The Iranian presidential election, scheduled for 14th June, is a stage onto which regime loyalists and opposition groups are jostling to clamber—for different reasons. Loyalists are anxious to put behind them memories of the 2009 presidential elections, which brought thousands out onto the streets, wearing green armbands and waving green banners, protesting that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had “stolen” the result.
They intend to show the world—and reassure themselves—that they are in control, and that the political system is intact. Opposition groups want to show the opposite. The election is therefore far more than a means of electing President Ahmadinejad’s successor. It is a piece of theatre which will be a barometer of political health-—of Iran’s claim to pick at least some of those running the country by democratic election.
Preparations have been in gestation since 2009, when the regime’s plans got out of hand. The crowds did not perform as instructed. The protests were on a scale unseen since the days of the 1979 Islamic revolution—as was the repression that followed.
In 2012 the regime tightly managed the parliamentary elections, so much so that no one remembers what happened, still less the result. Unlike 2009, very little foreign press was invited; it remains unclear whether any will be invited this time round.
That said, a presidential election, where the personalities and politics tend to be more clearly delineated, is a better test of whether Iran’s religious leaders will allow the post to be filled by popular vote. The leadership understands the importance of putting on a good show, of securing a good turnout and exciting public opinion. Given the 2009 experience it will take a mighty effort to convince people of the sincerity of the process, but efforts are certainly being made to generate interest in the candidates.
Until recently the list of potential runners was distinguished by the level of obsequiousness to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The significant outlier in the early discussions of who might run was Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s putative Chief of Staff and nominated successor. Mashaei has positioned himself as a “nationalist” politician, repeatedly calling for the adoption and promotion of an Iranian school of Islam. The clear irritation he causes among the clergy, including Khamenei himself, has earned him plaudits among those who see the election as a means of giving the Supreme Leader a bloody nose.
In those talks, two former presidents, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami were regarded as potential sponsors of candidates—and of ones who posed some challenge to Khamenei. But at the 11th hour and on the very cusp of the deadline, Rafsanjani decided to enter the race (fully endorsed by Khatami, Ahmadinejad’s predecessor and a moderate in his eight years as president). A succession of delegations from across the political spectrum had urged him (he said) to run as a unity candidate who could save the nation. Their argument is that Ahmadinejad—with the Supreme Leader’s backing—has mismanaged the Islamic republic’s fortunes, partly by pursuing the controversial nuclear programme to the point where it has provoked painful sanctions. Rafsanjani’s campaign rhetoric has given this some support, although he has been careful not to portray himself as giving in to the West’s demands. He has pitched his entry into the race not as an ordinary candidate, but as a national saviour, who might, as a successful businessman, repair ties with the west and restore growth.
Whether Rafsanjani’s candidacy will prove a game changer depends very much on whether his sudden candidacy grabs the popular imagination, and overcomes questions about his own record and what he would actually do in office. From this point, it would be hard for him to get enough popular support, but not impossible.
Of course, whether any candidate is allowed to run depends on Iran’s highly conservative Guardian Council which vets candidates for loyalty—a hurdle for Rafsanjani. The criteria have become stricter and are hardly transparent. But all candidates will have to profess loyality to the authority of the Supreme Leader whose decisions on issues domestic and foreign (including the nuclear negotiations), remain final.
Rafsanjani’s candidacy has complicated matters for the council.It remains to be seen whether the it clears him. Its decisions about who can run are likely to be scrutinised as much as the election itself and Ahmadinejad for his part has barely disguised his determination to use whatever means at his disposal to ensure that Mashaei be allowed to run.
It seems unlikely that the regime will allow the curtain to rise on a drama where it did not feel comfortable with the ending. But with Rafsanjani’s dramatic entrance, it is more likely that characters will depart from their script. The election itself may prove to be incidental to the performance that will then ensue.