Inheriting a long to-do list: The price of becoming Iran's president

Bassem Aly , Thursday 13 Jun 2013

Whether he is a reformist or a conservative, Iran's new president will need to formulate a comprehensive vision to deal with a long list of challenges

Iranian presidential candidates (l-r) Saeed Jalili, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohammad Gharazi, Mohammad Reza Aref, Hasan Rowhani and Mohsen Rezaei, pose for a group picture after their TV debate (Photo: AP)

On Friday, almost 50 million Iranian citizens eligible to vote will head to over 66,000 polling stations nationwide as the presidential elections kick off. 

The new president, who will serve a four-year term, will unquestionably have a full agenda, having to deal with dilemmas of growing unemployment, rising inflation rates, and international sanctions imposed on Tehran in response to its controversial nuclear activities.

Ahram Online takes a look at the prospective candidates - five conservatives and one reformist, and explores some of the possible outcomes.

2009 election protests: A bad memory

No one in Iran can forget what happened in 2009.

The Islamic republic saw a presidential election that led to the victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after he beat conservative rival Mirhossein Mousavi.

After Ahmadinejad was announced victorious, supporters of Mousavi took to the streets to protest against the lack of transparency of the electoral process.

State security forces did not stand silent, killing ten protesters and arresting hundreds. According to Reuters, a crackdown was enforced against both foreign and domestic media.

The protests were the largest and most widespread since the Islamic revolution that reshaped the history of the nation in 1979.

"The founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, designed the political system (the Velayat-e Faqih) in a manner that makes the regime virtually coup-proof,” Holly Dagres, a researcher for the AUC Cairo Review of Global Affairs, told Ahram Online.

In those elections, the objections of Mousavi, and two other beaten candidates included shortages of ballot papers, pressure on voters to support a particular candidate and the prevention of representatives of candidates from reaching polling stations.

But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is responsible for the delineation and supervision of Iran's "general policies," urged Iranians to "unite behind" Ahmadinejad.  

Dagres argued that even if anti-government protests take place, regime change is "almost impossible" and dissent can be easily crushed "if necessary".

Candidates: 5 conservatives, 1 reformist 

The conservative former speaker of parliament, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, and reformist ex-vice president of President Mohamad Khatami, Mohamed Reza Aref, withdrew from the race this month.

The reformist Hassan Rowhani, who served as a nuclear negotiator, is apparently enjoying wide support, especially after the failure of the conservative camp to agree on one candidate.

Mohammad Gharazi, another reformist candidate, is running as well, but is less likely to win.   

In fact, the equation is multi-dimensional, as Rowhani arguably faces heavy-weights: Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, ex-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai.

According to a poll by the Mehr news agency, Qalibaf is leading the race with 17.8 percent support from the 10,000 voters canvassed, ahead of Rowhani with 14.6 percent. They were followed by Jalili with 9.8 percent.

The number of undecided voters stands at 30.5 percent -- about 15 million voters -- while 11.3 percent declined to answer.

Rowhani has lately gained the backing of two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose nomination was rejected by the Guardians’ Council, a conservative-dominated vetting body.  

Dina Esfandiary, foreign affairs research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, highlighted the role of the Iranian president within the context of the Iranian political system.

"The new president will be constrained by the Supreme Leader and does not really have a direct say in major policies. But the president can help influence opinions. The president is also in charge of economic policy - an increasingly important role and the main issue of concern for Iranians today," she said.

The rial, Iran's currency, has lost more than two thirds of its values in the last two years, according to the US Department of the Treasury.

A Bloomberg report also stated that inflation in April was 32 percent, and a quarter of all Iranians aged 15 to 29 were unemployed, a severe financial crunch chiefly associated with the US and EU sanctions on the nuclear-ambitious state.

Who's best for the West? 

The relations of Iran with the West, particularly with the US, have deteriorated in recent years over the nuclear activities of Tehran.

Diplomatic talks between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran started in 2008 with no concrete outcome, as Tehran insists on continuing its "peaceful"  programme of nuclear development.

Dagres claimed that Iran is always blamed for the failure of these talks, despite the P5+1 "having its faults as well."

"Numerous good proposals were made, such as the 2005 proposal by the Iranians or the Turkey-Brazil-Iran fuel swap deal, yet some in the West could not budge. Such examples have contributed to the continuation of the current stalemate," she said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that elections will bring no significant change in Tehran's international positions, while the US has put restrictions on certain software and telecommunications entering Tehran in recent weeks.

Arash Karami, a writer on Iranian affairs, said it is hard to know who is the ideal candidate for the West.  

"The two candidates that really appear to have a moderate approach are Reza Aref and Rowhani but they are not necessarily powerful people who can convince Khamenei to take a different approach on foreign policy."

"I think the only person had some backing among the religious classes, Sepah [Iranian Revolutionary Guards] and the merchants, was Rafsanjani; he also had good relations with Shiite clerics in Iraq and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah which could have allowed him to reduce the level of tensions in the region", Karami concluded.  

Short link: