23 May 2013
Richard Dalton
Sir Richard Dalton
Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


Who will win Iran's June 14 presidential election is anyone’s guess. Despite claims already made by some commentators, it is not possible to predict whom the stage is being set for or even to select the front-runners. The forthcoming development of each candidate’s platform matters, as does the geography and demography of the campaign, with or without jiggery-pokery in the final count.

Popular election is managed differently around the world. Iran selects candidates undemocratically. The system is extreme in the way it excludes outsiders, but not so unlike other systems in pruning off the extremes to left and right within the politically dominant factions.

Loyalists favoured

The Guardian Council, a nominated body, has made its selection of eight candidates from the myriad aspirants for the presidency. All are serving or former officials of the Islamic Republic who pass the test of being pious, devoted to the revolution, honest and loyal to the Supreme Leadership, and who represent trends in Iranian politics that are both acceptable and significant. To approve candidates, the Guardian Council was guided by these priorities of Ayatollah Khamenei: legitimacy – derived from following Iran’s Constitution and achieving a good turn-out (more than 60%); preserving the Iranian revolution; better management of the government’s business than in the last eight years; and loyalty to the Supreme Leader. 

Khamenei is alleged to have said that when Hashemi Rafsanjani was president, he agreed with the Supreme Leader but then did just what he wanted, while former president Mohammad Khatami argued every step of the way but then did what the Ayatollah wanted. Current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often argued, and did what he – Ahmadinejad – wanted. 

Khamenei wants Iran’s next president to be someone who will agree with him and do what he wants. There is a good chance he will get this. None of the selected candidates has a strong power-base or persona distinct from the current incarnation of the ruling system. 

Rafsanjani was denied a place on the ballot this time, ostensibly on grounds of age, but also perhaps because it was thought other candidates were deemed safer for the system and its Leader, but who would still take standpoints like his to the electorate. Leaving Rafsanjani out balances the disqualification of Ahmadinejad’s chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie. As one of the architects of a populist, redistributive trend branded 'deviant', Mashaie would have had appeal and been a source of tension within the campaign. He alas did not pass the piety, legitimacy and loyalty tests. 

Ahmadinejad will appeal Mashaei’s exclusion, but I would not expect Khamenei to reinstate Mashaei. It remains to be seen whether there will be a disruptive backlash against his exclusion from within Ahmadinejad’s dying administration or from the public. Neither is likely, partly because any signs of protest would be rapidly suppressed by the security authorities.

Motivated to vote

The election campaign matters. Candidates are using electronic media to establish their presence and personalities and there are likely to be TV debates. Many Iranian voters make up their minds at the last moment and will be influenced by tactical considerations – voting for the candidate most likely to defeat the candidates they dislike the most. 

Positive reasons for voting will count too. The candidates who can respond at all credibly to impoverishment, inflation, unemployment, corruption, and disillusion with politicians, will gain. Candidates like Saeed Jalili, who is stronger so far on promoting the revolution and resisting America than on connecting with voters’ fears about the future, may suffer.

Khamenei must not appear partisan in public, but will react behind the scenes to the differentiation between the candidates and the clarity about their likely behaviour in power that will now emerge. If he does indicate a preference privately, large numbers of votes could appear at the last moment for that person. 

Candidates may decide to withdraw, if this makes tactical sense. The main Conservative Group, the Principlists, has at least four candidates. Three of them, Ali-Akbar Velayati, Gholamali Haddad-Adel and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, have an agreement that two will stand down in favour of the one that is most popular. The centrists and reformists have two – Mohammad Reza Aref and Hassan Rouhani. One might drop out in the same way to avoid splitting the vote.

Potential surprises

Then with even four or five candidates on the ballot, the first round on 14 June may not be decisive. The establishment, led by Khamenei, wants a triumph that will, in their eyes, vindicate the system before their own people and the world. They would prefer to achieve a stable, pleasing first-round result without rigging the actual ballot, but could resort to it if a candidate goes off the rails or if the choice in any run-off second round election between the top two requires it.

In the end of course, Iran’s many-layered system of government means that the president is more CEO than chairman. On security and external affairs he is influential, but is more a manager and spokesman than a decider. Within the institutions that control domestic affairs – such as parliament, security establishment, Supreme-Leader’s Office – he is more a negotiator than a prime minister with all the strings in his hand.

The Iranian establishment hopes the election will throw up someone who can go on to serve many different constituencies, starting with Khamenei, and including ordinary people whose acquiescence in the system they have to live under can never be taken for granted. But Iran’s politics is only partly managed by the leadership: it is partly in the hands of voters and the candidates themselves and is thus unpredictable.

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