This is the busy season for Iran’s censors. Internet sites have been blocked and Facebook pages shut down; newspaper editors say they have received threatening phone calls from government offices; social activists have found anonymous notes on their doorsteps, and candidates in Friday’s presidential election have been warned against "inappropriate statements."
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Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of the Iranian army, even went so far as to announce that the regime would settle accounts with any candidate who criticized the army or the regime during the campaign. He didn’t say explicitly whom he was referring to, but there’s no doubt his target was Hassan Rowhani, the only candidate the reformists have left, who described Iran as "a country stuck in winter."
Despite these supervisory efforts, however, the six remaining candidates (after Mohammad Reza Aref, the other reformist candidate, bowed out to bolster Rowhani’s chances, and Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, an in-law of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, withdrew for "personal reasons") haven’t hesitated to utter public criticism – of each other and, especially, of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The short time between the Guardian Council’s approval of the candidates and the election is the "hunting season," in which it’s permissible to sharpen knives as long as they aren’t pointed at the supreme leader, the army or religious institutions. This is also the brief season in which bizarre opinion polls, commissioned and carried out by parties never specified, show another candidate in the lead every day. A week ago, it was Saeed Jalili, secretary of the National Security Council; this week, Rowhani has an edge, and two weeks ago, the front-runner was Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran.
"Why is it permissible to criticize only during the campaign?" wondered Iranian publicist Emad Afrough on the website of the Young Journalist Club, a semiofficial Iranian news agency. "Has the state collapsed from this criticism?"
"People should exploit this opportunity, because immediately after the election, they’ll shut our mouths again," he added.
But the most important and influential "poll" of all is the one in which the supreme leader surveys himself. The 74-year-old Khamenei, with great political wisdom, hasn’t yet even hinted which candidate he prefers.
This is because Khamenei fears his support for a given candidate might actually undermine his favorite, especially after he threw all his weight behind Ahmadinejad in the last two elections and thereby saddled the country with a president who brought economic and diplomatic disaster down upon it. Khamenei’s popularity is not at its peak, and even though he isn’t running in any election, an electoral victory for someone he doesn’t support would be a resounding slap in the face of his authority.
For now, he can afford to wait, because the assessment he was given by experts from the Revolutionary Guard is that a run-off is likely, as conservative votes will be split among too many different candidates for any to cross the 50-percent threshold in the first round. If this is true, Khamenei can announce his preferred candidate in the second round and also mobilize all his forces, from the Revolutionary Guard to the Basij militias to leading clerics, to ensure that candidate’s victory.
This may be the most important presidential election Iran has ever held. Its main importance lies not in who is elected, but in whether the balloting acts as a springboard for change in Iran’s foreign policy. It’s true that in the last election, too, foreign policy – or to be more precise, Iran’s nuclear policy – was a major issue. But it seems that this time, the close link between Iran’s economic situation and its nuclear policy has put the regime under a dual threat: A military strike is still possible, and meanwhile, economic suffocation is bringing the country to the brink of bankruptcy.
Iran has so far succeeded in staving off the military threat thanks to the election, which caused the United States (and therefore also Israel) to give Iranian politics a chance to change its foreign policy. The American assessment is that the rift that emerged between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei caused the latter to take a more aggressive stance, as he wanted to prevent Ahmadinejad from reaping the political capital that would follow a lifting of the international sanctions and the consequent easing of the economic crisis. On the other hand, if a Khamenei protege is elected president, such as Jalili or Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei will want to help him solve the economic crisis by finding a way to compromise on the issue of uranium enrichment and thereby easing the sanctions.
Yet this assessment, logical though it may be, doesn’t take Khamenei’s ideological worldview into account. Khamenei views the development of nuclear technology for peaceful uses as fundamental national principle, and all the candidates share this view. The paradox is that if the reformist candidate, Hassan Rowhani, wins, the supreme leader may confront him over the nuclear issue so as to deny him the achievement of a compromise. A conservative president, in contrast, might well lead to a change in policy.
Rowhani understands this trap, and in a televised debate last weekend, he explicitly reminded his listeners that it was he, during his time as secretary of the National Security Council, who "dealt the U.S. the greatest blow, by convincing the UN to recognize the Iranian nuclear program as a program for peaceful purposes."
This statement meshes with the criticism voiced recently by Khamenei’s close political adviser, Velayati, who reproved Jalili for his aggressive diplomacy. "Diplomacy is supposed to protect Iran’s interests on the nuclear issue, not to expand the sanctions on it," he said. It could be that Velayati, who is very close to Khamenei, already knows something about the supreme leader’s intentions, and therefore doesn’t fear saying such things aloud.
Rowhani, incidentally, also said, "The nuclear program is an extremely important issue, but the quality of life of our citizens is also important." This statement was primarily aimed at his rival, Jalili, who now holds the posts Rowhani used to fill as both secretary of the National Security Council and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator with the West. But it also hints at the policy he would adopt if elected.
Rowhani became the talk of the town in Iran after Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified as a candidate and Mohammad Reza Aref, the other reformist candidate, withdrew from the race at the request of former President Mohammad Khatami. Iranian bloggers, pundits whose Facebook accounts weren’t shut down and thousands of Twitter users have voiced massive support for Rowhani, who, as some said, has "injected an encouraging new spirit into the campaign."
Voter turnout in the election will be an important measure not just of public trust in the electoral system, especially after the widespread accusations of electoral fraud in the 2009 balloting, but also of the attitude of the reformists, who have been debating whether to boycott the vote as a challenge to the legitimacy of the election and its outcome.
The Iranian president isn’t the one who will determine the principles of Iran’s foreign and nuclear policy; those issues are in Khamenei’s hands. But the president is enormously important in composing the music that accompanies this foreign policy.
It’s worth remembering that Iran’s nuclear program first developed during the terms of reformist presidents like Khatami and Rafsanjani. But they also spoke about a "dialogue between cultures"; they didn’t beat the drum of destroying Israel, and they didn’t deny the Holocaust. Khatami even agreed (in coordination with Khamenei) to temporarily freeze the program in the hope of seeing the sanctions on Iran lifted. During their terms, the Iranian nuclear threat was defined only as a potential danger; while under Ahmadinejad, it has been defined as a clear and present danger – a very significant difference.
Just as Ahmadinejad’s aggressive rhetoric turned the nuclear program into a real weapon in the West’s eyes, even though Iran doesn’t have a nuclear bomb, the rhetoric of the presidents who preceded him succeeded in minimizing the threat. Now, all that remains to be seen is who will control Iran’s microphone after the election.