With back-to-back talks on the Iran nuclear issue coming up -- on March 18-19, at the technical level, in Istanbul and on April 5-6, at the deputy-ministerial level, in Almaty, Kazakhstan -- it would be easy to assume that this issue would be atop the Iranian political agenda. But Iran's leaders are instead preoccupied with the June 2013 presidential elections.
The initial view was that the election would be relatively boring. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was expected to squeeze his own candidate into the presidential chair much as he engineered the 2012 Majlis elections, which yielded Khamenei's desired results through administrative and propaganda tactics. Recent amendments to the election legislation aimed at restricting the field of potential candidates, along with plans to increase the police presence during the election, seemed to fit this scenario.
IT IS NOT TIME TO BE BORED
As it turns out, the next presidential elections in Iran will be anything but boring. The first three months of 2013 clearly demonstrated that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will not be playing by Khamenei's rules. He was supposed to spend the last six months of his second term silently preparing to leave the political scene. Instead, he suddenly demonstrated his intention to back his advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashai to become the next president. Moreover, reports have surfaced that Ahmadinejad dreams of emulating the path of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who returned to the presidency after one term away.
Ahmadinejad has been skillfully playing the political game. He has painted his rivals as corrupt, and he sponsored a program by which Iranians would receive an assistance payment of 800,000 to 1,000,000 rials for the March 21 Nowruz (New Year), equal to $65 to $82 at the favorable official rate of 12,260 rials to the dollar used to determine prices for basic goods in government-regulated outlets. And he proposed raising the cash payments, which he introduced two years ago to replace phased-out subsidies, by 125 percent for the next year.
Another factor making the election more interesting is the disarray in which the camp opposing Ahmadinejad finds itself. This group, the self-proclaimed "principalists," brands its opponents on Ahmadinejad's side "deviationists." The principalists would seem to hold an overwhelming advantage in the election, including through the clear support of the Supreme Leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the overwhelming majority in the Majlis and Guardian Council. Nor is state-run television subtle in its support for the principalists. But Ahmadinejad's foes have been completely unable to unite on a candidate. Even if one excludes obvious outsiders (e.g., Manoucher Motaki, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, and Parviz Fatah), the list of likely candidates from this group is extensive: Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohsen Rezaii, Gholam-Ali Hadad-Adel, Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf, Saeed Jalili, and some others. They are all conservatives who are loyal to the Supreme Leader and whose vision of the political situation aligns with his. None of them could be considered an ideal candidate for the presidency in Khamenei's view, but all of them want to win. Even more important, at the moment, there is no clear front-runner: any of these major names has a relatively equal chance.