TEHRAN - The main issue in Iran's June 2009 presidential election is certain
to be the country's economic woes, but both candidates will be linking the economy
to the issue of relations between Iran and the West, according to Iranian politicians
and political analysts.
Based on the bitter internal Iranian politics of the past three years, both
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and whoever is chosen as his opponent are expected
to try to pin responsibility for Western financial sanctions on each other.
The challenger expected to emerge from the more moderate camp will charge
that Ahmadinejad has exposed Iran to economic turmoil by mismanaging Iranian
relations with Europe, while Ahmadinejad will accuse his foe of conspiring with
the West to step up economic sanctions against Iran.
These likely campaign themes reflect the deep rift within the Islamic regime
between those who believe that normal economic and political relations with
the West are a vital to Iran's future and those who disdain such relations as
a violation of the Islamic Revolution's values.
Ahmadinejad seems certain to run again, even though he has lost some support
among ultraconservatives who feel he will be blamed for falling oil prices and
more economic hardships in the coming months, according to Amir Mohebbian, a
conservative political strategist and managing editor of Arya News Service.
The moderate conservatives, led by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,
and reformists, led by former President Mohammad Khatami, are trying to agree
on a "national unity candidate" to run against Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani
is now supporting Khatami as the candidate, according to IPS interviews with
a senior Rafsanjani adviser, Mohammad Atrianfar, and Khatami's former vice president,
Mohammad Ali Abtahi. But it is not clear yet whether Khatami will emerge as
the opposition candidate.
Ahmadinejad's moderate and reformist opponents, as well as some conservative
critics, believe Ahmadinejad will be politically vulnerable because of the parlous
state of the economy and his own mismanagement of it. Mohebbian, who has supported
Ahmadinejad in the past but is now looking for a different conservative standard-bearer
in the election, said the president had "increased the expectations of
people" based on "a good oil price".
Now that oil prices have plunged below 50 dollars a barrel and are expected
to stay there for months, Mohebbian said, "The gap between expectations
and reality creates insurgency."
The Iranian economy, which already had serious long-term structural problems,
has taken a nosedive since the fall in oil prices and is going to worsen in
the coming months, according to economist and political analyst Saeed Laylaz.
He told IPS that the housing construction industry, which has absorbed hundreds
of thousands of workers, is about to grind to a halt as a result of the financial
shortfall. That in turn could increase unemployment to as high as one million
more than existed at the end of the Khatami period, according to Laylaz. Inflation
is likely to worsen over the next months as well, causing increased popular
dissatisfaction, he said.
Rafsanjani adviser Atrianfar said he believes Ahmadinejad will be vulnerable
on the economy because he has systematically lied about the actual levels of
exports, jobs and inflation.
Former Vice President Abtahi said the issue of international sanctions and
the tensions underlying them will be central in the election, and expressed
confidence that "people will support a candidate who can reduce such tensions".
Reformist and moderate conservative critics of Ahmadinejad have repeatedly attacked
him for what they describe as diplomatic blunders that have led to tougher economic
sanctions against Iran by the West.
Since assuming office in August 2005, Ahmadinejad has replaced all the officials
who had been involved in efforts to negotiate with the Europeans over Iran's
nuclear program under the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations. Rafsanjani
and other moderate conservatives have charged that that the successive rounds
of UN Security Council sanctions were the result of Ahmadinejad's bad judgment
and reckless behavior.
But Ahmadinejad is expected to turn the sanctions issue against his opponents
by claiming that his government has stood for independence from the West while
his opponents from the Rafsanjani and Khatami governments have actively or passively
encouraged the European states to increase economic pressures on Iran to give
up its uranium enrichment program
Ahmadinejad and his followers have portrayed contacts by former officials who
negotiated with the European governments and the International Atomic Energy
Agency with their European counterparts as treasonous relationships. The most
notorious case has been the accusation against Hossein Mousavian, former ambassador
to Germany and later deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council
and a member of Iran's negotiating team on the nuclear program
After being dismissed from his position by Ahmadinejad, Mousavian was particularly
vocal in criticizing Ahmadinejad's diplomatic posture. Mousavian was arrested
in May 2007 on espionage charges, and was later accused of having given classified
information to the British embassy.
Even after he was found innocent of the charges by a Tehran court in November
2007, Ahmadinejad claimed that Mousavian was guilty and charged that his opponents
had pressured the judge to acquit him. Although the intelligence ministry said
little publicly about the Mousavian case, the accusation that he had actively
collaborated with the British to facilitate sanctions against Iran was spread
by a new network of ultraconservative websites, based on unsubstantiated rumors
Atrianfar, the adviser to Rafsanjani, noted that, even now, Ahmadinejad continues
to maintain that Mousavian is guilty. This is only the most visible case in
a much larger plan to portray anyone who has been involved with trying to improve
relations with the West as betraying Iranian interests, according to Atrianfar.
"There are so many examples of Mousavian-like accusations about relations
with the West," said Atrianfar. "It has been unprecedented in this
Former Vice President Abtahi expects Ahmadinejad and his hard-line political
allies to continue to exploit the charge that moderates and reformists have
encouraged the Europeans to increase the economic sanctions against Iran. "Our
opponents are trying to weaken us by taking advantage of concepts like independence
to accuse us of being pro-Western," Abtahi said in an interview. "We
are always being accused by conservatives of being lenient toward the West and
granting concessions to them."
Abtahi concedes that Ahmadinejad's ultra-nationalist line appeals to his political
base outside the large cities and that a US demand for a complete end to uranium
enrichment only plays into Ahmadinejad's hands politically. "From this
perspective you can consider [such a US demand] a great help to Ahmadinejad,"
US policies that were seen as openly hostile toward Iran boosted the extreme
conservative supporters in the first electoral test since Ahmadinejad become
president, according to Abtahi. He cites the George W. Bush administration's
efforts to rally Arab regimes in the region against Iran in the weeks before
the March 2008 parliamentary elections. "The conservative papers took advantage
of that," he recalled, "and Bush's policy negatively affected Iranian
The pro-Ahmadinejad United Principalist Front won the largest bloc of parliamentary
seats, with 90 out of the 290 total. That electoral outcome probably confirmed
for Ahmadinejad the effectiveness of an ultranationalist electoral strategy
against his reformist and moderate conservative opponents.
*Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist and historian specializing in
US national security policy, has just completed a 12-day visit to Tehran to
find out how Iranian officials, analysts and political figures view possible
negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran. This is the third of
a five-part series of articles.
(Inter Press Service)