TOPICS : Iran election: expectations vs reality

Haleh Vaziri and Bahman Baktiari

Iran’s field of presidential candidates offers the widest-ranging choices on the political spectrum since the revolution of 1978-79 - of course, within the confines of the Guardian Council’s vetting procedures. Even though the Islamic Republic’s clerical leaders jealously guard their theocracy, they also permit semi-competitive elections, seemingly unbothered in the short run by the contradiction between institutions based on assertions of divine sovereignty and mechanisms for popular participation. The eight major candidates in Friday’s race each portray themselves as the answer to Iran’s daunting challenges - from the need for legal and socioeconomic reforms and questions about the Supreme Leader’s prerogatives, to diplomacy and the development of nuclear weapons technology. However, former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s reemergence on the scene has stirred both worries and cautious optimism in Iran and the West. Because of a number of factors, Mr. Rafsanjani appears to be the frontrunner in the polls.

Yet victory for Rafsanjani is not a foregone conclusion; the self-declared reformist Mostafa Moin seems to be gaining ground. At first rejected by the Guardian Council as a presidential contender, he was reinstated after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei intervened to ensure at least the appearance of a balanced election. With a platform emphasising intellectual freedom

and cultural diversity, Moin has earned credibility among the under-30s to almost two-thirds of Iranian society. Indeed, without more significant popular backing, Rafsanjani, who is considered an ideological cham-eleon by enthusiasts and detractors alike, would find it tough to deal with the parliament’s ultraconservative majority. And if past promises are any indication, Rafsanjani cannot easily run on the record of his two-term presidency from 1989 to 1997. After some initial socioeconomic liberalisation, his administration could not trim Iran’s unwieldy bureaucracy nor cut its red tape enough to attract foreign investors. Rafsanjani could not capitalise on either the Bush or Clinton teams’ subtle overtures to restore ties with the US.

Iran and its regional context are far different today from during the 1990s, when the reformist

movement was more influential and the Islamic Republic was not perceived as part of the

“axis of evil.” Conservatives have now recaptured most government power centers. And some in the second Bush administration and Congress have advocated that regime change be applied to the Islamic Republic. So, whoever is elected will have to diffuse the nuclear standoff with Washington and its European allies - the most serious foreign-policy crises for Iran since its 1980-1988 war with Iraq. With international opposition to the Islamic Republic’s quest for nuclear weapons technology intensifying, even a leader of Rafsanjani’s stature and shrewdness may not be able to convince the Iranian citizenry that abandoning this quest is in the country’s long-term interest. —The Christian Science Monitor