The race to replace Iran’s deeply polarizing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, officially opened last week with the registration of prospective candidates, and already the campaign promises to be an utterly fascinating ride through the unpredictable politics of the Islamic Republic. The shock and awe surrounding the last-minute decision by Iran’s iconic former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to throw his hat into yet another race has only been topped for drama by the latest antics of the current incumbent, aimed apparently at elevating a controversial protégé to succeed him. At least at the outset, these sensational developments have overshadowed the emerging shape of the real race among an array of regime functionaries, most notably nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
With 686 would-be candidates and an array of insidious regime mechanisms for influencing the outcome, it is literally impossible to predict today who the ultimate contenders will be, much less who will win the race. However, what is clear is that Iran’s presidential election represents the opening salvo in another historic turning point in the volatile evolution of the revolutionary theocracy.
The application period is a deliberately chaotic process, designed to justify the pretense behind the clerical vetting process and bolster the credibility of the nominees who are ultimately tapped by Iran’s Guardians’ Council, a 12-member unelected clerical oversight body. There is also a keen dimension of political theater, as the prospective candidates seek to gauge their relative prospects and the leadership endeavors to maintain an uneasy balance between galvanizing popular interest in the campaign and inciting the kind of electoral exuberance that has generated instability in the past. Over the course of the next 10 days, the field will be narrowed from several hundred to a mere handful who are assessed to meet the constitutional standards for the office.
This time around, the chaos has been intensified by the lingering memories of the upheaval that ensued in 2009, when an implausibly rapid vote-count and wide margin in favor of Ahmadinejad’s reelection instigated the largest and most sustained protests in Iran’s post-revolutionary history. The ensuing crackdown left Iran’s burgeoning reform movement estranged, imprisoned or scurrying into exile. Predictably, however, no sooner had the conservative wing of the Iranian political spectrum achieved uncontested dominance than deep fissures emerged within them. For the past two years, frictions among Iranian hard-liners have been directed, full bore, at Ahmadinejad himself, which greatly heightens the significance of the current contest to succeed him.
Cue Ahmadinejad’s first electoral adversary, Rafsanjani, whose entrance has sparked an intense debate about his motivations as well as about the competition to come. In a prospective field comprised largely of second-tier Iranian political figures, mostly former ministers and parliamentarians, he is vastly better known and boasts a political machinery that spans factions and decades. For many within Iran’s dispirited reformist and opposition ranks, the former president offers their best hope of political redemption and national salvation, a hint of their own marginalization given their past differences with him. Rafsanjani’s reputation for pragmatism is well-earned; he was tasked by Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution’s founder, with ending the futile war with Iraq and later endeavored against stiff opposition to rehabilitate the country and reform its economy. He has carefully navigated fidelity to the system while critiquing both Ahmadinejad and the 2009 election, and his return to the presidency would likely revive now-dormant diplomatic fantasies in Europe and perhaps even Washington.
However, the former president faces powerful impediments that had persuaded many observers that his recent hints about the race were just a tease. Mostly notable is his age – almost 79 – which raises questions of capacity but also may undermine his appeal in a country with a disproportionately young population. More problematic is the unfortunate reality that he appears to have a more effusive constituency in the Western media than in Iran. Among the Iranian establishment, Rafsanjani is widely perceived as wildly corrupt and ideologically untrustworthy, and the population at large rejected his bid for a parliamentary seat in 2000 and favored Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential run-off. Now his unexpected entrance has incited a firestorm among the most doctrinaire of the hardliners, who have accused him of conspiring to delegitimize the system by daring the clerical supervisors to reject his candidacy.
Whatever happens, though, the calculations of the politician nicknamed “The Shark” (a reference to his lack of facial hair as well as his wily political skills) have already upended a race expected to rely on a motley array of second-tier Iranian political figures. His close ally, former nuclear negotiator Hassan Ruhani, had previously pledged to quit if Rafsanjani ran; Ruhani is a sharp-elbowed politician who has been an early and consistent critic of Ahmadinejad’s nuclear diplomacy and economic policy. So far that withdrawal has not come, despite much Twitter speculation to the contrary, and other similar pacts among conservative contenders also appear to be fraying under the weight of a suddenly reconfigured competition.
The Rafsanjani wild card is only one novelty in a race replete with interest. The other aspirant whose registration on Saturday has electrified Iranian poll watchers is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Mashaei, a close advisor to Ahmadinejad, has long been the focus of fierce clerical ire as a result of his eclectic religious and political views. He was forced out of a vice presidential slot in 2009 and is routinely scorned as the mastermind of a “deviant current” that has infiltrated the Islamic Republic in an effort to undermine it. Mashaei’s ambitions have been telegraphed over many months through increasingly unsubtle efforts of Ahmadinejad to stack the deck in his favor, culminating in the tandem appearance at Mashaei’s registration. That move prompted a legal complaint against the president – either a quaint nod at legalism in a patently manipulated electoral framework or the first step in a process of silencing the unpredictable Ahmadinejad via intimidation or imprisonment.
The calculations of Rafsanjani, Mashaei and Ahmadinejad are compelling in their own right, and they will no doubt influence Iran’s future. However, the drama associated with them has diverted attention from the likely electoral landscape, which features a less thrilling but still significant roster of contenders. For several months, some speculation has centered on former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, a pediatrician by original training whose entire 32-year political career is the product of patronage by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Others have long fixated on Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guards commander who has assiduously restyled himself as a moderate, modernist problem-solver. Another dark horse to watch closely Gholamali Haddad Adel, a parliamentary leader and literature professor whose daughter is married to Khamenei’s powerful son Mojtaba.
The real heavyweight in the pack, however, is Jalili, who was virtually unknown beyond a small circle of the Iranian leadership until his appointment as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council in 2009. In leading the contentious negotiations with the international community over Iran’s nuclear program, he has personified Iran’s quixotic mix of defiance with occasional bursts of pragmatism. One of his early forays in the high-stakes talks featured a discursive lecture on the Prophet Mohammad’s diplomacy, the subject of his doctoral dissertation. But Jalili was also responsible for signing onto a Western confidence-building step in 2009 that was quickly disavowed by Tehran. He survived the ensuing outcry among conservatives unscathed, a testament to his primary patron, Khamenei, whose office he directed for four years. Of all the would-be aspirants for the presidency in this round, Jalili appears to benefit from an air of ordination, and already talk has emerged among other conservatives of withdrawing in order to bolster his competitiveness.
Setting aside the personality politics, the most astonishing, and important, dimension of the campaign is simply that we care at all. Four years ago, many observers – including myself – argued the blatant orchestration of Ahmadinejad’s reelection had all but extinguished the relevance of the electoral dimension of Iran’s convoluted governing system. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many academics forecast that Iran was descending into a military dictatorship. Today, many of these predictions appear off the mark, as external analysts and politicians all too often find when interpreting Iran.
Let’s be clear – the 2013 ballot will be rigged to a greater or lesser extent depending on how the campaign evolves, and the winner will undoubtedly benefit from unabashed assistance from the institutions, including the Guard. However, as the initial maneuvers of the 2013 presidential race underscores, politics in Iran remain competitive, unpredictable, and captivating.
Suzanne Maloney is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and the author of Iran’s Long Reach: Iran as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World. This piece originally appeared on the Brookings Institution’s Up Front Blog.