The Next Iranian Elections

With parliamentary and presidential elections slated for the next two years, political posturing in the Islamic Republic provides insight into potential power shifts in Tehran.

While U. S. elections generate national interest significantly before the election date, Iranian elections historically do not. The candidates declare their candidacy a few months before the election as required by the Guardian Council for the vetting of candidates. But this time around seems to be different. Ordinary Iranians are disappointed with the government's economic performance; they have not seen the changes and benefits promised by President Ahmadinejad. The tangible indication that people want change from the Ahmadinejad era is that there is earlier jockeying and preparation for the parliamentary elections of 2008 and the presidential elections of 2009.

Parties are looking into attracting parliamentary candidates and the names of presidential candidates are being bandied about. The reformists, headed by Mr. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohamed Khatami, want to increase the chances of electing a reformist president by enhancing their own control of parliament. The Baran Foundation, founded by Khatami, is an important organ in this endeavor. There is even talk of various options for changing the time of one or both elections in order to have both presidential and parliamentary elections at the same time from here on. But as always, the number one attraction remains the names of possible presidential candidates.

The Ahmadinejad Fallout

Ironically, and primarily because of, Ahmadinejad's perceived failure to deliver on his economic promises and secondarily because of the international stands he has taken-such as with Hugo Chavez and with regard to the Holocaust-Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani is without a doubt the most popular politician in Iran currently. His reputed wealth is not even mentioned today. His trouncing in the presidential polls appears a thing of the past. His outstanding popularity in the recent elections for the Assembly of Experts is yet another feather in his cap. Yet Mr. Hashemi appears to have decided not to seek another presidential term. He is happy to be the power behind the scenes and wait to be named Supreme Leader if Mr. Khameini's health should decline. He clearly does not want to do anything that would jeopardize his potential to become the next Supreme Leader.

Mr. Khatami seems to have joined Mr. Hashemi in not seeking another presidential term. In fact, this appears to be a joint decision of the two men. They want to take a page from the U.S. practice of former presidents becoming senior statesmen while supporting their own party's political agendas. Mr. Ahmadinejad's failure in office may even have been a catalyst for the formation of real parties supporting a platform in Iran, as opposed to parties supporting the personal ambitions of one man.

The Likely Candidates

The leading candidates from the conservative camp are Ali Akbar Velayati, President Ahmadinejad, and Ali Larijani, followed by Mohammad Nahavandian. Velayati, a medical doctor and former foreign minister for many years under the regime of Hashemi Rafsanjani, is the confidant of the Supreme Leader on foreign affairs. Besides being the Supreme Leader's confidant, he is personally close to him and has the support of a number of conservative groups in Iran, including intellectual conservatives and various clerics. He is seen as all but a declared candidate barring an unforeseen catastrophe. Larijani was a presidential candidate in 2005. He received a PhD in Western philosophy from Tehran University. He comes from a family of clerics and is a confidant of the Supreme Leader. He is a darling of the hardliners and is currently Iran's National Security Advisor (Secretary General of Iran's Supreme National Security Council) and chief nuclear negotiator. Nahavandian is a George Washington University-trained economist and is Deputy National Security Advisor and Head of the Tehran Chamber of Commerce.

The leading candidate from the reformist camp is Mohammad Ali Najafi, an MIT-trained mathematician and former Minister of Education in the Rafsanjani government and Minister of Planning in the Khatami government. The other candidate who is mentioned is Mohammad Reza Aref, a Stanford-trained scientist and former first vice president under President Khatami. It is likely that Mr. Hashemi and Mr. Khatami will together pick one candidate to represent the reformist movement and give him their total political and financial backing. Their fundraising campaign may be already under way for the elections.

The most talked about candidate, however, is Mohamed Bagher Qalibaf, the current Mayor of Tehran. While he would have been classified as a conservative before, he is now seen as the centrist candidate. Qalibaf's faction did well in the last elections for Tehran's City Council, and he is positioning himself to be the pragmatic candidate who can deliver tangible economic benefits to all Iranians.

The Ahmadinejad-U.S. Factor

How will it all play out over the next two years? It depends on President Ahmadinejad and what the U.S. does or does not do. On the one hand, if Ahmadinejad's economic promises continue to be pies in the sky or if he makes Iran look foolish on the international scene, then the conservatives will have little chance in either the parliamentary or presidential elections. A presidential recall or moving the presidential elections forward to coincide with next year's parliamentary elections is also not out of the question. On the other hand, if the U.S. takes hostile action against Iran, then the conservatives will prevail in the elections.   

Hossein Askari is Iran Professor of International Business and International Affairs at George Washington University.