Can Ahmadinejad lose the election?

The Iranian president's second term seems far from assured.

Ahmadinejad 224 ap (photo credit: )
Ahmadinejad 224 ap
(photo credit: )
In the past week, newspapers worldwide have given ample coverage to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his declarations in support of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khamenei publicly praised Ahmadinejad's policies and the way he has been handling the nuclear crisis and confronting "the West." Furthermore, the supreme leader encouraged Ahmadinejad to prepare for a second term - a statement that many analysts interpreted as both an endorsement and a forecast of the president's reelection. However, although Khamenei's remarks have strong political significance - especially in the race leading to the June 2009 presidential elections - it would be too simplistic to construe them as unconditional support. Similarly, it would be both inaccurate and premature to rely on them to infer that Ahmadinejad's reelection is already assured. IN FACT, three years after his decisive victory in June 2005, Ahmadinejad's popularity has been steadily declining both within his own constituency and among his former allies. This trend has been fueled by his failure to deal with the ongoing economic and energy crises. Even Khamenei, only a few days after praising Ahmadinejad's policies, urged the administration to focus on economic reform and contain inflation, which - according to the central bank - has been rising from 10.9 percent in 2005 to a worrisome 25.3% this summer. The administration's economic mismanagement and massive increase in overhead are partially to blame for this surge, which influences housing and food prices in particular, thus strongly affecting the lives of ordinary citizens. The ongoing economic crisis endangers Ahmadinejad's credibility and popularity within his constituency, and increases the number of critics. Only in the past week, former president and current head of the Assembly of Experts Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani blamed Ahmadinejad's administration for the ongoing economic and energy crises, saying the country was ready for change. Given this decline in popularity, it seems that Ahmadinejad's reelection now depends even more on the support of the conservative coalition, as well as on the backing of the supreme leader. However, neither of these factors can be taken for granted. FIRST, SINCE the 2006 municipal elections, there has been a steady growth of the Broad Principlists Coalition, which was created to challenge Ahmadinejad's leadership within the conservative ranks. This ad hoc alliance, which includes prominent politicians such as Teheran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qaliba and Majlis Speaker (and main nuclear negotiator) Ali Larijani, won 53 out of 117 seats assigned to the conservative block in the spring 2008 parliamentary elections. Although Ahmadinejad's group, the United Front of Principlists, managed to hold the majority of conservative seats, the pragmatist faction obtained an important political result, subsequently enhanced by the election of Larijani as parliament speaker. The growing divisions within the conservative block and the rise of alternative candidates such as Larijani, represent a substantial internal challenge for Ahmadinejad, and also potentially hinder Khamenei's support. In fact, while the ayatollah's backing of Ahmadinejad vis-à-vis his moderate opponents, already crucial in 2005, appears solid, the level of support against candidates like Larijani - a very close ally of the supreme leader - cannot be taken for granted. In this sense, Khamenei's endorsement of Ahmadinejad should not be interpreted as unconditional, while his words encouraging the administration to engage in long-term planning seem more a call for continuity and consistency than a forecast of reelection. Furthermore, even if Ahmadinejad could count on Khamenei's endorsement, it would be hard to know whether such support alone will ensure his reelection, especially given the rift within the conservative ranks and the depth of the economic crisis. In 1997, Mohammad Khatami won the presidential race and defeated Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri despite the supreme leader's support for the latter. THEREFORE, TO ensure his reelection, Ahmadinejad needs to both address internal challenges such as the economic crisis, and boost his personal credibility. In this sense, he seems to be focusing on his foreign policy and on building international strategic alliances to increase Iran's prestige and his domestic popularity. For the international community, this means he might be especially interested in seeking a breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations. Any success in the nuclear realm would boost his credibility and silence those who have been arguing that he has mishandled both the negotiations and relations with the West. However, the number and degree of concessions that Ahmadinejad would be prepared to make in this context will be inevitably tied to his electoral propaganda - an element the international community should keep in mind. International actors should also consider the consequences of their policies on the Iranian political arena. For instance, one of the unintended consequences of a military operation against Iran could be a massive rise in both nationalism and support for Ahmadinejad, as well as the silencing of the ongoing political debate. The writer is the Earhart Doctoral Fellow in International Security Studies at the Fletcher School.