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13 June 2013, Gateway House

Why the world should take the Iran elections seriously

The 11th presidential election of Iran is unlikely to be fully democratic or transparent, but the winner will decide the nature of Tehran’s engagement with the West over its nuclear programme. The outcome of this election will also have a bearing on the crises in Syria and Iraq, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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In Iran’s eleventh presidential election on June 14, if no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, a second round will be held on June 21 between the two candidates with the highest number of votes. The next president will take over from Iran’s controversial incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on 3 August 2013.

Eight candidates were in the race, but two withdrew. So the race is between  these six: Saeed Jalili, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, a hardliner; Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and current advisor to the Supreme Leader, a conservative; Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guards Commander and the current mayor of Tehran, a hardliner; Mohsen Rezaei, a former supreme commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and current secretary of the Expediency Council, a moderate conservative; Mohammad Gharazi, a former minister and governor of Khuzestan during the Iran-Iraq war, a hardliner and an independent candidate; and Hassan Rohani, former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, a moderate-centrist.

Rohani is the only cleric among the candidates. With the exception of Velayati, who was foreign minister for 16 years, most of it during the war, all other candidates fought in the war and three of them held high positions in the Revolution Guards Corps. In fact, Jalili lost a leg in the war and has an artificial leg.

In 2009, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was running for a second term against the reformist candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi-Karroubi, the world’s attention was focused on Iran. Hundreds of foreign journalists rushed to Tehran and the Iranian election probably got more attention than any other election except the previous U.S. election that resulted in the victory of President Barack Obama.

The media coverage was a sign of Iran’s importance in regional and world affairs, and the desire of both Iranians and many people across the world for the victory of more moderate candidates and the end of Ahmadinejad’s divisive and populist rule.

The result of that election, when Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, was controversial. While millions of supporters of the reformist Green Movement poured into the streets demanding “where is my vote”, the conservatives argued that it had been a failed attempt at a “velvet revolution”, supported by the West.

The unprecedented demonstrations posed the greatest challenge to the Islamic Republic since the revolution in 1978-79, and some have argued that they also became a model for subsequent demonstrations in a number of Arab countries that gave rise to the so-called Arab Spring. The protests were brutally suppressed, resulting in a number of deaths and injuries, and thousands of arrests. The two leaders of the Green Movement have been under house arrest ever since. With the suppression of the Green Movement, many in the West came to the erroneous conclusion that the reformist movement had dissipated.

As the result of the experiences of four years ago, there has been much less interest both at home and abroad in the current election. Many western analysts have dismissed the election, arguing that it will result in the victory of a right-wing candidate handpicked by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

However, the election campaigns during the past few weeks have proved those assumptions wrong. The boisterous campaign rallies of 2009 may be missing, but three live television debates with heated exchanges between the candidates have galvanised the public and offered a rare glimpse into the profound differences among the leading figures in the Iranian government. Consequently, the outcome of the election is wide open and the reformists, or at least the centrists, have a good chance of victory.

The world should also take these elections seriously, because Iran is still a pivotal state in the Middle East and its conflict with the West over its nuclear programme could either drag the world into another disastrous war, or, if managed wisely by a reformist government and by the West, it could usher in a new era in Iran’s relations with the outside world. It could even have a major bearing on the current crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in Syria and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Even Iranians who live abroad, and who are opposed to the Islamic Republic, should take the election seriously, because although the elections are not fully democratic and transparent, Iran’s fate will be – or should be – decided at home, and not through foreign intervention. Whether the next Iranian president is another reformist like former President Mohammad Khatami or a hardliner such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will make a big difference in the domestic and foreign policies of Iran.

This is an excerpt of a larger article, which can be read, here.

Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan and a former Fulbright Senior Research Scholar at Harvard. 

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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