With just one week to polling day in the presidential election in Iran, it is still difficult to predict the outcome with certainty.
On surface, it is hard to imagine the ruling elite allowing a sitting president to be thrown out of office through elections. That would be tantamount to a rejection of the whole regime, at least as far as its performance over the past four years is concerned. Because many believe that the “Supreme Guide” and not the president is the ultimate decision-maker in the Khomeinist system, a vote against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may well be construed as a vote against Ali Khamenehi.
Four years ago, Ahmadinejad was not Khamenehi’s first choice, and yet managed to scrape home in a controversial second round of voting. Over the past four years, however, the two men have developed what looks like a close relationship, with Ahmadinejad winning some grudging admiration from Khamenehi.
Nevertheless, a surprise may still be possible.
It could come according to two different scenarios.
In the first scenario, Khamenehi is persuaded by his political “household”, which acts as a parallel government that Ahmadinejad, having played his part, should bow out.
Ahmadinejad has had two achievements of vital importance to the regime.
The first is his success in re-energising the Khomeinist base with a radical populist discourse. Four years ago, the image of the regime was one of a clique of mid-ranking mullahs and their business associates running the country as a private company in their own interest. The regime’s “downtrodden” base saw itself as the victim of a great historic swindle.
Under Ahmadinejad a new generation of revolutionaries has come to the fore, projecting an image of piety and probity, reassuring the “downtrodden” that all is not lost.
Ahmadinejad’s second success is in standing up to the US-led coalition over the nuclear issue. The common perception in Iran is that Ahmadinejad has forced President Barack Obama to come begging for talks, hat in hand, abandoning George W Bush’s threats of “regime change.”
Tehran analysts believe that Obama will bend backwards to appease Iran to prevent the failure of the key plank of his foreign policy. Thus the way will open for Iran to achieve its long-held ambition of regional hegemony.
The trouble is that Ahmadinejad may not be satisfied with partial victory.
Even some in his entourage claim that he is a man who does not know where and when to stop.
In a revealing remark a couple of years ago, he compared his policies to a locomotive surging ahead with no rear-gears or brakes.
Thus his populism, if taken too far, could undermine the very legitimacy of the regime by exposing most of its key figures as Mafia-style barons engaged in what amounts to a systematic plundering of the nation’s resources. Ahmadinejad has stopped many corrupt practices and threatened to bring key figures to justice. So far, however, he has shied away from landing the big catch.
If re-elected, he may do just that. There is no reason to believe that Khamenehi would want him to go that far. Exposing many of the “historic fathers” of the revolution as Mafia barons would do little good to the regime’s claim of legitimacy.
There are also signs that Khamenehi, influenced by his key foreign policy advisor Ali-Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister, may not be averse to some give-and-take with the United States.
Ahmadinejad, however, believes that the Islamic Republic should give the US nothing, apart from possibly forgiving its “past crimes.” Ahmadinejad is convinced that the US is a “sunset power”, well on the way to ultimate decline and defeat like other empires in history. On of his favorite phrases tells it all: ” America is finished, finished!”
In such a context, he argues, it would be foolish for Iran to help prolong the myth of American global leadership by offering concessions.
Khamenehi and Velyatai do not share that analysis. They do not believe that America is “finished” and fear that a wounded US, even under a “weakling” like Obama, could be dangerous, if pushed too far.
Thus if Khamenehi wants to apply the clutch in both domestic and foreign policies, he would opt for Ahmadinejad’s departure. In that case, he could arrange the results with a wink and a nod. The military-security machine he controls would do the job.
Assuming that Khamenehi does not want to apply the clutch, it is still possible for Ahmadinejad to lose according to a second scenario.
In this scenario, the people, that abstract and yet decisive actor in history, could assume the central role.
This is how things could happen: tens of millions of people turn up to vote, shattering predictions about a low turnout. (Some 50 million are eligible; although the government says only 46.2 million have registered.) Once the masses have voted against Ahmadinejad, to register a protest against the regime, they could remain in the polling stations until all votes are counted and published. A couple of million dedicated volunteers, seizing control of some 36,000 key polling stations, could prevent the authorities from pulling off the desired results.
Something like this happened in 1997 when Muhammad Kahtami won the presidency against Khamenehi’s favored candidate, Ayatollah Nateq-Nuri.
To be sure, pulling such a stunt against Ahmadinejad would not be as easy.
Ahmadinejad is genuinely popular in his camp whereas Nateq-Nuri, a lackluster and controversial mullah-cum-businessman, was not. Within the Khomeinist base, perhaps accounting for 10 to 15 per cent of the population, Ahmadinejad remains the front-runner by a big margin.
Another problem is that none of Ahmadinejad’s three rivals have Khatami’s charisma or the good image he enjoyed in 1997.
The main rival, Mir-Hussein Mussavi-Khameneh, has failed to develop a credible discourse. Another rival, Mahdi Karrubi, a self-styled reformist cleric suffers from the fact that most Iranians are fed up with mullahs. The fourth candidate, ex-General Mohsen Rezai, regarded as a “light” version of Ahmadinejad, has failed to make an impression.
Although all candidates belong to the regime, Iran still has a choice next Friday: permanent revolution or Khomeinism in one country?
Amir Taheri’s new book ” The Persian Night” is published by Encounter Books in New York and London