The next presidential election in Iran is less than six weeks away, but there seems to be much less excitement about this election among observers and policy circles in the US than there was in 2009. For a number of reasons, this election is far less important to the West—particularly to the US.
While the fate of the presidential election in 2009 could have impacted Iran’s behavior domestically and internationally to some extent, this time around few can say with a straight face that the new president will be able to do much, if anything at all. In other words, the 2009 election was the Islamic Republic’s last chance to prove to the world that it was capable of reforming itself from within, and to responsibly curb the powers of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the ever more powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Islamic Republic flunked that test, and that is why the upcoming race will not fundamentally change the nature and the behavior of the Islamic Republic unless something drastic occurs.
Iran’s supreme leader, undoubtedly the most powerful man in the country, is not interested in sharing his power with a president. With the backing of the IRGC, the Basij militia, security forces, the judiciary, state radio and television broadcasting, Friday prayer leaders, and numerous unnamed and unknown religious endowments and organizations with deep coffers, Ayatollah Khamenei is uniquely positioned to maintain his tight hold on power. This power is then shared comfortably with his allies in the IRGC’s military–security–economic complex.
A quick look at past elections and the careers of Iran’s former presidents is a sober reminder that Iranian presidents have always succumbed to the will of the supreme leader, and have lost much political clout after finishing their terms. In almost every case, Iran’s presidents turned into opposition figures either during their terms as presidents or shortly after leaving office.
Iran’s first president, Abolhasan Banisadr, fled Iran during impeachment proceedings. Iran’s second president, Mohammad-Ali Rajaei, was assassinated just months after assuming office. Iran’s third president, who is now the supreme leader, was in constant clashes with his prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi. With Ayatollah Khomeini’s support for Mousavi, it was the then-president Khamenei who suffered political defeats. Iran’s fourth president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, faced stiff resistance from the supreme leader when his economic and social reform agenda began to alienate some of Iran’s hardliners.
Rafsanjani has become something of a godfather to the domestic opposition in Iran, which is led by the fifth president, Mohammad Khatami. In 1997, Khatami was elected president in a landslide, only to realize that his hands were tied and his real powers were almost nonexistent. He is now one of the key leaders of what the regime calls the “sedition,” a term used for the unrest that followed the disputed 2009 election.
Finally, Iran’s sixth president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came to power campaigning as an unknown outsider, but emerged triumphant with the help of the supreme leader and the IRGC. Now, the once-beloved president of the regime is accused of being part of a circle of “deviants,” a term used by Khamenei’s allies to refer to Ahmadinejad’s team and close confidants.
In short, every single president in Iran has had a less than desirable fate—either during or after leaving office. Well–intentioned but ill-fated attempts to reform the system under president Khatami (1997–2005) cast a shadow over the idea that the Islamic Republic and the system run by Khamenei had the ability to reform itself. After eight years of the so-called “reform” era, Khamenei empowered a hardliner, whom he thought would be subordinate to the supreme leader.
Ahmadinejad’s loyalty to Khamenei in his first term bought him the leader’s support in 2009, and the disputed elections results and the suppression of protesters in Iran showed for one last time that the system is unable to reform itself from within. And now, ever since Ahmadinejad tried to take a more independent line, Khamenei and his followers have put enormous pressure on him and his team, including imprisoning some of his close aides, to prevent them from winning in the upcoming elections. The once-hardline president of Iran and beloved follower of Khamenei is now voicing his concerns over “election engineering” by the IRGC and attempts to disqualify candidates close to his administration.
Today, with the Iranian regime under backbreaking global sanctions, its ally in Damascus under siege, and its nuclear program under ever more international scrutiny, the supreme leader is in no position to take risks. Khamenei does not want to worry about the office of the president when his regime has many battles to fight. The supreme leader is not interested in sharing powers with a president, rather he needs a loyal prime minister who can get along with Khamenei’s allies at home and not cause embarrassments abroad.