With the date for the next presidential election fixed for June 2009, the campaign for who would shape policy in Iran until 2013 is already on.
Conventional wisdom has always minimized the role of the president in the Khomeinist system. After all, we are told, the “Supreme Guide” could use his absolute power to dictate policy or even dismiss the president. However, as often, conventional wisdom is wrong. Anyone familiar with the domestic and foreign polices of the Islamic Republic would know that Iran today is a different place from what it was before the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
By returning the Khomeinist regime to its initial revolutionary message, Ahmadinejad has antagonized some elements within the system who see their interests threatened by his populist economic measures and high-risk foreign policy.
These elements are now wondering what to do.
Ahmadinejad is almost certain to seek a second term, especially now that the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has all but endorsed him on several occasions.
Nevertheless, various personalities known as “reformers”, although we are never told what precise reforms they advocate, are trying to find a candidate to field against Ahmadinejad.
Three men are under consideration, all mullahs.
The first is Mahdi Karrubi, a former Speaker of the Islamic Majlis who came third in the last presidential election. Once a radical firebrand, who joined the Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al Turabi in his attempt at creating a global Islamist movement, Karrubi has become more moderate, and considerably wealthier, over the years. Thus, he represents a blurred image in contrast with Ahmadinejad’s sharp political profile.
The second figure is Mohammad Khatami, another mullah and former president. In 1997, the regime needed to change its image abroad and arranged for Khatami to be elected. Khatami seems to believe that his own charm and acumen, rather than the regime’s machine, secured him victory. With that illusion, he is tempted to throw his turban into the ring once again.
Finally, there is Abdallah Nuri, a younger mullah and the only well-known ex-Khomeinist whom the establishment genuinely fears. Nuri served as Minister of Interior on two occasions before being forced out of office, imprisoned, tortured, and finally put under house arrest.
Khatami had falsely pretended to be Iran’s Gorbachev, but, when he had a chance, proved more like the hapless Anastas Mikoyan who served as Soviet president in the 1960s. In contrast, Nuri wanted to be Iran’s Boris Yeltsin, that is to say a leader who closes one chapter of history to open another. Unlike Khatami, however, Nuri never had a chance to present his project.
It is clear that of all three mullahs mentioned above, only Nuri offers a genuine alternative to the present system. However, the regime that has the right to vet and approve all candidates is unlikely to sign its own suicide note by allowing Nuri to stand.
Even if Nuri is allowed to stand, the regime could fix the results, as on previous occasions, to ensure the victory of its favorite candidate, in this case Ahmadinejad.
If Karrubi and Khatami mean to do any good for the country, their best option is not to seek the candidacy. They must remember that their candidacy could be vetoed by the Council of the Custodians of the Constitution, a body appointed and controlled by the “Supreme Guide”. However, even if they were allowed to stand, they would not be allowed to win. Ahmadinejad’s defeat next year would be an open repudiation of the regime, something that the “Supreme Guide” and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) would not allow.
By standing against Ahmadinejad, Khatami and Karrubi would lend credibility to an exercise that could hardly be described as an election. Also, they would cause confusion by pretending that Iran’s problems are due to Ahmadinejad’s personality rather than Khomeinism as an ideology. If they accept that ideology, they must admit that Ahmadinejad is a better representative of Khomeinism than they could ever be.
Barring some unforeseen events before June 2009, Ahmadinejad would enter the presidential race from a position of strength. He remains popular within the Khomeinist movement that accounts for 10 to 15 per cent of the population. Thanks to massive rises in oil revenues, he has been able to throw money at social and economic problems. On the nuclear issue, he has stood up to the major powers and won – at least so far.
If Barack Obama becomes the next US President, Ahmadinejad’s position would be further strengthened.
Obama and his vice-presidential running mate Joe Biden have always supported talks with Ahmadinejad without preconditions, which means setting aside all the resolutions passed by the United Nations’ Security Council against the Islamic Republic. Obama and Biden have also opposed the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization.
A majority of Iranians are likely to stay away from the exercise as they have done in the last two parliamentary and municipal elections when more than 50 per cent shunned the ballot box, (in Tehran and other major cities up to 70 per cent of those eligible to vote did not do so).
A massive boycott is the option favored by some more radical reformists such as Muhammad Maleki, a former Chancellor of the Tehran University. The other option is to invite people to come out and vote for an unapproved candidate, for example Nuri. To be sure, the authorities would go ahead and fix the results to ensure Ahmadinejad’s victory. But, everyone would know what really happened, and Ahmadinejad would start his second term with weakened legitimacy.
An election, even when carefully scripted as elections are in the Khomeinist system, always represents a moment of opportunity for the forces of change and danger for the established order. Thus, it would be wrong to dismiss next June’s presidential election in Iran as an irrelevant rigmarole.