Iran's Presidential Campaigns Get Off to Very Early Start

The Iranian political arena is full of nuance and complexities, writes Mohammad Saleh Sedkian. The economy, foreign relations, and the “nuclear” issue are all challenges facing contenders. With so much at stake, electioneering season is off to the earliest start in Iran’s history.

al-monitor A worker removes electoral posters from the Parliamentary elections earlier this year in Tehran.  Photo by Raheb Homavandi / Reuters.

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mahmoud ahmadinejad, democracy

Aug 7, 2012

The Iranian political arena has never before witnessed such an early start to the campaign season. Campaigns for the presidential election, which will take place in June 2013, got off to an early start this year for reasons related to both domestic issues and regional developments.

Iranian political forces and parties are actively preparing for election campaigns, trying to avoid any mishaps that could affect their electoral future. With increasing frequency, various parties have started to deny reports regarding the candidacy of a certain figure or the holding of an electoral consultative meeting. This indicates that these parties and figures want to test the waters within political circles [regarding the viability of a given candidate] and scrutinize the reactions. These reactions usually provide indicators relating to the nature of [a candidate’s] electoral mobility.

Those who are interested in Iranian affairs believe that the prevailing legal, political and religious complexities within the various frameworks in Iran is what pushed these parties to hesitantly take action for the purpose of examining reactions. The sword of the Constitutional Advisory Council, headed by the hard-line scholar Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, is hanging over the heads of the people, particularly the candidates who do not abide by the laws and values ​​of the Islamic Republic. All electoral candidates are subject to the approval of this council, which scrutinizes the candidate from the day he was born until the day he thought about entering the elections. The council reviews all positions a candidate has assumed during his entire political career. Additionally, the political scene becomes even more complex when one examines party alliances. These alliances are related to the nature of the relationship between conservative fundamentalists on one hand, and the rest of the political spectrum on the other hand, not to mention the role of the religious establishment and its institutions in supporting a given candidate.

Even if we disregard these issues, there are other important and logical reasons that make the next presidential race sensitive at domestic, regional and international levels.

At the domestic level, this election is the first of its kind following the previous presidential election held in 2009. The events that accompanied these elections brought down two political parties, which had formed the backbone of the Iranian reform movement. These include the Islamic Iran Participation Front led by Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, and the Organization of the Mujahideen of the Islamic Revolution, led by the veteran politician Behzad Nabavi. This is in addition to the tragic situation faced by the two presidential candidates who lost the elections, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Concerning political issues, many of those in domestic circles have stressed the importance of supporting political figures capable of mending Iran’s foreign relations, which have significantly deteriorated during the reign of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran’s relations with its neighboring countries, as well as with countries throughout the Arab and Islamic world, have reached record lows under Ahmadinejad. The worsening of Iranian-Western relations has also had a significant impact on Iranian diplomacy, especially following the economic boycott these countries imposed on Iran.

The Nuclear File

Some observers blamed the team who is leading talks with the West for the failure of the dialogue regarding Iran’s nuclear program. President Ahmadinejad made changes to the secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council, dismissing its secretary, Ali Larijani, last year and replacing him with Saeed Jalili. Jalili is currently facing criticism for his management of nuclear talks with the West. Ahmadinejad also dismissed Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and replaced him with Ali Akbar Salehi. It is believed that these changes were not successful in developing a dialogue mechanism for the six-party talks.

At the economic level, Ahmadinejad's Government has failed to implement the economic reform program announced at the end of the president’s first term in 2008, which he promised to resume during his second term. The implementation of this program was met with strong opposition from the Shura Council and the Iranian leadership because it was restricted to skilled workers who supported the president. This restriction would negatively affect the implementation of the program and cause the Iranian citizen to endure the consequences. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad's government has been unable to keep its promises regarding the reduction of inflation and unemployment rates, not to mention the large decline in the exchange rate of Iranian currency against foreign currencies.

If we ignore economic problems that came as a result of Western sanctions, imposed against the backdrop of Iran’s nuclear program, the reliance on emerging talent coupled with the exclusion of others who have several years of experience was one of Ahmadinejad’s mistakes that severely hindered the success of the economic reform program.

The fundamentalist party close to Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, was keen to exclude the so-called "current of deviation" -- a term used to refer to the president's team and specifically his chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie -- from the presidential election battle. This in turn opened the door for others to enter the presidential election campaign, out of the wreckage of the group established by Ahmadinejad.

In spite of the desire of some fundamentalist conservative figures to remove reformists from the political arena, many observers believe that these efforts will not be successful. Although the reform movement is currently excluded from official political circles, it is wrong to believe that it can be totally eradicated. It is a powerful force that witnessed the revolution, made sacrifices on its behalf, advocated for it and believed in its laws and principals. This movement still believes that it is the most competent and capable entity to implement the principles of the leader of the revolution, Imam Khomeini, in a correct and civilized way.

Based on available information, reformers seem convinced that they could not field candidates in the upcoming presidential election. First of all, they do not want to participate in elections given the current situation, as dozens of reformers were banned from political activity and others were imprisoned in the wake of the 2009 events, not to mention that the major reformist parties were banned from political activity. Secondly, any effective candidate would be rejected by the Constitutional Advisory Council as a result of the 2009 events, during which the reform movement was referred to as the “current of sedition.” Sources from the reform movement are currently discussing the possibility of supporting a fundamentalist conservative candidate, who would be close to the reformists in a way that enables them to work freely during his tenure. This would help with creating the appropriate climate that would prepare for the reformists’ reappearance on the political arena and restore the status of political parties and figures involved in the 2009 events.

Based on the reform movement’s performance in the parliamentary elections held earlier this year, sources have questioned the ability of the movement to contest the presidential election.

Ahmadinejad has, to a large extent, succeeded in creating a new lineup within the fundamentalist conservative group. The group's fragmentation was apparent during the legislative elections, as traditional leaders were not able to convince rival parties to run together on a single, unified list. Instead, they entered the elections on two separate lists, based on differences of opinion regarding Ahmadinejad.

It is widely believed that the framework used by the fundamentalist group during recent legislative elections will remain the same during the upcoming presidential election, but with different candidates. Several figures have been nominated by opponents of Ahmadinejad, including: the mayor of Tehran, Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf, head of the Shura Council, Ali Larijani and Secretary of the Expediency Council, Mohsen Rezai, in addition to four former foreign ministers, namely, Ali Akbar Velayati, Kamal Kharrazi, Manouchehr Mottaki and Ali Akbar Salehi.

On the other hand, Ahmadinejad’s supporters are operating under the political cover provided by the hard-line scholar Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. Most prominent of these figures include Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, former president of the Shura Council, senior MP Ahmad Tavakoli, Secretary of the National Security Council Saeed Jalili and former Minister of Health Kamran Bagheri Lankarani.

Based on the complexities of the Iranian political arena, it is difficult to develop a clear image of the atmosphere surrounding the presidential election. However, it is certain that the upcoming election will carry many surprises and will be at least as exciting as the previous election.

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