Iran's 2013 Presidential Election

Its Meaning and Implications

by Alireza Nader

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Research Questions

  1. What are the competing factions in the election?
  2. Who are the candidates?
  3. What are the possible outcome scenarios?
  4. What are the implications for the United States?

Abstract

Iran's June 14, 2013, election will take place in the shadow of the turbulent 2009 presidential election, after which Iran witnessed the largest protests since the 1979 revolution. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, keen to prevent a replay of 2009, are attempting to "engineer" the election in order ensure a loyal president. Khamenei has marginalized the reformists and suppressed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his preferred candidate, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Other prominent candidates, such as Ali Akbar Velayati, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, are closely aligned with Khamenei. The postelection period in Iran may result in a period of reduced tensions with the international community (if there is an orderly and undisputed election), especially since the provocative Ahmadinejad will no longer be president. But any change in Iran's nuclear position will be decided by Khamenei — who theoretically could use the new government as a cover for possible concessions, although it is more likely his monopolization of power and the election of a loyal president will make Iran even less flexible on the nuclear issue, particularly if Tehran views diplomatic negotiations as not providing a face-saving way out of the nuclear crisis. The author seeks to examine the meaning and implications of the 2013 presidential election — specifically, Khamenei's objectives, the regime's electoral strategy, the competing factions and personalities, and the potential implications for the United States, especially concerning Iran's nuclear program.

Key Findings

Khamenei Wants to Keep the Status Quo

  • Ayatollah Khamenei is concerned with the election's legitimacy, but his goal above all else is to ensure a stable election that produces a president loyal to him personally.
  • The only serious potential challenge to Khamenei, Rafsanjani, has been removed from the field of candidates, and this could help Khamenei further consolidate his power.
  • One of the pro-Khamenei candidates may have the best chance of winning.
  • The reformists will not have a major role in the elections for the first time since the 1979 revolution. However, two reformist-leaning candidates, Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Reza Aref, may still have a small chance of winning.

Likely Outcomes of the Election

  • The election could theoretically lead to a limited reduction of tensions between Iran and the international community. It could also facilitate more productive negotiations between Iran and outside nations. On the other hand, Khamenei's monopolization of power will likely decrease Iran's flexibility on the nuclear program, especially if he believes compromise will jeopardize the regime's survival more than increased sanctions. Any change in Iran's nuclear position will be driven by Khamenei.
  • No matter who is elected president, the Islamic Republic is likely to continue its evolution into an authoritarian political system dominated by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards.
  • The vote of the Iranian population will be largely irrelevant, as the election is a jockeying for power among competing factions rather than an expression of popular will.

This research was supported through philanthropic contributions and conducted within the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy (CMEPP), part of International Programs at the RAND Corporation.

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