The Iranian presidential election next week (14 June) doesn’t look like being much of a contest. There were 686 nominees, but the Guardian Council has disqualified all but eight of them (see previous report here). In particular it ruled out Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who had hoped to mobilise reformist support, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is close to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The BBC has a handy rundown on the eight remaining candidates. The clear front-runner is Saeed Jalili, a confidant of the country’s real ruler, theocrat Ali Khamenei. It looks as if the others have been selected so as not to give him too much trouble while still trying to present the appearance of democracy.
Not all of the eight are hardliners; Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Reza Aref have some reformist credentials. But it will be difficult for them to rally much support (Rouhani’s campaign has already run into trouble with the authorities), and there is no expectation that anyone who is not completely loyal to Khamenei would be allowed to win. In the contest of whether Iran is to be an electoral democracy or a clerical dictatorship, the verdict has without doubt gone to the latter.
Iranians are not all taking this lying down. The funeral this week of reformist Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri turned into a protest against the government; the BBC reports that mourners “chanted slogans against the government and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, describing him as a dictator” and “also called for the release of all political prisoners.”
The regime surmounted the attempted revolution that followed the discredited election of 2009 as well as the smaller protests that marked the early weeks of the Arab Spring; for the last year or two things have seemed fairly tranquil. But it must be aware that public opinion, particularly in the major cities, is still largely hostile. If it is to avoid another outbreak it needs to combine firmness with flexibility.
Its position is not helped by the fact that the regime is divided within itself between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, whose relationship has deteriorated badly since 2009. Constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, Ahmadinejad has had an extended period as a lame duck leader under siege from Khamenei’s people. Cameron Abadi in this week’s New Republic sums up the result:
Khamenei loyalists have labeled Mashaei a practitioner of “black magic” and attacked Ahmadinejad for “sinful” conduct (the latter for the crime of hugging Hugo Chavez’s mother at his funeral) and both Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have essentially been excommunicated from the political elite. The coming election seems certain to result in a president who has little inclination of challenging the primacy of the religious establishment. By the same measure, it seems unlikely to produce a president with any real connection to the Iranian people. … Having abandoned years ago any pretense to democracy, Iran’s regime may now be beginning to abandon any remaining claims to popular sovereignty.
One big thing the regime has going for it, however, is western hostility. The United States has chosen this week to ramp up its sanctions against Iran, suggesting either that it has given up completely on the Iranian electoral process or that it actually prefers a hardline conservative to win, relieving it from any pressure to negotiate. (Its disdainful treatment of the last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, certainly lends credence to the latter interpretation.)
Despite their differences, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have both been able to pose as Iranian patriots, defending national independence against the western imperialists. Economic troubles can all be blamed on the sanctions, not the regime’s own incompetence.
Without such a convenient enemy they might be having a much more difficult time, and have more to fear from next week’s election.