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17 May 2013, Gateway House

Iran: Contentious election, uncertain outcomes

The 11th Presidential election of Iran will be held on June 14, 2013. Why will this election be a test for the Islamic Republic’s stability? What are the factors at play that make this election critical; and more importantly, why must India monitor it closely?

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The presidential election in Iran, to be held on 14 June 2013, will significantly impact the country’s internal affairs. It is possible that the outcome will create domestic unrest and affect national stability. The outcome will also have implications for the entire region, and for emerging powers such as India, with economic and political interests in Iran.

The election will be closely watched by the West. Rivalries among Iran’s ruling elite have deepened and speculations are proliferating about the impact of these rivalries on the outcome of the election. The U.S and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, engaged in nuclear negotiations with Iran, are particularly interested in Iran’s future stand about its nuclear programme, and Iran’s influence in West Asia, especially in Syria and Iraq.

But the president of the Islamic Republic has limited constitutional powers, and major policy shifts are unlikely after the elections. In Iran, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not the president, is the commander-in-chief.  The Supreme Leader has the real power to decide on issues of national security and foreign affairs. The two key issues that make Tehran’s strategic decisions significant for the West – Iran’s role in the turbulent West Asia region and its nuclear programme – remain under the direct control of the Supreme Leader. This allocation of power in Iran is not always evident to international observers.

The upcoming election once again highlights the constitutional deficit of all presidential candidates in setting the agenda. On 3 May 2013, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, a senior cleric close to the Supreme Leader, said during the Friday sermon that presidential hopefuls should refrain from talking about the possible normalisation of ties between Iran and the U.S. To those claiming to alter Iran’s U.S. policy if elected, he said, “You are neither competent, nor authorised, to make a decision on the resumption of ties with the United States”; this issue, he said, “lies within the authority of the Supreme Leader and not the president.” [1]

Given this power structure, the election is significant not because of its direct implications for foreign policy, but because it will test the Islamic Republic’s stability at a time of deepening political fragmentation. The conservative factions, which once got together to marginalise the reform movement and the Green Movement, have again developed animosities. For instance, the Supreme Leader, who compromised his legitimacy to ensure the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an allegedly fraudulent poll in 2009 that triggered widespread protests, now considers Ahmadinejad and his affiliates an imminent threat.

The extent of the present rivalries is unprecedented. Three main political camps, each with multiple factions, are ranged against each other for the election.

The traditional principalists claim to most prioritise the principals of the Islamic Revolution.  Saeed Jalili, the strongest representative of this camp and closest to the Supreme Leader, is registered as a candidate. He is Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and the chief nuclear negotiator. Gholam Ali Haddad Adel is also a prominent representative of this camp; he was chairman of the Iranian parliament and is a close relative of the Supreme Leader. The traditional principalist camp has the strongest ties with the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran’s most powerful security and military organisation, and a dominant political force in the country in recent years. This camp resists the West and domestic forces that stray from traditional ideals and the agenda of guarding the principals of Islam.

The second major camp includes various factions of moderate principalists, reformists, and some supporters of the Green Movement. This camp has faced numerous challenges and political eliminations during the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005- 2013). For example, the two leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who ran for the presidential election in 2009, remain under house arrest. Many of their supporters are in prison or in exile.

Former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), a moderate principalist, registered for the presidential race on May 11. Former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), whose office was surrounded by security forces to prevent him from registering, issued a statement asking supporters of the economic and social reform movement he supervised during his presidency, to endorse Rafsanjani’s candidature. As a leader who has spoken about the need to “rescue” the country economically and politically by restoring moderation in the political system, Rafsanjani is likely to be supported by Iran’s middle class.

The third camp includes supporters of the current government of President Ahmadinejad. Its strongest representative for the elections is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahamdinejad’s chief-of-staff and brother-in-law. This camp is likely to be supported by the less-privileged segments of the voting population, the beneficiaries of Ahmadinejad’s policy of cash hand-outs.

The Guardian Council – a body of six legal experts and six clerics – has criticised Ahamdinejad for accompanying Mashaei when he registered as a candidate. Council spokesperson Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei said that such procedural “irregularities” as this public endorsement by Ahamdinejad ought to be reviewed by the Council and reported to the judiciary.

The Council will vet all the candidates, as mandated by the Constitution of Iran. It will review the background of the 680 presidential hopefuls to evaluate their commitment to the ideals of the Islamic Republic. Only after the vetting is completed by May 18, will it be clear which candidates will be permitted to contest.

The Council is close to the Supreme Leader and is likely to okay all the candidates affiliated with the traditional principalists camp. Mashaei will probably not be approved, because the Supreme Leader and his affiliates are determined to eliminate the Ahmadinejad camp from the sphere of power. This may have consequences for the Islamic Republic, because Ahmadinejad, who has vowed to reveal the secrets of the ruling elite if sidelined, is likely to create a new wave of opposition with his supporters, many of them from rebellious border provinces of Iran.

The Guardian Council may also reject Rafsanjani’s registration. However, considering Rafsanjani’s crucial role in the Islamic Republic when it was established in 1979 and over the past three decades, denying him candidacy will cast a shadow on the legitimacy of the current political structure and the Supreme Leader.

The unpredictable outcome of the election, the possibility of unrests by supporters of both Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, and the likelihood of such protests being forcefully repressed by the Supreme Leader and the IRGC, all add to the keen interest in the West and other countries in the elections.

Regardless of the outcome, the election will be a test for Iran’s political stability in the coming years. Iran’s economy is deteriorating under western-led sanctions and miscalculated domestic policies. The Islamic Republic needs some degree of political unity to maintain its key role in West Asia. With the worsening civil war in Syria and deepening sectarian conflicts in Iraq, and with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s primary rival, determined to expand its influence in the region, Iran cannot afford political instability at this time.

After the elections, Iran’s nuclear ambitions will remain a high priority under the supervision of the Supreme Leader. But a somewhat unified and stable Iran – a possibility only if the traditional and moderate principalists, supported by the reformists and others, reach a minimal level of agreement – will allow for more political predictability. In the present fragmented political system, it is difficult for western and other countries to plan nuclear negotiations or economic transactions with Iran.

Azadeh Pourzand is Associate Fellow, Foreign Policy Analysis, Gateway House.

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[1] ‘Hopefuls incompetent to talk about Iran-US ties: Top cleric’. (2013, May 03). Press TV. Retrieved from


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3. Tehran Times (2013, May). Retrieved from

4. Zarrabi-Kashani, H. (2013 , May). Iran election update.Woodrow Wilson Center, Middle East Program, Retrieved from

5. Press TV (2013, May). Retrieved from

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