Iran’s Presidential Election In June A Crucial Event

Iran will hold presidential elections on June 14, and this will test the country’s political stability and appetite for confrontation with the West and Israel.

The incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has generally pursued a confrontational policy towards the US and Israel, but he is not eligible for a third consecutive term, so there will be a new president. In Iran, the president is much less powerful than the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, so we do not expect a major policy shift after the election.

However, the president is still important in representing Iran abroad, managing the economy, and setting the general tone of political discourse. The post therefore matters a great deal.

Candidates must register by this Saturday, May 11. Prominent names being bandied about include former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, current Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, former parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, former vice-president Mohammed Reza Aref, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, and former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei. Ahmadinejad favours his former chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, but it is unclear whether the latter’s candidacy will be accepted.

The candidates will be vetted by the Council of Guardians (a body of clerics) for their loyalty to the regime or religious political system, and their general reliability, which in practical terms means their ability to work with the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad had the Supreme Leader’s support in the controversial 2009 election, but he subsequently moved to challenge Khamenei’s authority. The regime will want to avoid such schisms in the next presidential term.

The election is thus bound to be dominated by conservative candidates, but some of them may have more reformist leanings than others.

What To Look Out For

There is a risk that the liberal opposition, whose leaders have been sequestered since challenging Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009, will boycott the election, or be forced to support their least disliked conservative figure.

We will be watching closely for signs of unrest. The regime will be particularly fearful of the possibility of a repeat of 2009, when mass protests followed the disputed result. Iran’s economy has worsened since 2009, due to tighter sanctions over its nuclear programme, which have led to the sharp depreciation of the rial currency and double-digit inflation. In addition, the Arab Spring could serve as a possible inspiration for Iranians.

That said, Iranians may be fearful to take to the streets in large numbers, due to the freshness of memories of the severity of the regime’s crackdown in 2009, and the chaos that has hit some Arab countries as a result of their own uprisings.

Implications For The Nuclear Dispute

We have held the position that neither Israel nor the US would attack Iran before the June 2013 presidential election, with all parties adopting a ‘wait and see attitude’.

Regardless of who becomes Iran’s president, the country’s nuclear programme will continue in some form.

If a relatively moderate or at least non-firebrand conservative figure becomes president, then this could set the scene for a reduction in tensions with Israel and the West, and continued negotiations. Israel would come under further pressure to refrain from an attack on Iran.

However, if an aggressive conservative figure becomes president, and maintains Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric while appearing uncompromising on the nuclear issue, then this would increase the risk of an eventual Israeli attack on Iran.

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