June 11, 2009
By James Phillips
Tomorrow's presidential election in Iran is essentially a
referendum on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's embattled leadership,
which has produced economic discontent, international isolation,
and greater restrictions on personal freedom. The populist Iranian
president has sought to buy votes with pork barrel spending, heavy
subsidies, and even free potatoes. Ahmadinejad's three challengers
are all members of the Islamic revolution's old guard, men who seek
to tinker with marginal reforms but remain strongly committed to
the goals of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's radical brand of Shia
The outcome of the election will affect Iran's domestic
policies. The results, however, will have a lesser impact on Iran's
foreign policy, which is controlled by the Supreme Leader,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Even if Ahmadinejad is defeated, his
successor is likely to change the tone--but not the substance--of
Iran's hostile foreign policy. All of Ahmadinejad's challengers
have indicated that they support Iran's nuclear ambitions, but
would pursue them in a less confrontational manner.
Sham Elections for a Sham
Iran's government is not a true democracy but a theocratic
dictatorship that cloaks the rule of the ayatollahs with a
façade of representative government. The clerical regime
hand-picked the four contending candidates from a pool of 475 who
initially sought to run for the presidency. The senior clerics on
the Guardian Council, which vets the candidates, severely narrowed
the choices to less than 1 percent of the original field of
challengers. The four who were permitted to run for the presidency
share a deep commitment to the extremist Islamist ideology that
sparked Iran's 1979 revolution.
The election boils down to a referendum on Ahmadinejad's
abrasive leadership. The fiery president has lost popular support
primarily due to economic mismanagement, which has compounded the
damage inflicted by declining oil revenues--Iran's primary source
of income--after world oil prices peaked last year.
Ahmadinejad came into office in 2005 pledging to give Iranian
citizens a greater share of Iran's oil wealth, but their standard
living instead has fallen due to rising unemployment, high
inflation, and soaring housing costs. Ahmadinejad's political
opponents charge that he has squandered over $200 billion in oil
revenues since becoming president. Moreover, they contend that
Ahmadinejad's confrontational style and his incendiary rhetoric
regarding Israel, the United States, and denial of the holocaust
has isolated Iran and hurt its interests.
Ahmadinejad's three challengers are:
Mousavi looms as Ahmadinejad's strongest challenger. Mousavi's
reputation for effectively managing the economy during the early
years of the revolution has attracted supporters during Iran's
current economic malaise. A respected member of Iran's
revolutionary establishment, Mousavi also has been boosted by his
wife Zahra Rahnavard--the first female chancellor appointed at an
Iranian university since the revolution--who has taken an
unprecedented public role in his campaign. Although Mousavi lacks
charisma and has been known to mumble through his speeches, he has
mobilized enthusiastic crowds at mass rallies.
Mousavi has charged that President Ahmadinejad is leading Iran
toward dictatorship and is damaging Iran's reputation with his
shrill rants against the holocaust and truculent defiance of the
United Nations Security Council on the nuclear issue. Ahmadinejad
has accused Mousavi of lying about Iran's economic conditions and
working with former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami in a campaign
to oust him.
As the campaign grew increasingly acrimonious, Ahmadinejad has
stepped up his personal attacks, charging that Mousavi's wife
gained her academic position improperly and that former President
Rafsanjani, whom he defeated in the 2005 elections, is backing
Mousavi's campaign with money pilfered through corruption during
his long government service.
Death to Potatoes
In order to escape the burden of being the incumbent candidate
during a time of economic problems, Ahmadinejad seeks to paint
himself as an anti-corruption reformer. He has also tried to buy
votes by allocating state funds, loans, and favors to rural
In recent months his government has distributed 400,000 tons of
free potatoes to the poor in a blatant effort to bribe voters. This
led supporters of rival candidates to chant "death to potatoes" at
their campaign rallies.
Ahmadinejad has also tried to divert attention from Iran's
hobbled economy to Iran's accelerating nuclear program and growing
military strength, sources of pride for many Iranians.
Although no sitting president has lost a re-election bid,
Ahmadinejad could face defeat if his disastrous economic policies
drain away his support from the urban poor and Rezai draws off
substantial numbers of hard-line voters. Many Iranians have been
infused with an "anybody but Ahmadinejad" spirit, and liberals are
flocking to support Mousavi after boycotting the polls in the 2005
presidential elections. If nobody wins 50 percent of the vote, then
a runoff election will be held between the top two vote-getters on
All of the challengers have expressed concern that Ahmadinejad's
supporters will rig the vote. On Monday a group of Interior
Ministry employees released an open letter charging that
Ahmadinejad loyalists within the ministry were preparing to fix the
vote. That same day Mousavi and Karroubi sent an open letter to the
Guardian Council warning about the potential manipulation of
election results. Ahmadinejad's opponents have no faith in the
fairness of the vote-counting process and, based on their long
experience with Iranian elections, they have good reason for their
Implications for the United States
Like most Iranian elections, economic issues have dominated the
political debate. Foreign policy issues have not surfaced as major
campaign issues because all four of the candidates represent a
narrow range of views based on loyal adherence to the goals of
Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary Islamism. The candidates differ
mostly on the tone and style that they would bring to Iranian
foreign policy. Mousavi and Karroubi believe that Iran's interests
are better served by reducing tensions with some of Iran's
adversaries and escaping international isolation.
The election results are not likely to alter Iran's nuclear
ambitions, which, in the past, have flourished under the leadership
of moderates such as Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. The
challengers have promised no major changes in Iran's nuclear
policy, suggesting only that they would adopt a softer and less
confrontational approach to asserting Iran's nuclear "rights." None
have indicated that they would halt Iran's sensitive nuclear
If Mousavi wins, hard-liners entrenched in government
bureaucracies and the parallel revolutionary organs are likely to
flex their muscles to block any substantial attempts at genuine
reform, as they did during the eight-year term of Khatami.
Moreover, it is the Supreme Leader, not the president, who has the
final say on key defense, foreign policy, and nuclear issues.
Washington therefore should not expect major changes in the
substance of Iranian foreign policy--regardless of who wins
The Determining Vote
The intense competition between presidential candidates has
enhanced Ayatollah Khamenei's role as the ultimate arbiter of
policymaking. If Ahmadinejad loses the election, it could give the
Supreme Leader more room to maneuver on the nuclear issue. But if
he wins, Khamenei will find it harder to alter Iran's collision
course with the United States on that issue. Either way, it is the
decisions of Iran's Supreme Leader, not Iranian voters, that count
in determining Tehran's foreign policy.
James Phillips is
Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
Tomorrow's presidential election in Iran is essentially areferendum on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's embattled leadership.
Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
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