Iran presidential race: expectations vs. reality

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Iran's field of presidential candidates offers the widest-ranging choices on the political spectrum since the revolution of 1978-79 - of course, within the confines of the Guardian Council's vetting procedures. Even though the Islamic Republic's clerical leaders jealously guard their theocracy, they also permit semi-competitive elections, seemingly unbothered in the short run by the contradiction between institutions based on assertions of divine sovereignty and mechanisms for popular participation.

The eight major candidates in Friday's race each portray themselves as the answer to Iran's daunting challenges - from the need for legal and socioeconomic reforms and questions about the Supreme Leader's prerogatives, to diplomacy and the development of nuclear weapons technology. However, former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's reemergence on the scene has stirred both worries and cautious optimism in Iran and the West. He is bolder than his opponents in pledging to liberalize the economy, resolve the nuclear dispute with the West, and normalize relations with Washington. And given his revolutionary credentials and sense of pragmatism honed in the Islamic Republic's labyrinthine factional struggles, Mr. Rafsanjani appears to be the frontrunner in the polls.

Yet victory for Rafsanjani is not a foregone conclusion; the self-declared reformist Mostafa Moin seems to be gaining ground. At first rejected by the Guardian Council as a presidential contender, he was reinstated after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei intervened to ensure at least the appearance of a balanced election. Mr. Moin, former minister of science, research and technology, resigned his post in 2003, protesting mistreatment of students and repression that has stifled scientific development. With a platform emphasizing intellectual freedom and cultural diversity, Moin has earned credibility among the under-30s to almost two-thirds of Iranian society. Polls taken by SHARQ, the major Tehran daily, suggest that if elected, Rafsanjani would receive less than a quarter of the vote, with the rest of the electorate splintering to give none of the other candidates a majority and compelling a run-off contest, probably with Moin.

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Indeed, without more significant popular backing, Rafsanjani, who is considered an ideological chameleon by enthusiasts and detractors alike, would find it tough to deal with the parliament's ultraconservative majority. Neither the legislature nor Ayatollah Khamenei has much sympathy for Rafsanjani's ideological flexibility, striving to preserve their own vision of doctrinal purity. Refraining from openly endorsing one candidate, the supreme leader - who is selected by the clerically dominated Assembly of Experts rather than popularly elected - would be more amenable to other presidential hopefuls whose loyalty to conservative principles is not in doubt.

And if past promises are any indication, Rafsanjani cannot easily run on the record of his two-term presidency from 1989 to 1997. After some initial socioeconomic liberalization, his administration could not trim Iran's unwieldy bureaucracy nor cut its red tape enough to attract foreign investors. Rafsanjani could not capitalize on either the Bush or Clinton teams' subtle overtures to restore ties with the US. And by the time he left office, the EU states had withdrawn their ambassadors from Tehran, charging Iranian agents of assassinating dissidents in exile.

Iran and its regional context are far different today from during the 1990s, when the reformist movement was more influential and the Islamic Republic was not perceived as part of the "axis of evil." Conservatives have now recaptured most government power centers. And some in the second Bush administration and Congress have advocated that regime change be applied to the Islamic Republic as part of the effort to democratize the Middle East. With US troops next door in Afghanistan and Iraq, no Iranian president can afford to take anything for granted.

So, before addressing the domestic agenda, whoever is elected will have to diffuse the nuclear standoff with Washington and its European allies - the most serious foreign-policy crises for the Islamic Republic since its 1980-1988 war with Iraq. With international opposition to the Islamic Republic's quest for nuclear weapons technology intensifying, even a leader of Rafsanjani's stature and shrewdness may not be able to convince the Iranian citizenry that abandoning this quest is in the country's long-term interest. More than half of Iranians support the nuclear program and 46 percent are strongly behind it, according to a May survey commissioned by the Washington-based firm InterMedia. Living in a dangerous neighborhood and seeking recognition as a regional powerhouse, neither Iranian citizens nor their leaders have much incentive to change this policy, and international pressure may strengthen the Islamic Republic's already defiant conservatives.

Iran's clerical leadership claims its legitimacy rests on divine sovereignty, yet it has established mechanisms for popular participation in decisionmaking. This paradox has at once ensured the Islamic Republic's survival and produced gridlock in the national discourse, as a splintered presidential vote and the decisions over nuclear technology may soon demonstrate. A Rafsanjani presidency would not necessarily reconcile these contradictions within the Iranian system and might actually aggravate them. Meanwhile, Iranians, debating whether to vote on Friday or boycott the contest, realize what their leaders have not yet explicitly admitted - that their government cannot relate to them or tackle their concerns as long as it is run by both the elected representatives of the people and the unelected representatives of God on earth.

Haleh Vaziri is regional research manager for the Middle East and North Africa at InterMedia, a media research organization. Bahman Baktiari, who visited Iran in May, is director of international affairs at the University of Maine. The views expressed here are their own.

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