The Region: Iran’s election

The next Iranian president will have to deal among other issues with - sanctions, regional policy and results from actions in Syria.

May 26, 2013 22:22
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (black background) 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

The names of the men who will be allowed to run for president of Iran by the regime in the June 14 elections have now been announced. Six of eight are supporters of the current ruling faction; the others are two weaker candidates of the other two factions. Outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tumultuous time in office has left many dissatisfied, especially since he has mismanaged the economy and made Iran’s international situation worse by his provocative behavior.

With less than a month to go before the elections – the campaign is only three weeks long to make things harder for the opposition – it is now clear who the candidates are, and all those disagreeing with the dominant faction have been vetoed by the six-member Guardian Council. This council is controlled by the country’s real ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the complex maneuvers leading up to the election have given him a huge political headache.

The core of the problem is that there are three factions. Khamenei doesn’t want two of the factions – the super-hardliners and the reformists – to win, but only the third group, his hardliners.

The super-hardline faction’s candidate was Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s son-in-law and a man widely seen as his puppet. Khamenei hates Mashaei, and Mashaei was disqualified.

Also disqualified was the potential “reform” candidate, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. One hesitates to call him a true reformer. Rafsanjani is an insider, indeed a former president (1989-1997), who used to be an ally of Khamenei but now is a fierce rival. Rafsanjani is pragmatic and reportedly conspicuously corrupt. He does not want to overturn the regime but rather to change its direction; keeping it more out of international trouble, and finding some way to shed the sanctions imposed to stop Iran’s nuclear program. He might have tried to pull Iran back from international confrontations.

The 78-year-old Rafsanjani is a dubious hero. He is not part of the reform movement yet he was the best bet they have. The Iranian ruling elite hates him, too. There are genuine differences between him and Khamenei about the country’s direction.

So who does the elite fix the election for? There are eight candidates left:
• The former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who is close to Khamenei.

• Muhammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and close to Khamenei.

• Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.

He is very close to Khamenei, perhaps his favorite, though he has no administrative experience.

• Former Parliament speaker Gholam- Ali Haddad-Adel, who is close to Khamenei.

• Asan Rowhani, former nuclear negotiator and Khamenei’s man on the National Security Council.

• Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, whose daughter is married to Khamenei’s son.

Then there are the two candidates not from Khamenei’s faction: Muhammad Reza Aref is former vice president and represents the reform group, while Mohsen Rezaei, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, is a stand-in for the Ahmadinejad faction.

You might think six Khamenei followers might split the hardline vote, but don’t worry, that will be taken care of in the ballot- counting, if necessary.

Ironically, the main impact of the Iranian election may be on the West. Articles and arguments have been already appearing claiming that a post-election Iran would be more moderate and that the next Iranian president would be willing to abandon the regime’s subversive foreign policy and nuclear weapons program.

Western negotiators wanted to say: Give Iran a chance.

That will be much harder now, but any effort to press sanctions and conclude that talks with Iran about nuclear weapons are futile will probably be put back several months – indeed through the rest of 2013 – giving the new president an opportunity to settle in to run Iran and get his new government organized. The priority on the nuclear issue can be seen in the fact that two of the nominees – including the current front-runner Jalili – are former negotiators on that question and a third dealt with the matter as foreign minister.

At any rate, Iran’s next president is going to have to deal with three other tough questions: First, the sanctions have put serious pressure on an Iranian economy that was already badly mismanaged. The next president won’t stop the nuclear program so presumably the best he can do is try to bypass sanctions through various tricks and charm his way out of the situation.

Second, Iran’s regional policy has failed.

One of the byproducts of the “Arab Spring” has been to raise Sunni Arab Islamism as a barrier to Iran’s ambitions.

As Shia Muslims, the Sunni groups like the Muslim Brotherhood see the Iranians as nearly heretical; as Arabs the new revolutionary forces see the Iranians as alien Persians.

Even if Iran got nuclear weapons, most of the Arab world would tremble, not celebrate.

Third, Iran is moving toward a possible confrontation with the West and most of the Arab world over Syria. Tehran is backing its junior ally, the Syrian government, against serious Arab opposition from everyone but Hezbollah and an unenthusiastic Iraq. Iran is now escalating its involvement in order to save the Syrian regime. There is a chance for a proxy war in which most of the West and Arabs confront Iran and Russia by backing the opposite sides. Even if Iran keeps the regime in control of part of Syria it is not going to get Tehran out of its international isolation.

For those foolish enough to believe it, they will make a contrast between the wildman Ahmadinejad and a new, less outlandish Iranian president. For everyone else, Iran will the main threat in the region.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center ( His forthcoming book, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, is being published by Yale University Press.

The Rubin Report blog (

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