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The Least Bad Option

4 minute read
Hooman Majd

The Iranian presidential election, scheduled for June 14, is increasingly being viewed by outside observers as a choice between one fairly colorless candidate entirely subordinate to the Supreme Leader, and one or two other fairly colorless candidates, slightly less hard-line, but also completely subordinate to the wishes of the Supreme Leader. Why pay attention to such an election at all, and what does it matter who wins?

We know one thing for certain about contemporary Iranian politics: there is only one man in the Islamic Republic whose decisions matter when it comes to what most concerns the West, namely Iran’s nuclear program. That man is Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader to whom all the current crop of presidential candidates are loyal.

(MORE: Iran’s Supreme Leader Tightens Grip After Disqualifying Two Top Presidential Candidates)

But despite Khamenei’s almost total political control over his country, this election is arguably Iran’s most important since the revolution in 1979 that established clerical rule. Because even though a Khamenei-controlled body has already disqualified the candidates most likely to attempt real change in Iran, voters will nevertheless be asked to make a relatively clear-cut choice: to elect a hard-liner like the current nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, who represents Iran’s military-industrial system (essentially, the powerful Revolutionary Guards and their business interests), which is entirely resistant to any kind of change, or one of the slightly more reform-minded candidates, either former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani or Mohammad Reza Aref, a former Vice President.

These two men would likely keep the concept of an Islamic democracy alive, with the promise of gradual and piecemeal reforms. Jalili would not, and a win for him would be the final nail in the coffin of reform in Iran. A win for a hard-liner would also spell another four years of guaranteed confrontation with the West over Iran’s nuclear program. This is, then, a democratic process that involves choosing between two forms of authoritarianism when many voters, ideally, want neither.

Aref’s and Rouhani’s slightly more malleable form of authoritarianism appears at least to allow for a degree of hope. Aref, for example, has dared to publicly mention the names of two much more reformist candidates in the previous election, in 2009. In the aftermath of the protest movement that grew out of the contested election results in 2009 — reformists claimed the authorities essentially fixed the election in favor of the hard-line incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — these men, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have remained under house arrest. Naming them in public is as close to sticking one’s neck out as a candidate can get right now in Iranian politics. And Rouhani has mentioned civil rights and the two imprisoned candidates.

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It’s impossible to say yet if the urban middle class — who, to their subsequent regret, largely sat out the 2005 elections that brought Ahmadinejad to power and who turned out in record numbers to vote for Mousavi in 2009 — will believe their votes will count this time and rally in large numbers behind Rouhani or Aref. But if they don’t bother to vote, a hard-liner like Jalili could emerge victorious. He represents, as Ahmadinejad did, a “resistance” polity, whose leading figures hold that there’s nothing wrong with Iran that an absolute defiance of the outside world won’t cure.

A win for a reform-minded candidate, on the other hand, could ease relations between Iran and the West. Rouhani has said a number of times — on Twitter, no less — that rhetoric is not diplomacy, and that “Serious #negotiations is not abt us presenting our position & they presenting theirs and then meeting again later,” a dig at the lack of diplomacy on the part of the Ahmadinejad administration.

The biggest choice in this election, however, will not ultimately be made by the Iranian people. Even if voters do turn out in large numbers to vote for Rouhani, or Aref, Khamenei is certainly powerful enough to either prevent a win, or to tolerate a mildly reformist presidency. It remains to be seen if the Supreme Leader’s heart aches as much for his own people, who seem hungry for change, as it does for the increasingly distant revolution that transformed his country.

Majd is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

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