of the 1979 revolution: social justice, Islamic observance in the public sphere, and national independence. This has encompassed a defiant nuclear policy; the forging of closer relations with regional allies Hizbollah and Hamas, as well as proxy groups in Iraq and Afghanistan; the building of trading and energy links with China, Russia, and international partners in Latin America. This bold and sometimes confrontational policy has ensured that these four years have been a bumpy ride for Iran and the world - but most analysts concur that Tehran's proactive strategy (greatly aided by the US having removed Iran's menacing enemies to the east [the Taliban] and west [Saddam Hussein]) has enhanced Iran's power in the wider region.

Ahmadinejad's move away from the flowery "dialogue of civilisations" proposed by Khatami has been reflected too in a hardline domestic stance involving a new national-security directive designed to restrain activities regarded as subversive. This has seen many civil-society groups - women, students, activists, workers, journalists, doctors, intellectuals, and in some cases political adversaries - subject to arrests and detentions. Both the margin of civic freedom and the atmosphere of hope for change that expanded under Khatami have narrowed, although civil-society movements remain active and many citizens continue to push against the boundaries.

But it is in the economic sphere rather than the political or diplomatic that many observers feel the election will be won and lost. Here, Ahmadinejad's record casts a greater shadow over his prospects for re-election if only because his initial pledges to meet the needs of Iran's poorer people can now be judged against his record in office. The populist leader began his term by saying that the oil money accumulating in government coffers would be returned to the people's tables.  Such munificence seemed plausible during the phase of steeply rising oil prices that followed - even if inflation and contradictory economic policies threatened to knock the promise off-track. But now, with oil prices hovering around $50 a barrel amid a global economic recession, the government can no longer afford earlier profligacy. 

Iran's economy, after all, is almost totally dependent on oil - it accounts for 80% of the country's foreign-exchange receipts, while oil and gas make up 70% of government revenue as a whole. Moreover, Iran must now grapple with sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations. The US sanctions ban American citizens from having commercial dealings with Iran, and prohibit oil and gas companies from investing in these Iranian industries. The UN sanctions, imposed as a result of Iran's civil-nuclear developments (including its uranium-enrichment programme, which some western analysts believe could be used in a weapon-building project) have isolated Iran without evidently curbing its ambitions or its access to resources (see Jan De Pauw, "Iran, the United States and Europe: the nuclear complex", 5 December 2007).

Ahmadinejad has attempted to resolve some of these problems via an "economic-reform plan" aimed at reducing dependence on oil revenues and tackling the country's inflation crisis. The plan would cut costly energy subsidies and redistribute a larger portion of the sum among citizens, but it has stalled amidst parliamentary opposition. This range of concerns makes the outcome of the June election even more important.

The system's constraints

The Iranian election season, condensed (unlike its United States counterpart) into a few months, approaches its climax with a number of reformists likely to be pitted against the conservative president (who may also face challenges on the conservative side). It is far from an equal contest in that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the support of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has continued to stand in solidarity with the president despite the growing cabal around the supreme leader who disapprove of Ahmadinejad's economic policies and confrontational stance. A number of polling and other indices suggest that Ahmadinejad has been losing support, but predictions about the result of Iran's elections have often been unreliable (not least in relation to the surprise victories of 1997 and 2005). It would be unwise to discount the president and his ability to rally votes outside of the urban centers (see Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: the waiting game", 24 March 2009).

The reformists will also be competing against one another, and for the right to progress to the second round run-off on 19 June (assuming no single candidate wins over 50% in the first round). Mohammad Khatami, for a long time expected to try to recover the presidency, withdrew his candidacy in favour of Mir-Hossein Moussavi; it is still possible that further consolidation might take place among the prominent remaining reformists (Mehdi Karroubi as well as Moussavi; another reformist, Abdullah Nouri, is being pressed by his supporters to run) so as to not dilute their potential votes.

The authority of the Iranian president is constrained within Iran's political and legislative system, both before the election (candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council) and after (since the supreme leader retains final authority over important decisions). These constraints apply especially to the president's influence over vital national-security issues. Much of the substance of Iran's international relations - with regard to US-Iran relations, Iran's regional profile and even its nuclear programme - has been less affected by having a particular president in Tehran than might appear to be the case. 

The implication of this view is that even the election of a reformist president may not by itself alter the direction of Iran's nuclear policy or its regional activities and links. In fact, the impact of a reformist victory might include a heightening of domestic struggles leading to a reversal of any conciliatory move; by the same token, it can be argued that a conservative victory by placating anxieties on the domestic front could allow for compromise in the international arena.

There is potential for change in Iran, but the lesson both of current institutional realities and of earlier periods of engagement between Iran and the west (particularly during Mohammad Khatami's tenure) is sobering. Whatever progress does take place - over the nuclear issue, regional relations and in domestic politics - will doubtless prove protracted and frustrating. After June 2009, there will still be use for the phrase "the more things change, the more they remain the same".

Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran's internal politics and foreign relations:

Ardashir Tehrani, " Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005)

Trita Parsi, " The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005)

Nayereh Tohidi, " Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, " Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)

Nazenin Ansari, "Tehran's new political dynamic" (16 April 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's circle of power" (23 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Jan De Pauw, "Iran, the United States and Europe: the nuclear complex" (5 December 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's new order" (28 January 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's election signals" (18 March 2008)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's majlis elections: the hidden dynamics" (11 April 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Iran and the American election" (5 June 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, " Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)

Abbas Milani, " Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)

Homa Katouzian, " The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)

Nikki R Keddie, " Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: the waiting game" (24 March 2009)

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