Iran Has a Presidential Selection, Not an Election

It's too early to feel optimistic that the regime will reform itself.

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Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei departs after casting his ballot in the parliamentary election in Tehran on March 2, 2012. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

"Some people may, for whatever reason, not desire to support the regime of the Islamic Republic, but they certainly want to support their country," said Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a June 12 address. In his historic speech, the powerful figure who came to power by undemocratic means in 1989 urged the public to cast its vote for a new Iranian president as a sign of defiance to the West.

"Enthusiastic and hopeful presence of the people [at the ballots] will disappoint the enemy. When the enemy is disappointed, it will lose efficacy," he said. "When the enemy is hopeful, it will increase its pressure, but when the enemy loses its hope, it will pursue a different path..."

Khamenei's remarks are without precedent in the Islamic Republic: He acknowledged for the first time that there is a domestic opposition to his rule. The Supreme Leader also implicitly recognizes that the opposition, contrary to the regime's own propaganda, is composed of Iranian patriots, and not "counterrevolutionaries," "velvet revolutionaries," "lackeys of global arrogance and world imperialism," or "foreign agents." Khamenei's choice of the word "country" too is remarkable: He no longer urges the public to vote as an expression of their commitment to Shia Islam, but he appeals to their sense of Iranian nationalism.

Khamenei's speech reflects the great dilemma he is facing at this year's election. On the one hand, Khamenei desires a high voter turnout since he perceives all elections as the public's renewal of allegiance to himself, and not necessarily the public's endorsement of a specific candidate. On the other hand, he fears repetition of the unrest, which erupted in the wake of the fraudulent June 9, 2009 presidential election. The regime seeks to prevent millions of angry Iranians from pouring onto the streets in protest of his despotic rule and mismanagement of an economy that is groaning under the weight of corruption, mismanagement, and international sanctions.

The regime's formula for the 2013 election is to restrict the public's enthusiasm, but preserve some hope.

Controversial candidates such as former president Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's protégé, were barred from candidacy, and what remained was a choice between regime loyalists. Following the withdrawal of regime loyalists Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel and Mohammad-Reza Aref from the campaign, Iranian voters can now choose between Hojjat al-Eslam Hassan Rouhani, the sole clerical candidate, Ali-Akbar Velayati, a pediatrician and longest-serving foreign minister of the Islamic Republic, and four former officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) - Mohsen Rezaei, Saeed Jalili, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, and Mohammad Gharazi.

While similarities between the candidates have dampened public enthusiasm, the choices are a deliberate gambit to buttress the regime. The competition between Qalibaf and Jalili is designed to mobilize regime supporters, while Rouhani's candidacy is meant to offer the opposition a faint hope of the government's ability to reform itself.

In another attempt at controlling the campaign, the regime avoided a replay of the confrontational presidential debates of 2009, replacing them with controlled exchanges of viewpoints between the candidates.

At the first televised debate, the difference between the candidates was symbolic: Qalibaf portrayed himself as a modern IRGC officer by bringing his i-Pad into the studio. Jalili's language projected traditional piety. Rouhani wielded the temperate rhetoric of former president Mohammad Khatami. Rezaei and Aref, meanwhile, were the sole candidates who talked about the economy, which is the most important, if not the only, issue for most voters.

The second debate, which revolved around cultural issues, proved even less eventful than the first. However, some real differences surfaced at the third and final debate. Most of the candidates attacked Jalili, who is also Iran's nuclear negotiator, of having unnecessarily provoked Western sanctions against Iran. Deflecting those attacks, Jalili accused Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, of having sold out Iran's national interests by suspending uranium enrichment during the Khatami presidency.

While the candidates have been free to voice their concerns about Iran's nuclear program and the sanctions it has evoked, such dissent will not trickle down to the street. Not if the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and their Basij paramilitary force have anything to say about it. The IRGC and Basij were responsible for crushing the 2009 demonstrations, and they are now making their presence known in the streets of the major cities, sending a clear message that a reprise will not be tolerated.

Khamenei's strategy appears to be resonating among the foreign policy cognoscenti. These professional optimists -- who for the most part can be found outside of Iran -- preach the gospel of the regime's ability to reform itself. They remind us that Qalibaf's i-Pad is a sign of Iran's modernization, if not moderation. And in the unlikely event that Rouhani should win the election, they say he will usher in a new era of economic liberalization, political opening, nuclear compromise, and a dialogue among civilizations.

Should Jalili win, these optimists will say that it took Nixon to go to China, and that only a hardline revolutionary who enjoys Khamenei's full trust can make a nuclear deal.

But Iranian voters know better. The election may indicate changes in the interfactional balance of power within the regime, and a victory by Rouhani or Qalibaf may temper the tone of the regime's nuclear intransigence, but there will be no change in substance. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, election in reality means selection. Khamenei will remain in charge.