The long-awaited Iranian presidential elections take place on Friday, and the stakes could not be higher. Although Iranians will be hitting the ballot boxes in order to help shape the future of their country’s dying economy, wily regime, and myriad other issues, their votes may also help determine the future of Iran’s relations with the rest of the world.
I recently had a chance to speak with Dr. Abbas Milani — director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and author of dozens of books, articles, and all things Iran — about the election and Iran’s future. His insights on Iranian politics are of the most highly regarded in both the policy and academic communities.
Joe: Which candidate is most pliable to negotiations over Iran's nuclear program with the West? Can the world expect to see much of a difference this time around, regardless of who wins?
Dr. Milani: Well the president doesn’t really make nuclear policy; it is made by Mr. Khamenei and his allies in the IRGC. So if the past is any indication, the president, whoever he is, is not going to make a radical difference. But I think the situation in Iran today is so critical; the economy is in a dire state, feuds between different factions within the regime are coming at such a heightened moment, that a new president by every indication may in fact be heralding a new posture. If Mr. Jalili is elected, I think we can expect that the regime will plan to continue its intransigence. But if anyone else is allowed to win, because I don’t think Mr. Jalili can win unless they cheat in the election, then I think that indicates that its past policies (the regime’s) are at a dead end and that it needs to rethink its position.
Joe: What economic challenges does the next president face, and which candidate seems most capable of overcoming these challenges in spite of a difficult bureaucracy that may not always agree with what must be done?
Dr. Milani: Based on what many of the candidates have said, based on what Rafsanjani has said, the challenges are enormous. Oil and gas revenues are down to less than $40 billion from an estimated $120 billion, and when they sell oil, because of sanctions they can’t transfer money and there are sanctions on a large number of commodities. If that’s not bad enough, because corruption is endemic and incompetence is institutionalized, the problems of sanctions are compounded. That corruption and incompetence of the past few years has meant that the government now owes the private sector tens of billions of dollars that there is simply no way for it to pay back. When they do sell oil to China or India, such buyers refuse to pay Iran in currency, but instead in other types of commodities. So all of this, with unemployment at least at 30% for youth, who make up three-fifths of the population, and inflation being 110%, all of this is going to be a major challenge regardless of who becomes president. The only way around this is if the regime rethinks its policies, doesn’t spend billions of dollars as it has, with another $7 billion dollars recently announced, on Syria, and other deeply irresponsible expenditures, no president is going to make any difference.
Joe: Is the security apparatus still as capable of stomping out post-election protests as it was in 2009? Or has division within leadership created cleavages and dissent that may allow revolutionary change if people take to the streets?
Dr. Milani: Clearly the regime has been talking in the past few months about what you suggest, but they’ve made it clear that they will not tolerate it. They have shown repeatedly that they have contingency plans, and have done all kinds of saber rattling against the people of Iran. So my sense is that they tried to preempt that possibility by eliminating any candidate they thought might create that kind of enthusiasm in voters. Nevertheless, because people are so frustrated with the regime, they have now turned the Rohani candidacy into a cause to back, and the regime is very worried. Rafsanjani has just announced that in their own polling, Rohani will easily win the first round. The regime, I think, is going to make every effort possible not to allow that to happen. We will know in a couple of days how much they are going to risk and how far they are going engineer the results.
Joe: Many people question just how fair Iran's elections really are. To what extent does Iranians hitting the polls on Friday really matter? And is this a predetermined race in your opinion?
Dr. Milani: I think the regime tried to make it a predetermined race, but because of the tensions within the regime, because Ahmadinejad is essentially in rebellion against Khamenei, because there are many people within the IRGC that clearly have their own preference, for instance the leader of the Quds brigade, Qassem Soleimani, recently said he would not support Mr. Jalili, it seems that things are not so easy to predict in that sense.