With elections scheduled for Friday, Iranians are watching the televised debates just like in a democracy anywhere in the world, trying to decide for whom to cast a ballot later this week – or whether to vote at all.
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But unlike in most democracies, Iranians are waiting for the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to state clearly whom he supports as a kind of weather vane for the next chapter in Iranian's turbulent politics.
In the third televised debate last Friday, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s foreign minister during the Iran–Iraq war and a senior foreign policy adviser to Khamenei, cut into his opponent Saeed Jalili, whom Khamenei appointed as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.
“You were responsible for the nuclear program’s portfolio for several years and we did not move forward by a single step," charged Velayati, a pediatrician who studied in the United States. "Diplomacy is not a matter of being tough or stubborn. The art of diplomacy means being able to protect our rights in the nuclear sphere without expanding the sanctions on Iran.”
Both Velayati and Jalili are top candidates for the Iranian presidency, angling to replace Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, and both are members of the conservative but non-radical movement.
Jalili gave back as good as he got, charging Velayati with not knowing all the facts and making accusations that were “completely mistaken.” What are the facts? Jalili, who lost part of a leg in the Iran–Iraq war, did not say. But he showed where he was headed when he answered another candidate, Hassan Rouhani, an expert in Islamic law who was head of the Supreme National Security Council during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency and who is supposedly a member of the reformist camp.
“During Khatami’s time and after all Iran’s cooperation with the United States during the war in Afghanistan, what did we get? The U.S. called us the axis of evil,” Jalili quipped. That’s misguided policy, he said.
It’s not the television debates, where Iran’s foreign policy (read: nuclear policy) is being discussed publicly for the first time, that will decide the election. The five conservative candidates of the seven people in the running were confirmed by the Guardian Council of the Constitution need the sponsorship of Khamenei, who has so far not said which candidate he prefers. The Iranian commentators can only guess. While one says that Jalili has been “chosen,” another suggests that Jalili is only a cover for Khamenei’s intention to support Velayati.
In any case, Jalili and Velayati are now considered the favorites among the conservative candidates because of their closeness to Khamenei. While unofficial polls gave an advantage to Jalili last week, a few days later the results of a “secret poll” were published on the Aftab website showing that Rouhani would get 23.3 percent of the vote, Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf would receive 18.4 percent, and Jalili would receive only about 7.5 percent. The poll should be regarded with extreme caution, since Aftab is linked to former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was disqualified as a candidate and is Rouhani’s mentor.
Biased as they are, the poll shows that no single candidate is able to cross the vital 50-percent threshold to be elected in the first round. Without Khamenei’s open and clear support of one candidate, the votes could be split, forcing Iran into a second round of voting. The regime regards a second round as problematic since it shows disunity and tension in the upper echelons, proving that there is criticism of the way the country is being run and that the public is not happy with the policy taken so far. It is not only criticism of Ahmadinejad, the outgoing president, it is also direct criticism of Supreme Leader Khamenei, who supported Ahmadinejad’s election until they became political rivals.
Following Friday's feisty debate, Khamenei hurried to show the candidates the right path. “Some people talk about the need to give the enemy [the West] some achievements to keep it quiet, but we must remember that the enemy is afraid of the awakening of Islam,” he said. He prefers that the debate focus on foreign policy, where there is no argument – none of the candidates has said he was willing to give up the nuclear program – rather than on the economy. A debate on that topic will have to deal with the terrible suffering that the economic situation is causing the people, and will portray the regime as helpless. It is also an area in which “the enemy” can gain victory points.
Neither candidate who identifies with the reformist camp faces that kind of dilemma. They are not trying to win Khamenei over. The question Rouhani, the Islamic jurist, and Mohammad Reza Araf, the Oxford-trained engineer, face is whether to join forces, front one candidate with whom the voters can identify and give massive support to, or to run separately. The question is not which of them will be the next president, but how to solidify a reformist bloc that will show Khamenei how much of the public wants reform.
The problem is that after Rafsanjani, the great hope of the reformist movement, was disqualified as a candidate, the reformists were left with fairly pale candidates whose chances of winning were meager. That is also why reformist activists agonized over whether to participate in the elections or boycott them to remove the fig leaf of supposed democracy that gives legitimacy to the regime.
Meanwhile, the agonizing is theoretical, since as long as reformist candidates run in the elections, boycotting the elections means not only certain defeat for them, but mainly a loud slap in the face to the large segment of the public that supports reform, the millions of demonstrators who took to the streets in 2009 after the colossal forgeries that gave Ahmadinejad the presidency, and anyone who still believes in political change.
There were eight candidates in the race, but on Monday Reuters said conservative former parliament speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel had withdrawn his candidacy from the June presidential election, citing Iranian media reports. Haddad-Adel, a close adviser and a relative by marriage of Khamenei, had been a member of a coalition of conservative "Principlist" candidates.