Iranians go to the polls today to decide the political fate of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man who has led the country as president for the past four years.
So peculiar is this Iranian exercise that almost anything could happen. Ahmadinejad could sweep to victory straight away or, failing to get enough votes to cross the 50 per cent threshold, be forced into a second round against his leading rival.
Some analysts even suggest that the day may end up with Ahmadinejad’s defeat in the first round.
Regardless of who wins today, the Islamic Republic seems set for a new phase in its tumultuous existence. Whoever wins today will be faced with a radically altered political landscape.
The first feature of this new landscape is the deep divisions that have come to surface within the ruling establishment. Some of these divisions have existed for years, perhaps even from the first days of the revolution. Over the years, however, they were hidden or at least minimized thanks to the tactic of taqiyah (dissimulation) and ta’arof (politesse).
What is different now is that Ahmadinejad has brought these divisions into the open, leaving little wiggle room for the adepts of taqiyah and ta’arof.
During presidential debates broadcast live on television, Ahmadinejad portrayed the presidential terms of his two predecessors, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami as a murky period during which a small number of mullahs and their business associates “plundered” the nation’s and sacrificed high national interests to meaningless gesture of friendship from the “imperialist powers.”
With the elections over, whoever becomes president would have the tough task either of purging the regime of its allegedly corrupt, and possibly treasonous elements, or rebutting Ahmadinejad’s accusations and seek to restore a measure of unity within the ruling clique.
The winner’s second task would be even tougher: to persuade the people that such a deeply divided elite is capable of leading the country in such difficult times. During the presidential campaign, the four officially approved candidates devoted most of their time to vilifying one another rather than offering anything resembling a credible strategy for government.
The four candidates specialized in name-calling and finger pointing, skills that may come useful in a brawl in the bazaar but are of little use in running a country.
The winner’s third task is to review a foreign policy that has led the country into diplomatic isolation, United Nations’ sanctions, and the threat of war.
The United States, under its new president, Barack Hussein Obama, is bending backwards to open a dialogue with the Islamic Republic.
In his Cairo “address to the Muslim world”, Obama implicitly accepted the Islamic Republic’s right to seek nuclear weapons.
He said: “No single nation can decide which nations should have nuclear weapons.” Since then, Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have tried to re-package the Iranian nuclear issue not as a problem in itself but because it might trigger “a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”
Recent elections in Pakistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon show that the tide of radical Islamism may have peaked out. A policy based on the hope that Iran could emerge as the leader of a new “tsunami” of Islamism is naïve and dangerous.
Should the Islamic Republic ignore these major developments and continue with Ahmadinejad’s strategy of provoking a clash of civilizations? Or should Tehran welcome the American retreat and help Obama cover his policy of appeasement with a veneer of diplomacy? This is the key foreign policy question that Iran’s new president would have to ponder.
The winner’s fourth task is to develop an urgent policy to cope with the threat of an economic meltdown. Cushioned by wealth accumulated during the brief period of high oil prices, Iran has not yet been fully affected by the global recession. However, most economic indicators are negative. According to the Ministry of Labor, 1000 people on average are losing their jobs each day. Despite a recent decline, the rate of inflation still remains high at around 18 to 19 per cent. An economy that requires a minimum annual growth rate of five per cent to stay afloat may well be heading for negative growth next year.
Finally, the winner would have to tackle the problem of growing insecurity throughout the country. Some parts of Iran have become no-go areas even for the security forces, with armed smugglers, secessionists, and organized criminals roaming around with impunity.
This presidential campaign was a missed opportunity. None of the four candidates projected the kind of statesmanship that a country in deep crisis needs. The candidates spent much of their energy on trading accusations and brandishing outlandish promises. The televised debates showed that none of them had a clue about how to govern a major country at a crucial moment in its history.
The consolation in all this is that the office of the “Supreme Guide” still acts as a steadying hand on some crucial issues. There is also the fact that large segments of Iranian economic, social and cultural life have been on autopilot for years.
This year’s campaign has done much harm to the little moral authority that the presidential function had in the Khomeinist system. The winner’s toughest task would be to restore some of that lost authority.