Iran Elections 2013: Will Someone Who Isn't a Total Nut Run the Country?

Iran’s elections are swiftly approaching. The candidates have been narrowed to four staunch supporters of Iran’s theocratic regime and two wild cards with rumors swirling that the wild cards have already been rejected. Iran’s Interior Ministry has confirmed announcement of the final candidate list on May 22. There is a widespread expectation from the West and others that the elections will be fixed, so why should the world care?

As Brookings’ Susanne Maloney points out, Iran’s presidents have been able to shift the policy agenda despite Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei being the “ultimate decision-maker.” In fact, Ahmadinejad and his predecessors have benefited from presidential authority to oversee the allocation of a significant portion of the country’s budget, dictate the social climate, and share in the formulation of Iran’s national security policies (read: nuclear policy). However, the supreme leader has maintained a strong hold on the final decision-making process and will undoubtedly order Iran’s nuclear development to continue despite contrary feedback from his president or the international community. 

This is the conundrum faced by the European Union, the United States, and other members of the so-called P5+1 group determined to sway Iran at the negotiating table.  In fact, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and an international team of negotiators have successfully courted Iran to the table several times, but have not been able to make significant progress in their effort to dissuade the country from proliferation.  Despite the negotiations remaining largely unsuccessful, they have also been an opportunity for the EU to raise its foreign policy profile and play the vital role of interlocutor between the United States and Iran. This is an interesting and somewhat positive development.

In dealing with Iran, Ashton has actively engaged the country’s leadership and played a chief role in bringing the country back to the negotiating table between sessions.  Conversely, the EU has enacted some of the strongest sanctions and restrictive trade measures against Iran, effectively crippling the country’s economy and exposing its weaknesses. In fact, the EU enacted a total embargo on Iranian oil in July last year. In doing so, the EU effectively severed commercial ties with the country’s oil sector, pinched its economy more severely and gained leverage at the negotiating table. These trends continue today.

Although there is not a clear front-runner yet, whoever ascends to the presidency will navigate Iran’s internal policies and have the opportunity to drive Iran’s external engagement with the P5+1 group, the West, and Iran’s global partners.  They will also drive, or at least be the external face of, the development of Iran’s nuclear program during a politically turbulent time for the country internally and externally. 

As of Tuesday, the candidates in the supreme leader's direct favor include his international affairs adviser Ali-Akbar Velayati, the mayor of Tehran Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the speaker of Iran’s parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, and the supreme leader’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s protégé Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, considered by many to be a chief architect of Iran’s institutional infrastructure, have respectively fallen out of the supreme leader’s graces, but remain in the race. 

Tomorrow’s announcement of the final candidate list, and the remaining few weeks before the election will likely provide hints of how Iran’s supreme leader plans to engage its people and the world for the next few years. Watch this space.