When Iranians go to the polls this Friday, they will not have a single charismatic opposition candidate to rally around like they had in Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009. Instead, voters will choose between seven men who managed to gain the approval of the cleric-filled Guardian Council. The 12-person council has been sure to keep candidates who desire more serious reforms off of the ballot this time. One of the pro-democracy Green Movement’s favorites, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, failed to win their approval and was disqualified from the elections. Many other reformers suffered the same fate, leaving what is left of the 2009 protest movement to choose the least of seven evils. Some Green Movement activists are unsure whether they should participate in the election at all.
This year, the Guardian Council only approved candidates who pledged they would not discontinue Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Even former negotiator Hassan Rowhani, perhaps the most viable candidate to take up the reformist mantle, shares hard-liners’ hostility toward future negotiations with the United States. Candidates are instead spending most of their time trying to outdo one another in their love for uranium enrichment and providing various solutions for the inflation and general economic hardship that have hobbled Iran after years of United Nations sanctions.
Indeed, since 2009, opposition to the nuclear program has become an absolute political nonstarter. Not only does the program enjoy widespread popular support, but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also has made it clear that there is no turning back on the issue. The government has silenced — or worse — any voices that contradict his.
If no candidate in this election will force a significant policy change with respect to the nuclear program, perhaps Rowhani or the even more liberal Mohammad Reza Aref would at least usher in a new tone in dealing with the West. Both understand the link between improved relations abroad and future economic prosperity at home. They are the only two candidates who offer any sort of departure from the status quo.
Perhaps the narrow differences between the candidates will provide an opening for Rowhani. With the conservative bloc split between a number candidates — current nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and mayor of Tehran Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf chief among them — he could feasibly find himself in a runoff election in which his relative pragmatism could seem like a plus to voters. Rowhani occupies a special middle ground in this election: He is more palatable to the Revolutionary Guard and the Guardian Council than Aref, but still offers a glimmer of hope to those who desire better relations with the West.
Such a scenario, however, is contingent on Rowhani receiving the full-throated support of the Green Movement, which is unlikely at this point, both because of support for Aref and a desire to boycott the elections to destroy their legitimacy. It also assumes that no more minor conservative candidates drop out to create a more coherent voting bloc. Gholam Ali Haddad Adel already did so “to ‘avoid the defeat’ of his political allies.” It is possible that more conservatives may join him in the next few days. With the candidate field in flux, the election’s outcome is still in doubt.