The first round of Iran’s presidential election will be held on Friday. Outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a controversial time in office, particularly after his re-election in 2009 which I shall discuss in a moment. His presidency has raised some questions over the extent of Iran’s president’s power. He has precided over a period of increasing isolation for Iran as pressure, largely in the form of sanctions, mounts over the country’s nuclear program – it is also now more unpopular than ever. A regional cold war has developed between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, against the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the USA + its allies. These tensions are now factoring in the Syrian Civil War, which has developed into something of a proxy war between competing interests. Ahmadinejad is forbidden from serving more than two terms and so a new President shall be chosen. Whoever this will be certainly has a lot on their plate.
In order to discuss the presidential election, it’s important to look at how Iran’s political system actually works. The Western image of Iran is this bizarre, antiquated dictatorship and, while it often acts in this way, does have constitutional democratic elements. Unlike Communist or dictatorial governments, which use elections to create the illusion of public legitimacy, I believe Iran’s system is designed to have a fairly elected president and parliament. I haven’t studied Iran in detail, but that’s how it comes across. The trouble is, as a theocracy, the ultimate authority in Iran is God. Because consulting God poses a challenge, it is necessary to base laws on religious scriptures – the Quran, generally – and also the traditions of Shia Islam. Interpreting these rules is the role of the Supreme Leader and his Guardian Council and Assembly of Experts. As the name suggests, the Supreme Leader (currently Ali Khamenei) has supreme power over the judiciary, the armed forces, foreign policy, etc. This leaves the role of the president unclear. It’s incredibly complicated, but this BBC page helps make it a bit simpler.
In theory, the system should allow the population of Iran to democratically elect leaders to govern day-to-day issues that are not the concern of the Supreme Leader. Yet, clearly, this is often not the case. In 2009 Ahmadinejad was elected president in favour of the more reformist candidate Mousavi. Many people believe Mousavi to have been the rightful winner and accuse the government of rigging the vote. There were mass protests across Iran in response, and it did momentarily look as though the regime was in danger. Yet, the government survived – mostly through using brute force to suppress the protests. It is clear that while there may be an element of democracy in Iran’s political system, it is in a manner tightly controlled by the Supreme Leader who will manipulate results if he does not believe them to be in the country’s interests.
I don’t believe the protests of 2009 will be repeated this year. Another challenge to the regime would be nice, and the conditions of economic frustration which is common in most uprisings does certainly exist (though the anger quite successfully deflected towards the West, it would seem), I think careful planning will have gone into the election to ensure it produces the desired result. The majority of accepted candidates are Conservatives, with the exception of the moderate Rouhani and reformist Aref, who dropped out yesterday to improve the chances of Rouhani. Six candidates remain: five Conservatives and Rouhani. Naturally, I am hoping Rouhani will win but I don’t think it would make much difference if he did. If a candidate posed a serious threat to the status quo I don’t think they would not be allowed to stand after the events of 2009 – that Mousavi is currently under house arrest makes this clear. Perhaps the results have already been decided. It is impossible to say.
These are difficult times for Iran. Anything could happen. Even an unlikely reformist could be convinced that reform is necessary; look at Gorbachev in the Soviet Union or de Klerk in South Africa. But, of course, the ultimate authority rests with the Supreme Leader, who currently seems determined for things to remain the way they are.
For an alternative look at Iran’s election, check out this unofficial candidate.