With President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad throwing his hat into the ring, next June’s presidential election in Iran begins in earnest.
Some had hoped, and others feared, that Ahmadinejad would be “persuaded” to foreswear a second term.
One scenario had the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi inviting Ahmadinejad for a private audience to tell him to step aside to open the door for a “grand bargain” with the American “Great Satan.”
Another scenario had Ahmadinejad dropping out after receiving a message from military commanders that they no longer supported him.
No such scenario looks likely.
Ahmadinejad, the “big bad wolf” for many inside and outside Iran, appears determined to continue roaming the pastures of the Islamic Republic for four more years.
But is the election worth the bother?
Some analysts believe that since the Khomeinist system gives the “Supreme Guide” the final word, it makes little difference who is president.
Others point to the fact that Iranian elections are carefully orchestrated affairs, and, because the authorities pre-select candidates, the outcome does not merit much attention.
Such analyses miss two points.
The first is that Khomeinist elections resemble primaries in American political parties. All candidates are from the same party but it does matter who wins.
For example, US policy would have been very different today had Hillary Clinton, rather than Barack Obama, won the Democrat Party’s primaries last year.
In the case of Iran, Ahmadinejad as president is not the same thing as Muhammad Khatami as president.
The second important point is that elections enable the ruling elite to manage internal differences and rivalries at the ballot box rather than through coups d’etat, putsch and other violent methods used in many so-called “developing countries.”
The Khomeinist regime is not a classical one-party system as Ba’athist rule was in Iraq for example. It is a one-and-a-half party system in the sense that the ruling elite contains its loyal opposition within it. This is like a kangaroo carrying its baby in its pouch.
This year’s presidential election is more interesting than ever before for a number of reasons.
To start with, this is the first time that the top two candidates are non-mullahs. Both Ahmadinejad and his principal rival, former Prime Minister Mir- Hussein Mussavi Khamenehi, are products of the new regime’s bureaucracy with years of administrative experience.
The second reason is Ahmadinejad’s personality.
Unlike his predecessors who had privileged middle class backgrounds, Ahmadinejad is a genuine “man of the people”, one of millions who gained access to higher education, and social mobility, in the final decade of the monarchy.
The third reason is that Ahmadinejad seems to believe what he says.
His predecessors tried to appeal to conflicting audiences. They wished to please the rich, reassure the West, and, at the same time, court the “dispossessed” as the regime’s principal support base.
In contrast, Ahmadinejad thinks nothing of terrifying the rich, and scandalizing the West as long as he is able to mobilize his “dispossessed” base. He says aloud what his predecessors said in private and for selective audiences – for example about the need to “wipe Israel off the map”, and “defeating the American Great Satan.”
Unlike Khatami, for example, he does not care less whether he is invited to Davos or praised by the Bilderberg Group. Unlike Hashemi Rafsanjani, he does not talk to CNN one way and to Tehran television another way.
Ahmadinejad has the merit of being the first President of the Islamic Republic not to practice political “taqiyah”.
Two examples illustrate this.
In his first comment about the Holocaust, Mussavi had this to say: “When a crime has happened, why deny it?” This was a coded way of telling the West that he is not Ahmadinejad. At the same time, he hopes that radicals would not know what he was talking about.
Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, says he is not convinced that Holocaust happened and insists that the “myth” was used to justify the expulsion of the Palestinians to make way for Israel.
Another example is the nuclear issue.
Mussavi leaves the door ajar with a vague formula: scientific aspects could be separated from military aspects!
Ahmadinejad, however, states categorically that Iran will continue its nuclear project as it sees fit and would not allow anyone to interfere.
Ahmadinejad enters the race with a strong record.
He has withstood international pressure for four years without ceding one inch on any issue. He can point to the planned American retreat from the Middle East as proof of his theory about the United States being a “sunset power”. As pro-Tehran groups go on the offensive everywhere, from Afghanistan to North Africa, passing by Lebanon, he could claim that his image of Iran as a “sunrise power” is taking shape.
Obama’s election as President of the United States also helps Ahmadinejad. Obama adopted Ahmadinejad’s campaign slogan of 2005, “We Can!” in the form of “Yes, We Can!”, and has dropped the Bush administration’s pre-conditions for engaging the Khomeinist regime.
The 5+1 talks with Iran were supposed to be about persuading Iran to stop uranium enrichment. With that precondition gone, the talks, due to resume soon, could only be about one thing: lifting the sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the United Nations’ Security Council.
Mussavi and others had hoped to exploit Iran’s current economic difficulties as a lever against Ahmadinejad.
The tactic is unlikely to work. The regime’s base has benefited from Ahmadinejad’s largesse, and the rest of Iranian society is not sure that anyone else could do better.
Ahmadinejad’s principal weakness is his failure to bring the rich and corrupt mullahs to justice, as he had promised. His supporters say that would be the priority in his second term.
There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad remains popular among the regime’s supporters who may account for 10 to 15 per cent of the population. Today, he is the authentic leader of the Khomeinist movement in a way that Mussavi, or Khatami, or any of the other half-way-house Khomeinists could never be.
Ahmadinejad is projecting himself as a man standing above factions. At one end, he is in contact with the “Hidden Imam”; at another, he touches the regime’s popular base.
It remains to be seen whether Ahmadinejad and Mussavi will succeed in persuading those who are not part of the regime’s support base to go to the poling stations.