Iran elections: there's room for surprise, but the system will win out

As Iranians vote on Friday they are faced with a choice of six potential presidents, two having dropped out of the running in the final few days. One of these was the last overtly reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, who withdrew in favour of a moderate, Hassan Rouhani. But the election campaign has not caught fire in the way it did in 2009, when the Green movement arose and seemed for a time to be on the point of transforming the Islamic Republic. That is no accident.

Televised debates last week revolved around the economy and the nuclear question. With unemployment at more than 20%, inflation well over 40%, Iran defying the US and its allies over the nuclear question and suffering sanctions that amount to an economic blockade, these debates could have been fierce. They did produce rare criticism of the regime's negotiating stance in the nuclear talks (by the former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who attacked the regime's favoured candidate, the nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili). But they did not capture the popular imagination, and were ridiculed by some Iranians for the awkwardness of their format (at one point, for example, a moderator flashed up random images on a screen and asked the candidates to say what thoughts they prompted).

Despite the formidable constraints, Iranian politics has an exuberant, irrepressible quality and, in the past, presidential elections have produced surprises. The election of President Khatami in 1997; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005; and the huge demonstrations of 2009 against Ahmadinejad's re-election – all of these were wholly unexpected. For Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the circle of advisers around him, the dilemma of 2013 has been how to avoid such surprises and ensure a safe result – one that upholds the stability of the system, or nezam in Persian – while retaining enough public interest to generate a healthy turnout that can be presented as a popular endorsement of the system. This dilemma reflects the still unresolved tension in the constitution of the Islamic Republic between the principle of paternalistic clerical supervision (crystallised in the person of Khamenei, Khomeini's successor), and that of popular participation in government through elections. Islamic, or republic?

Khamenei and his circle will always choose to err on the side of caution and control, avoiding the risk that goes with free popular participation. The prime means by which elections are manipulated by the leadership in Iran is through the vetting of candidates. Hundreds – sometimes thousands – are excluded by the guardian council at every election.

The exclusions from the presidential candidate list were significant. Ahmadinejad himself could not run for office this time because the constitution (as in the US) does not allow a president to stand for a third consecutive term. The exclusion of his political ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei sealed, for now, Ahmadinejad's return to obscurity.

The other big name to be locked out was the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In the 80s and early 90s Rafsanjani was one of the most powerful men in the country, if not the most powerful, and he still holds important offices. His exclusion showed again that power in Iran has been concentrated in the hands of a narrow group of hardline conservatives. Rafsanjani was blocked because, when the system had its wobbly moment after the 2009 elections, he criticised the conduct of the poll, siding with the Green movement. Everyone has to behave themselves to stay inside the tent. In Ayatollah Khomeini's time the tent was quite large: the founder of the Islamic Republic took trouble to keep a variety of views and opinions in balance. Under Khamenei, the tent has got smaller, and more and more people have found themselves outside it.

Beyond the exclusions, the reformists have suffered from a lack of leadership. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, their candidates in 2009, are still under house arrest. Many Green-inclined journalists and others have left the country since 2009. Some are still in prison, and there have been more pre-emptive arrests recently. Rafsanjani has been encouraging moderates and reformists to vote for Rouhani, his close associate. Because there are still six candidates running this time (in 2009 there were only four) it is likely that no one will get a clear majority, in which case voting will go to a second round, where the two leading candidates will run off against each other.

Some room for surprises still remains, but as things stand it is hard to see how the system will not win. There is an impression, reinforced by the attacks on his handling of negotiations with the west in the televised debate, that Jalili has not run a good campaign. Velayati has appeared statesmanlike and would have Khamenei's full confidence in future nuclear negotiations, but may struggle to get the popular vote. Rouhani may do better in the election, but can Khamenei trust a Rafsanjani protege? The ruling group may get away with it this time, but they cannot assume they will be able to sustain power in conditions of continued sanctions-induced economic meltdown.

One thing is certain: whichever candidate wins, pinned between the demands of the supreme leader, an increasingly desperate electorate and hostile foreign powers, his job will be no easy one.

Michael Axworthy is the author of Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic.

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