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Iran's Elections and Nuclear Politics

Interviewee: Farideh Farhi, Graduate Faculty and Lecturer, University of Hawaii, Manoa
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, CFR.org
February 24, 2012

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As Iran prepares to hold its quadrennial parliamentary elections on March 2, the first national elections since the sharply disputed presidential election in June 2009 which returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office, there is a significant power struggle among the various conservative forces, says Iran expert Farideh Farhi. The outcome of the elections, she says, will also provide some indication of the course of the presidential election to be held next year. She adds that domestic politics in Tehran and the upcoming U.S. elections later this year make the possibility of any negotiations on Iran's controversial nuclear program unlikely.

Iran will hold parliamentary elections on March 2. Are they significant, and what should we look for?

These elections will be the first national polls after the disputed 2009 presidential election [which led to months of protests alleging rigged elections that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office]. Even though there is no significant competition from the reformist camp--many of whose leaders are in prison or under house arrest--the current campaign has revealed deep concerns within the establishment about the size of the voter turnout. There is also intense competition among the various conservative forces which collectively identify themselves as "Principlists."

The elections are also significant because as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reaches the end of his constitutionally permitted two terms in 2013, these elections will likely provide some indication about the course of the presidential election to come.

Clearly, everyone who is running for office is a conservative of one type or the other, since they have to be vetted by the regime. Is there really a difference between forces loyal to Ahmadinejad's group and those close to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's leadership?

It is not really true that reformist candidates or candidates who identify themselves as reformists are not running. In fact, many of the current parliamentarians who identify themselves either as reformists or independent have been allowed to run and in all likelihood, many of them will get reelected, especially the ones from the provinces. My bet is that the number of reformists or independent candidates in the next parliament will be the same as they are today, between 55 to 65, out of 290. So, reformists will have a presence.

My bet is that the number of reformists or independent candidates in the next parliament will be the same as they are today, between 55 to 65, out of 290.

The political coalitions that are running lists in major cities as well as throughout the country are not revealing many differences in terms of their platforms. But there is a significant power struggle within the conservative camp and this election will reveal which one of them will have more influence, and that may impact the outcome of the next presidential election.

Can you explain the different groupings?

Well, the "Principlists" tried to come up with a unified list, including all the different wings that constitute their group. They were unable to do so. A group called the United Front of Principlists ultimately was unable to reach an agreement, so another group of people identifying themselves as the Steadfastness Front was formed, and at least in major cities like Tehran, the competition will be between those two groups.

The United Front of Principlists essentially has tried to bring together all the three wings of principlism together and has candidates that represent, for example, Ali Larijani [speaker of the parliament] wing as well as other hardliners, while the Steadfastness Front has a list of hardliners, mostly followers of the hardline cleric Mesbah Yazdi, and includes many people close to Ahmadinejad.

It will be interesting to see which one of those lists does well, particularly in the city of Tehran. Also interesting to watch is the fact that some members of the parliament who have been very critical of Ahmadinejad's government were not included in any of those lists, and they have chosen to present their own list in the city of Tehran, called The Voice of Nation, and the leader of that list is Ali Motahari. It'll be interesting to see how well he does in Tehran because he has been very critical of the government for its handling of the economy but also he has been quite critical of the regime as a whole for its handling of the post-election protests. It will be interesting to see how he does in the city of Tehran, particularly since in the last election in 2004 he did quite well.

Everyone will be watching how many people will actually participate in the election, given the fact that there has been quite a bit of disappointment in the nation over what happened in the last presidential election [where the opposition claimed the results were rigged]. There are concerns among the hardliners that not many people will go to vote particularly in large cities, and the regime has been trying very hard to suggest that this will not be the case and has tried to promote participation. But it's not clear whether it will be successful. So the question of what will happen if the turnout is low in cities like Tehran is very much at the forefront.

Even though the presidential elections are a year away in Iran, who are the most likely candidates at this time?

A strong electoral showing by hardline principlists is likely to encourage them to challenge Ali Larijani, the current speaker of parliament, who is running on the United Principlist platform from the city of Qom. Larijani is considered close to the traditional conservative and pragmatic principlist wings. A strong hardline showing or his own poor showing in Qom will decrease the likelihood of a presidential election bid by him and also decrease the chances of Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran and the most likely pragmatic conservative presidential candidate.

Much less clear at this point is who will be the favorite hardline candidate. The name of Saeed Jalili, Iran's current nuclear negotiator, has been mentioned, but generally there are few hardliners with national exposure. Other names mentioned have been former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who may have crossover appeal among all principlist wings, and former speaker of the Parliament Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, who will be the most likely candidate to challenge Larijani's speakership if hardliners do well in the election.

The political environment in Iran is quite closed, and the political leadership in Iran continues to be quite paranoid of the possibility of regime change.

What is the mood of the Iranian people? Are they worried about war with Israel or the United States? There has been a lot of talk about this, particularly in the United States and in Israel.

It is very difficult not to worry, particularly because of the constant talk of war. I have been told that about a month ago in Tehran, the concern was very serious. Increasingly, however, a lot of people are being impacted by the financial sanctions that are being imposed. This has led to questions about the future of Iran under increasing sanctions. A couple of days ago, former presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai said that Iranians should prepare for five years of very hard times to come, and the context of that conversation was not worries about war per se, but the reality that the sanctions that are imposed on Iran may not go away soon.

Iran has said they are willing to talk to the P5 +1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) but nothing has happened yet. Is there any likelihood of any breakthrough?

This is a two-way affair. The likelihood of a breakthrough is as much a question of what the Iranians are thinking about as what the other side, the P5+1, is thinking. If P5+1 goes into negotiations with the demand that the Iran has to suspend enrichment completely, then Iran's position essentially will be the same as before, which is the rejection of that demand, and that conversation will not go anywhere.

On the other hand, the Iranians have introduced some breakthroughs in their nuclear program. They have made claims that they have built fuel plates for their Tehran Research Reactor and they have become self-sufficient in terms of running that Tehran Research Reactor. So they may actually be in a position of not willing to compromise on issues that they were willing to compromise in the past. For example, in October 2009, the Iranians obviously did show some interest in a transfer deal [the Iranians would supply a certain amount of enriched uranium to the West and in return would get fuel rods for their medical purposes] because of their need for the Tehran Research Reactor. If that need is gone, Tehran may be less willing to do such a deal.

However, if there is some flexibility on the part of the P5+1, then the Iranians may also show some flexibility because sanctions are creating so much havoc on the Iranian economy. My bet at this point, however, is that until American elections are over, conditions for any kind of serious negotiations on both sides are low.

That's nine months down the road.

Exactly, but the reality is that conditions for a compromise on both sides in terms of the domestic politics in both countries are not ripe for negotiations. For example, the U.S. Congress is contemplating the possibility of demanding suspension of Iran's enrichment program as part of any negotiation. That is a condition that Iranians have repeatedly rejected. So if that is part and parcel of domestic dynamics in the United States, then until the election passes, the possibility of any kind of negotiations should not be considered to be very high.

What is the human rights situation in Iran like these days? As bad as it's been since 2009?

It continues to be quite dire. The reality is that the Iranian government is quite concerned, to the point of almost being paranoid, about outside forces developing relationships with their population. Therefore, they have been very rough at the first hint that anyone is trying to change the Iranian political system. Political leaders continue to be imprisoned. Any kind of protests are dealt with very harshly. Newspapers are not totally shut down; there are reformist newspapers that are being published. Yet at the same time, they are very much controlled in the sense that they have to be very concerned about the kind of reporting they are publishing.

The political environment in Iran is quite closed, and the political leadership in Iran continues to be quite paranoid of the possibility of regime change. And of course, the policies that are being pursued by outside powers give them at least some reasons for being paranoid.

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