Three major issues will dominate Iran’s presidential election in June:
· A deteriorating economy due to both chronic mismanagement and tough international sanctions,
· The nuclear stand-off with the West, the flashpoint undermining Iran’s broader foreign policy,
· And, more indirectly, a divisive political environment that has increasingly narrowed over the past decade.
Like elections elsewhere, Iran’s campaign will almost certainly produce calls for change, mainly on the economic front. Although he is stepping aside after two terms, Ahmadinejad has already become the locus of criticism, which is certain to increase as the election heats up. “It’s the economy stupid” also applies in a country where oil sales have dropped by half and the currency has plummeted by up to 70 percent on the open market over the previous year.
Yet candidates will also have to offer solutions—and address the prickly interrelated issue of international sanctions that have increasingly isolated the Islamic Republic. Two views are already emerging.
In January, Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, a presumptive presidential candidate, argued that solving Iran’s problems abroad would not fix economic problems at home. Indeed, he contended, the opposite was true: Fixing domestic economic problems would strengthen Iran and make it less vulnerable to foreign pressures.
His position reflected the recent call by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) for “an economy of resistance” that preaches defiance of sanctions imposed by the outside world. In January, Khamenei endorsed a plan from the Expediency Council for self-sufficiency in defense, security, industry and agriculture.
Announced amid much fanfare, the economic program turned out to be a list of high-minded bromides that are unlikely to really solve Iran’s pressing economic problems anytime soon. The multi-page document advocated “expansion and deepening of the culture of self-confidence, self-sufficiency, innovation and creativity in all areas of defense and security.” In the areas of industry and agriculture, it called for “expanding private ownership and management; ending non-essential preferences and monopolies…improving efficiency in water use.”
A second camp is not as ready to overlook the damaging impact of sanctions on Iran’s economy, even if it means striking a different tone from the supreme leader. The minister of industry, mines and commerce recently described sanctions as “crippling” and warned that they were affecting the entire economy. He acknowledged publicly that Iran lacks foreign exchange, that the Central Bank cannot transfer money, that Iranian ships cannot dock at foreign ports, and that Iran cannot secure pharmaceuticals or raw materials for its industries.
None of the conservative candidates is likely to challenge Khamenei’s positions on Iran’s nuclear program or negotiations with the United States. As the election approaches, the mood on talks has actually hardened, at least in public. In late 2012, Tehran was abuzz with speculation about direct talks with Washington—beyond recent negotiations with the world’s six major powers. But speculation has recently faded, with Tehran showing no sign of major compromise on terms to reach a meaningful deal.
Yet, again, other politicians have staked out different views. In early January, seven prominent former members of parliament issued an open letter calling for direct negotiations between Iran and the United States. Although they all live abroad, their position echoed sentiments shared by many members of the political class at home.
Polls indicate that most Iranians believe the Islamic Republic has a right to enrich uranium for its nuclear energy program. But many Iranians also want to end the standoff with the international community that has devastated the economy and isolated Iran.
For more than two decades, Iranian political debates have ultimately centered on political liberalization. But every call or campaign for political openings has clashed with the regime’s determination to quash even mild dissent or internal debate.
In different ways, former President Mohammad Khatami, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have separately appealed for free elections. In January, with the election season about to begin, Khamenei countered by warning that such talk only provides comfort to the “enemy” and weakens public faith in the electoral process. Iran’s elections, he claimed, are the freest in the world.
Friday prayer leaders in Tehran and other major cities in the country soon echoed his denunciation of free elections. Over 100 members of the Majles voted for a resolution on the same lines.
Iran’s body politic is not totally cowed, however. Six leading politicians identified with the old National Front (now excluded from power) wrote an open letter to the Supreme Leader urging him to open up Iran’s political space. From his cell in Evin Prison, Khatami’s former deputy interior minister, Mostafa Tajzadeh, not only denounced Khamenei as a creeping dictator but has urged Iranians to continue demanding free elections.
Although small, these moves are reminders that a wider debate is still taking place even as the regime tries to tighten its hold over political life and control the upcoming elections.
Shaul Bakhash is the Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.
Read Part II - Pivotal Election: The Ahmadinejad Camp
Read Part III - Pivotal Election: The Reformists
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