How to Read Iran’s Elections

A conservative candidate seems likely to win Iran’s presidential election this week, but the reform movement may yet be energized by the remaining moderate contender, says CFR’s Ray Takeyh.

June 11, 2013

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Elections and Voting


It is still unclear who will triumph in Iran’s presidential election this Friday, says CFR’s Ray Takeyh, but the victor "will likely be drawn from the conservative/revolutionary wing of this particular slate of candidates." The prospects for the sole remaining moderate contender, Hassan Rowhani, are slim, but he may yet invigorate the reform movement, says Takeyh. While none of the candidates outwardly support suspension of Iran’s controversial nuclear program, Takeyh says that "if you read between the lines," their recent discussion of foreign policy "suggests they are willing to be much more accommodating on the nuclear issue."

There had been eight candidates approved to run by the Judicial Council, but one of the conservatives, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, dropped out Monday, and a reform candidate, Mohammed Reza Aref, withdrew on Tuesday. At this point, which of these candidates seems to be leading the race?

It’s hard to say. There are opinion polls here and there, but I’m not actually confident that reliable polling can be conducted in the Islamic Republic. You can think about the competition in three different segments. There is a sort of reform-moderate wing represented by Hassan Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, and, until Tuesday, by Mohammad Reza Aref, who had been vice president under Mohammad Khatami, a relative liberal. Then there are more traditional conservatives, including Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and former commander of Iranian Police Forces, and Ali Akhbar Velayati, former foreign minister. And then there are some hardline revolutionaries, including Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and Adel, the other candidate who just dropped out. They represent the three segments of the permitted body politic.

Who has the edge at this point? I suspect the winning presidential candidate will likely be drawn from the conservative/revolutionary wing of this particular slate of candidates.

So that means Jalili or Ghalibaf?

Right, but they differ in some respects. Jalili speaks the language that most resembles that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Ghalibaf has tried to become, over the years, all things to all people. On the one hand, he brags about his time repressing student demonstrations in 1999, yet he also talks about giving more space for political dialogue. You can see that he is trying to become much cagier about the way he approaches his candidacy. On the other hand, Saeed Jalili is an honest guy that tells you what he thinks. He has promised an administration of resistance, one that’s very familiar to the slogans that you hear in the supreme leader’s speeches.

Last week, the candidates had a long debate on foreign affairs. What was your assessment of this?

"[T]he candidates that attacked [Saeed] Jalili’s handling of the nuclear file are actually indirectly attacking Ali Khamenei."

It was a very interesting and important debate because Jalili, in a sense, had the role of an incumbent simply because he’s part of the government. And a number of candidates—Mr. [Mohsen] Rezaei, Mr. Rowhani, and ironically enough, Mr. Velyati, the former foreign minister and presumably a current adviser to the supreme leader--criticized his handling of the nuclear issue. Velyati was the most vociferous, suggesting that Jalili goes to these meetings and doesn’t engage. This is not the way diplomacy should be conducted; diplomacy, he said, is not a philosophy lesson.

The interesting part is that the candidates that attacked Jalili’s handling of the nuclear file are actually indirectly attacking Ali Khamenei, because the supreme leader has expressed satisfaction about the way things are going. And, interestingly, Jalili defended his handling of the nuclear talks, stating his willingness to have a give and take with the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). He also mentioned that the supreme leader listened to the tape of the entire the second round of nuclear negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s [former] capital, and seemed satisfied with it. So, in a sense, he was suggesting the obvious: that attacking him is tantamount to attacking the supreme leader.

The second thing that jumped out of this debate for me is the extent that the candidates kept mentioning recordings. This is a government that seems to tape each other all the time. Rowhani and General Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, had an exchange about the handing of the 1999 student riots, and Rowhani said, "Look, this is what I said, you are misrepresenting what I said, and as you know, there is a tape." It’s like the GDR [former East Germany]. This is a government where everyone is recording everyone else.

Remind me, what were the riots of 1999?

In July 1999, there was a series of student riots at the University of Tehran that led to a number of fatalities. They were taken quite seriously by the regime because, for them, it was an indication that the reformist government was lax in security and the message of reformism was getting out of hand and was leading to popular protests similar to those in Hungary in 1956 or potentially in Eastern Europe in 1989.

The regime was quite frightened of those developments, and General Ghalibaf brags about his repression of those riots when he headed the police. At the same time, he talks about permitting more political space as mayor. By the way, that kind of doubletalk doesn’t always appeal to the supreme leader--he wants his revolutionaries more straightforward.

Now that Aref has dropped out, does that mean Rowhani has a better chance?

That depends on the level of turnout. The Iranian elections may be pre-scripted, but during the two weeks that the electioneering actually happens, the script usually goes off the rails a little bit. The regime will look closely to see whether Rowhani can generate support for himself and whether his candidacy catches fire.

Can he do that? Can he bring people to the polls? Because they’ll be quite afraid of that. But the possibility of him being the next president of Iran is quite limited. He can potentially bring more people to the polls, and maybe he’ll energize the reform movement. But I don’t have a good indication of a level of popular engagement or apathy in this particular election because you just have to walk the streets to get a sense of that.

Rowhani was the nuclear negotiator when Iran suspended its work?

Right, he served in that role from 2003 to 2005. And he has always suggested that every step he took in those negotiations was affirmed by the supreme leader. And he is quite right about that, but nevertheless the system has chosen him as the person to blame for the suspension. He’s a fall guy, and he doesn’t like it.

And none of the candidates suggest giving up the nuclear program?

They don’t suggest giving it up, but Velayati, Rowhani, and Rezaei have suggested that there have been missed opportunities to negotiate constructively with the international community. Nobody comes out and says, "Let’s do away with it," but all these candidates intimate that they are prepared to accept restrictions because they place a premium on the country’s economic revival as opposed to its nuclear empowerment. Now, if you read between those lines, it suggests they are willing to be much more accommodating on the nuclear issue.

What are the prospects for the turnout in this election?

I don’t have a read because the regime has done everything it can to lower voter participation and excluded candidates that could generate excitement. But while they have tried to clamp down, this last debate was very lively, and Rowhani’s rallies seem to be drawing audiences. There is a discussion in the reform bloc on whether boycotting is an effective means of moving forward.

So I don’t know the exact temperature of the street, but Rowhani and other reformers are doing everything they can to generate interest, and we’ll see how that translates into popular participation. Either way, the regime is going to announce a high level of participation.