Just a few weeks ago, Iran's presidential contest was a snooze, if not an outright farce: It appeared almost certain that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would easily return to the presidency he held from 1989 to 1997. But suddenly, Iran watchers say we could be in for a shock outcome.
Voters go to the polls today to choose a successor to Mohammed Khatami, the reformist who once charmed Iranians and foreigners alike with a teddy-bear smile and promises of far-reaching political reforms. Khatami's administration is now almost universally dismissed as a failure. In the eight-year standoff between the president and the country's self-appointed theocrats—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his guardian council—the theocrats have won. Basic civil liberties remain elusive, and dissidents such as Akbar Ganji (a journalist who linked Rafsanjani to a series of political murders in 1998) are languishing in prison. The hard-liners' counterstrike culminated in conservative domination of last year's parliamentary elections, after most reformist candidates were barred due to insufficient enthusiasm for the Islamic revolution.
The favorite to replace Khatami is Rafsanjani, the man who preceded him. One of the best-known figures in Iranian politics, the 70-year-old cleric is a pragmatic conservative favoring détente with the United States. His popularity lies largely in the fact that he is a known quantity: Despite a checkered past, many voters view his experience and his Machiavellian skill at navigating the country's Byzantine political system as the only way out of the political stalemate and economic malaise associated with the Khatami years. Many say he will temper the hard-line conservatism of the mullahs, an area where Khatami failed miserably.
But the race may yet turn into a nail-biter if, as seems likely, it goes to a second round. Under election rules, if the top candidate fails to garner 50 percent of the votes cast, the election goes to a runoff between the first- and second-place finishers. In the 26-year history of the Islamic republic, this has never happened. Iran's wildly unreliable polls all show Rafsanjani leading, but well shy of 50 percent.
The slot to watch, therefore, is second place, and the man to watch is Mostafa Moin, a former Khatami Cabinet minister and the leading reformist candidate. It's remarkable that Moin is in the race at all: The guardian council, which vets all potential presidential candidates, originally rejected Moin's application, but supreme leader Khamenei overruled the council, reinstating Moin (along with another reformer) late last month.
Khamenei's move was a bold one. Pundits say the ayatollah is eager to shame the United States, which has called the elections a sham, with high voter turnout. But participation is expected to pale in comparison with previous presidential elections. In the 1997 changing of the guard, Khatami swept to power with over 70 percent of Iranians voting. With the West skeptical of Iran's democratic claims, and nuclear negotiations with Europe dragging on, Khamenei appears anxious to avoid an election marred by major protests.
If U.S. pressure has pushed Iran's leaders to make the election even slightly more free, it's a small victory for supporters of democracy. Moreover, there is increasing evidence that Khamenei's gamble could yet backfire. Moin supporters are hopeful that if their candidate comes in a close second today, Iranians who boycotted the first round will reconsider their stance, giving him the votes to beat Rafsanjani in the runoff, set for either June 24 or July 1. Such an upset would provide a jolt to the languishing reform movement and a dramatic finish to what looked like an easy win for the establishment.
A recent poll put Moin ahead of the only other serious contender for second place, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former police chief running on a law-and-order platform. Toronto-based Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, aka Hoder, who has returned to Iran to cover the election, says the race "is closer than anybody thinks. Don't be surprised if Moin becomes the front-runner."
While providing an element of drama, all this does little to answer the million-rial question: Would a Moin presidency be any different than Khatami's? There is little reason to think so, especially given Moin's dubious praise for Khatami's "brilliant record" in foreign policy. Like Rafsanjani, he favors renewed ties with the United States, calling the American question "the most important and crucial part of our foreign policy." How he plans to achieve that, since he'd be at loggerheads with the conservative establishment, is unclear. On the other hand, Moin's record suggests he has a bit more backbone than Khatami. He resigned from Khatami's Cabinet twice, once over the 1999 crackdown on student protests and again in 2003 over laws he said stifled scientific development. Still, no matter who is president, without a change in the constitution, reformers can expect little to change with regard to civil rights, the nuclear standoff, or the virtually unfettered power of Iran's geriatric theocracy.
Ironically, eight years of presidential power have left Iran's democracy and civil rights movement in disarray, with a split between those still willing to work within the system and rejectionists calling for peaceful civil disobedience and a new constitution. Even so, the prospect of a close runoff election—even one in which Moin loses—could be the start of renewal for the movement. Just as it has never had a close presidential election, the Islamic republic has never had a well-organized opposition. A high turnout for Moin could see the fragmented movement turning into "a viable alternative—hard to push back at worst, and turning into a shadow government at best," says Amir Katouzian, a broadcaster for Prague-based U.S.-funded Iranian-language Radio Farda. A low turnout for Moin, on the other hand, would likely strengthen the hand of the rejectionists within the reform movement; it might even give rise to those less willing to use exclusively nonviolent means to achieve their goals, says Katouzian.
If change is going to come peacefully—or at all—a strong dissident figurehead could be what is most needed. Whether Moin is a man of that quality, or whether he will disappoint in the style of Khatami, is perhaps the greatest of many unanswered questions.