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It Will Take More Than Two Candidates to Change Iran

Author: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
May 17, 2013
Financial Times


The race to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad as Iran's president is infused with intrigue and drama. The various political groups are busy promoting their candidates, consolidating their lists and establishing their platforms. Lest anyone confuse Iran's contest for real democracy, the regime has ample mechanisms at its disposal to ensure the "election" of its preferred candidate. Ultimately, the decision about who will govern is likely to be made in the Islamic Republic's back rooms rather than its voting booths. Still, two very different candidates, the old revolutionary Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the anti-establishment Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, perceive that they can somehow upend the system.

Since his ascension to the post of supreme leader in 1989, Ayatollah Khamenei has insisted that the mission of the state is to uphold religious values and prevent popular pressures from altering its autocratic structures. He has always hoped that Iran will be manned by politicians who yield to his judgment without undue protest, share his dogmatic values and view him as the ultimate arbiter of all their debates.

He was offered no such deference either by the elders of the revolution or by reformers such as Mohammad Khatami, who occupied the presidency for eight tumultuous years. In his search for an obedient protégé, the ayatollah even empowered the little-known Mr Ahmadi-Nejad only to face another challenge to his authority. Iran's most consequential voter has clear standards for the next president – he has to adhere unquestioningly to the ayatollah's dictates.

For much of the past year, the presidential script seemed to be playing itself out in a predictable manner. An unimpressive roster of second-tier ministers, parliamentarians and mayors were lining up for the prize of the presidency. And then came the actual registration period and the entrance of two seemingly unpredictable candidates.

The politician who has generated the most excitement in western chancelleries is Mr Rafsanjani. This is not unusual for a man nicknamed "shark", as he has always been more popular in western capitals than on the streets of Tehran. Given his pedigree as a politician present at the creation of the Islamic Republic, his links to the clerical community and his connections to the merchant class, he is often considered the leader best capable of navigating the ship of state in turbulent waters. However, the entire western reading of Mr Rafsanjani is predicated on an incomplete understanding of his tenure in power.

As president he sensed the need for change but when confronted with conservative resistance he quickly retreated and abandoned his own declared principles. He articulated the imperative of development, yet proved reluctant to build an efficient state. He called for a pragmatic foreign policy yet remained devoted to terrorism as an instrument of statecraft. The father of Iran's bomb did much to reconstitute the nuclear programme while speaking the language of moderation.

Conversely, Mr Meshaei apparently has a more attractive platform. A politician who has dabbled in nationalistic themes, offended the clerical estate by suggesting that Islam requires no priestly mediation between God and believers, and is known to be detested by Ayatollah Khamenei, would seem an ideal populist candidate. And yet his association with Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and his disastrous presidency is bound to diminish his appeal.

In the end, the two candidates who have had the most potential for shaking up the race are hobbled by their own contradictions. Even if they are allowed to run, they are unlikely to offer much of a challenge to the eventual candidate of the establishment. Iran can no longer be reformed through its own constitutional provisions and electoral processes.

It is difficult to suggest at this stage whom Ayatollah Khamenei will anoint as the next president. He may yet settle on his nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, who is known to be slavishly devoted to the supreme leader, a stern ideologue and a man of limited intelligence. In the deformed political society that Ayatollah Khamenei has created, such qualifications constitute ideal credentials for promotion to the office of the presidency.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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