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The Foreign Policy Factor in Iran's Presidential Race

Interviewee: Farideh Farhi, Affiliate Graduate Faculty, Department of Political Science, University of Hawaii, Manoa.
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 27, 2009

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While the run-up to Iran's presidential election was billed as a referendum on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic agenda, Iran expert Farideh Farhi says the president's "bombastic foreign policy style" is fast becoming the campaign issue de jour. All three of Ahmadinejad's opponents have challenged the president's international approach, Farhi says, questioning "his emphasis on issues surrounding the Holocaust and his approach to Iran's nuclear negotiations." As the campaigning enters its final phase—with the incumbent expected to face a tough challenge in his re-election bid—Farhi says "the language of détente with the outside world" has found its way into the race. "Foreign policy unexpectedly has become a very important issue in Iran and obviously centers on the argument that Mr. Ahmadinejad has been unduly provocative," Farhi says. "Ahmadinejad himself takes the opposite view, saying he is in fact the one who has inserted foreign policy in the Iranian campaign."

Either way, the debate has major implications for U.S.-Iran relations, Farhi says. "What we have in this election are very clear policy differences in terms of how Iran's foreign policy will be conducted, and of course it will have an impact in terms of the people who will be running foreign policy. Again, that is significant if Iran has direct negotiation with the United States." Farhi says that "if there is a degree of flexibility and creativity on the part of the American approach to the nuclear issue then there will be a response on the part of the Iranian leadership no matter who is president." But she adds that "if Ahmadinejad is not reelected, the new president will not go into office until August, which will delay any talks if there is a transition involved with a new administration."

The Iranian presidential election campaign is now in full swing. Who are the candidates, and who is favored to win on June 12?

The race is so tight that many people are predicting the possibility of a second round on June 19th. Essentially that is because there are four candidates running, all with the possibility of gaining a chunk of the vote that the people of Iran will be casting on that day.

In other words if you don't get 50 percent of the vote, there's a runoff between the two highest finishers?

Exactly. This is what happened in the last election; if you remember there were seven candidates and the top two candidates, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hashemi Rafsanjani, squared off in the second round with Ahmadinejad winning. That is what people are predicting as a possibility in the coming election, essentially because we have four candidates who are all quite strong. Mr. Ahmadinejad, the current president, is facing a very strong challenge from Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister during the the Iran-Iraq War years. The other two candidates, the former speaker of the parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, and the former head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohsen Rezai, will both attract a certain number of votes. The fact that there are so many strong opposition candidates makes it seem likely that the election will go to a second round.

You've written in your blog, and the New York Times said in a news report that the person leading the opposition right now is Mr. Mousavi. If there were a runoff between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, do we have any idea who would win?

It’s extremely close, and I do think [Mousavi] has a good chance. I do not underestimate the resources that Mr. Ahmadinejad has as a sitting president, however.

In the second round, people are expecting that Mr. Mousavi will do better because of the way the Iranian voters vote. If Mr. Ahmadinejad is unable to get 50 percent of the vote in the first round as a sitting president, and because he's so well-known in the country, the chances that there will be negative voting against his candidacy will increase. What people are suggesting is that what Mr. Ahmadinejad gets in the first round is essentially the maximum amount of votes he can get in the elections. If he's unable to get 50 percent or more in the first round, the chances that he'll lose in the second round as opposition votes consolidate against him will increase.

In Iranian presidential election history, no sitting president has lost reelection, is that right?

Exactly, but no sitting president has been significantly challenged. This is what makes this election quite unusual. In the tradition of presidential elections going back to the early 1980s, one could see that when the president heads for a second round, the percentage of the Iranian population coming out to vote decreases significantly due to the assumption that the sitting president will be reelected. In this election, the expectation is that the percentage of participation will at least remain the same as it was in 2005, which was around 60 percent of the electorate.

In the 2005 election, didn't a number of people supporting reformers not vote as a protest?

Yes, there were some organizations that had actually called for a boycott of the election. Again, this is something that makes this election quite interesting because there is no significant organization in Iran that has called for a boycott. The organizations have been quite ambivalent in terms of whom they should support among reformist candidates, but they have all asked the population to go and vote. There is a reason for this, which is because Mr. Ahmadinejad has a limited number of voters who will come out and vote for him no matter what. If the number of people who are voting in Iran is around 25 million or 26 million, or even less, the chances of him getting elected in the first round significantly increases. There are 46.2 million eligible voters. If participation is close to or exceeds 65 percent, then the chances of this election going to the second round increases significantly.

It's hard to predict, but does it make a difference to the United States, in particular to President Barack Obama, who wins the election in Iran?

More than anything else it makes a difference in Iran who is elected president in terms of foreign policy. The three candidates who are running against Mr. Ahmadinejad are all running on a platform that questions Mr. Ahmadinejad's bombastic foreign policy style. They question his emphasis on issues surrounding the Holocaust and his approach to Iran's nuclear negotiations even though they may not question Iran's stance in the negotiations. They have all taken a more moderate stance in terms of how Iran's foreign policy should be conducted. All three candidates have used the language of détente with the outside world. Mr. Karroubi made a statement that he would reestablish relations with all countries of the world with the exception of Israel. Foreign policy unexpectedly has become a very important issue in Iran and obviously centers on the argument that Mr. Ahmadinejad has been unduly provocative. Of course Ahmadinejad himself takes the opposite view, saying he is in fact the one who has inserted foreign policy in the Iranian campaign by suggesting what the past administration has done, particularly Mr. [Mohammad] Khatami's administration in its negotiations with the United States, was shameful.

Are you talking about the decision to suspend nuclear enrichment in 2003?

Yes. Actually what [Ahmadinejad] said was that the initial agreement that the Iranians reached with the EU-3--France, Germany, and the UK--to begin negotiations and voluntarily implement the additional protocols to Iran's nuclear obligations was shameful and one-sided. That has obviously prompted the reformist candidates, as well as Mr. Khatami himself, to defend that track record while Ahmadinejad gives the impression that all the strides Iran has made with its nuclear program have been due to his determination and negotiating capability. All of the other three candidates continue to make the claim that Ahmadinejad's extremely provocative foreign policy has not worked. What we have in this election are very clear policy differences in terms of how Iran's foreign policy will be conducted, and of course it will have an impact in terms of the people who will be running foreign policy. Again, that is significant if Iran has direct negotiation with the United States.

The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has remained neutral, right?

In Iranian elections there are always questions about what Mr. Khamenei really thinks. In a speech he gave just after the Iranian New Year on March 20, which was a response to President Obama's message to the Iranian people, Mr. Khamenei made it clear that his support for the government of Mr. Ahmedinejad should be distinguished from his stance on Iran's presidential election. He effectively said his support of the government should not be confused as support for Ahmadinejad as a candidate. Obviously that makes a very important impact. In the past couple of weeks he's made speeches that people are interpreting as support for Ahmadinejad, but he is at the same time trying to be as ambiguous as possible.

Foreign policy unexpectedly has become a very important issue in Iran and obviously centers on the argument that Mr. Ahmadinejad has been unduly provocative.

How honest are these elections? Every election in every country has some level of corruption. Is this likely to be a fair election?

We'll have to see. If there are a relatively large number of people voting, it's very difficult to manipulate the election. Turnout is significant. There will be the usual manipulative acts, for example, people will be encouraged to vote in a certain way. There will also be a significant number of votes that will be voided. Those are the usual tricks that are used. But massive fraud is unlikely.

When President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, he said, in discussing Iran's nuclear program, that the United States should know by the end of the year whether Iran is interested in opening a dialogue with the United States. He said he wouldn't expect anything to happen until after the Iranian elections. Do you expect something will happen in the summer or early fall at the United Nations to get a dialogue started?

I think so. The new administration has shown a deeper understanding of what the issues are. If there is a degree of flexibility and creativity on the part of the American approach to the nuclear issue then there will be a response on the part of the Iranian leadership no matter who is president. It's important to know that if Ahmadinejad is not reelected, the new president will not go into office until August, which will delay any talks if there is a transition involved with a new administration.

If you were a betting woman, do you think there is a good chance that Mousavi might win?

It's extremely close, and I do think [Mousavi] has a good chance. I do not underestimate the resources that Mr. Ahmadinejad has as a sitting president, however.

Does he control the airtime on TV for the candidates?

No he does not. There are going to be six one-on-one debates among various candidates, and those debates are important, as people will be watching to see how different candidates respond. At this point Ahmedinejad is a better-known candidate than Mousavi; however, better-known candidates in Iran have the drawback of having higher negatives in the same way that the debates in the 1997 election helped Khatami.

Does it help Mousavi that he's Azeri? There's a large percentage of the electorate in Iranian Azerbaijan in the north, right?

There are three provinces. The Azeri vote in Iran is significant as it will allow Mousavi to be one of the top two candidates in the first round. Ethnic voting in Iran will not win him the election, but it is an important factor, and he's expected to do well in the three Azeri provinces. What will be very important to watch in the coming election is the behavior of the voters in the urban areas. Ahmadinejad did very well in the first round, as well as the second round, in the urban areas of Tehran, Isfahan, and elsewhere in 2005. We'll just have to see how many people come out to vote, because generally urban areas generate a lower voter turnout than rural areas. We'll have to see if urban voters have turned against Ahmadinejad because of his economic policies that have undermined economic welfare.

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