Iran elections 2013: A race between a reformist and a principlist?

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Iran’s 2013 presidential election is now a competition between one centrist candidate and five conservative candidates; the pro-reform candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, pulled out of this week’s presidential election on Tuesday in order to rally behind Hassan Rowhani, the centrist whose campaign has gained momentum in the last few weeks and who former candidate Hashemi Rafsanjani has also announced his endorsement for. In addition, another recent and significant development for the reformists includes Mohammad Khatami’s efforts in mobilizing votes for the centrist Rohani.

This presidential race marks Iran’s first election since 2009, when the reformists led by Khatami and Mir Hussein Mosavi disputed the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Another recent and crucial development adding momentum to Rohani’s campaign is winning the official endorsement of Khatami and Mosavi’s advisory council this week on Monday. As a result, elections raise major questions surrounding who is more likely to face Rohani, a former nuclear negotiator, in the elections. Moreover, and more fundamentally, who would be announced as Iran’s 7th president since the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979?

Infographic: Who will be Iran's new president? (Design by Farwa Rizwan/Al Arabiya English)
Infographic: Who will be Iran's new president? (Design by Farwa Rizwan/Al Arabiya English)

The vote

As the reformists and moderates rally behind the single reformist candidate, Rohani, the hardliners and principlists’ votes will either be divided between the five remaining conservative candidates – Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Mohammad Gharazi, Saeed Jalili, Mohsen Rezaee, and Ali Akbar Velayati – who all are professing absolute loyalty to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or concentrated under just one of the candidates. Nevertheless, if the votes among the principlists’ supporters split and if Rohani is capable of obtaining the majority of the votes, or 50 percent, the odds will be in his favor. However, if no presidential candidate obtains 50 percent of the vote during the first round, this will trigger a runoff which will be held on June 21 between the two candidates who obtain the highest vote count. In that case, it is most likely that the elections can be characterized as a one-on-one competition between a reformist and a principlist.

On the other hand, the current campaigns run by the five conservative candidates indicate that two principlists in particular have gained momentum among the powerful social bases of the society. This includes the Supreme Leader’s establishments, the Basij – a powerful paramilitary volunteer militia established by Ayatollah Khomeini – Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), and the ultra-religious social base of the society who reject any dialogue with the United States, Israel, and compromises on Iran’s nuclear program.

The two principlist candidates with the best prospects are Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, and Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator as well as the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council – one of the most powerful and influential foreign policy making organizations in Iran. These two candidates appear to be the forerunner of Iran’s 2013 presidential elections, nevertheless, the more likely winner among the two, as well as the more powerful, appears to be Jalili.

The conservative vote will more likely be won by Jalili for several reasons. Firstly, among the other eight candidates who were approved to run for presidency, Jalili is by far the most outspoken. Secondly, Jalili has publicly expressed his stance on significant political affairs as “détente a hundred percent”, and has strongly projected contempt towards compromise with the United States and West over major issues like Iran’s nuclear program and involvement in Syria’s civil war. Moreover, he shares a considerable amount of commonality with President Ahmadinejad, and lastly, has not shown any signs of challenging the rule of the Supreme Leader

The widespread perception is that if the election becomes a one-on-one race between Rohani and Jalili, Rowhani will garner the most votes and score a victory for the reformists and moderates. However, this might be an inaccurate analysis for several reasons. Firstly, a powerful coalition of conservative clerics, Revolutionary Guard commanders, traditionalists, and high-ranking Shiite Muslim clerics – such as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi – have been publicly endorsing Jalili as the next president of Iran. Secondly, the conservatives have proven to be more organized and efficient than the reformists and moderates. Moreover, the largest nationwide network of paramilitary volunteers, the Basij, also announced that they would help organize Jalili’s election campaign.

After all, it was this volunteer militia organization and the aforementioned social groups and organizations that were instrumental in securing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency during the first and second round of elections against the reformists.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American scholar, is an author and an award-winning scholar, Middle East expert and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.

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