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Iran’s looming election: Restoration or deterioration of regime legitimacy?

By Afro-Middle East Centre

While delivering a speech to the Majlis (Iranian parliament) on 3 February 2013, outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed members a clip in which Fazel Larijani, brother of Iran’s judiciary chief, Sadeq Larijani, and Majlis speaker Ali Larijani, was seen offering to quash charges against former prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi for financial gain. Dubbed ‘butcher of the press’ and ‘torturer of Tehran’, Mortazavi had been under investigation for his activities following the 2009 election, which led to the deaths of over thirty protesters and mass arrests of many others. Ali Larijani subsequently threw Ahmadinejad out of parliament, declaring that his presentation lacked evidence, and accusing him of waging a war against God.

On 18 April, Ahmadinejad convened a large event at Tehran’s Azadi stadium ostensibly to thank government officials who had assisted him in organising annual provincial trips throughout his eight-year presidency. The event was widely criticised by opposition politicians, who accused the president of using state funds to campaign for his endorsed presidential hopeful, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Many even called on the Guardian Council to step in.

These are just two in a string of events, which rather than being attempts to uphold justice and express gratitude, point to a jockeying for position ahead of Iran’s presidential election scheduled for 14 June 2013. Ahmadinejad’s refusal to silently retreat from politics and the entrance of Hashemi Rafsanjani into the contest (even though his candidacy was not approved by the Guardian Council), have meant that the election will witness much contestation and may even result in the election of a more reformist candidate.

This article assesses the main presidential candidates and strands of thought they represent. Part One provides an analysis of Iran’s political structure, the powers and authority vested in the president, and how they compare to those of the many shadow or parallel institutions. Part Two teases out the main issues which will impact on and influence the forthcoming election including, importantly, the need for the restoration of the legitimacy of the regime, which has been whittled down since the 2009 election and its aftermath. Iran’s dire economic situation is also discussed. Part Three critically assesses the various strands of thought prevailing in Iran. The likely candidates representing these strands are also touched upon in this section. The last part assesses the possible consequences of the elections. The positives and negatives of a ‘reformist’, ‘principlist’ and ‘Nejadiya’ win are elaborated upon, and their consequences from both an international and domestic perspective are discussed. No matter what the outcome of the election might be, Iran will continue to be an important player in the Middle East. Although it has lost influence over its stance on Syria and over the controversial policies it is perceived to have adopted on Iraq, Iran’s sponsorship of Hamas and Hizbullah provides it with great leverage (even though its support of the former has been greatly reduced). Its oil and gas reserves (it possesses ten per cent of the world’s oil reserves and sixteen per cent of its gas reserves) will ensure its power within the region will not dissipate anytime soon. Lastly, Iran’s preeminent position in the minds and beliefs of Shi’as will ensure that the country’s importance manifests not only from a political and international relations’ perspective, but also from a sociological and religious one.


Political system

In order to properly understand Iran’s election process and tease out the implications of this month’s election, it is imperative to analyse the country’s current political system. Iran developed and has maintained formal judicial, legislative and executive branches following the 1979 Islamic revolution. Elections are carried out every four years for appointments to both the legislative and executive branches (the latter through the election of the president). The last election held was the Majlis election in 2012. However, in light of the Islamic nature of its 1979 revolution and its attempts to protect its Shi’a and Islamic ethos, various additional constitutionally-recognised bodies have been established. These often carry more weight than their elected counterparts and the real decisions are in most cases made during their sessions. Key among these bodies is the Council of Guardians. Consisting of twelve members (six clerics appointed by the supreme leader and six legal experts recommended by the head of the judiciary), this body is essentially tasked with protecting the revolution. The council scrutinises all legislative and presidential electoral candidates before they are allowed to run. In addition, Majlis bills are required to first be approved by the council before being enacted.

In 1982, an eighty-three member body called the Assembly of Experts was established, tasked with interpreting the constitution and selecting the supreme leader. Further, in 1989, as a result of many Majlis bills being passed, but not enacted, the Expediency Discernment Council was formed. Comprising between thirty and forty members (the Council currently has thirty-nine members), this body is empowered to negotiate between the Majlis and Guardian Council and make political decisions, which might otherwise be delayed by the complex Iranian political system. Additional members in an ex-officio capacity include the head of the judiciary, speaker of the Majlis and the president, as well as six clerics from the Guardian Council. Appointments to this council are made by the supreme leader and the council is often convened by him.

At the head of these parallel structures and the political system as a whole is the supreme leader or Vali-e-Faqih. Appointed by the Assembly of Experts, he is the most powerful person in Iran. He makes decisions regarding foreign policy, is the commander and chief of the military, and has the power to declare war. However, this power is usually exercised by councils that he convenes, such as the Expediency Council and, increasingly, the Supreme National Security Council, currently headed by Saeed Jalili. These powerful structures that operate in parallel to the judiciary, legislature and executive have resulted in some people asserting that the Council of Guardians is Iran’s real judiciary, the Expediency Council its real executive, the Assembly of Experts its true legislature and the supreme leader its true president. Since 1989, when the revolution’s most prominent leader, Ruhullah Khomeini, passed on, Ali Khamenei has held the position of supreme leader.


Main election issues 

Legitimacy of the system

The complex political system of the Islamic republic requires citizen acquiescence to endure. A key measure of this is voting trends. Until 2009, elections were held in a generally fair atmosphere, with both ‘reformist’ and ‘principlist’ candidates allowed to run, provided they possessed the requisite Islamic credentials. A consequence of this was a peaceful and seemingly incongruous interchange of power between the reformist Mohamed Khatami (1997 to 2005) and the more hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (from 2005), with voter numbers around eighty per cent. This meant that few questions were being asked about the political system itself; citizens generally acquiesced and the system was able to operate fairly unhindered.

However, contestation around the 2009 election result, which saw Ahmadinejad being re-elected with sixty-three per cent of the popular vote, have threatened this state of affairs. Large protests were held, further inflamed by the regime’s harsh response. Sympathetic journalists and academics were arrested; and over thirty protesters died at the hands of basij militia. The two reformist candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are still under house arrest. In addition, reformists were labelled as seditionists in an attempt to delegitimise their platform and enable their suppression. The establishment, specifically the military and religious elite, were, and still are, perceived to have been involved in these events. Mousavi and Karroubi’s milder rhetorical stance toward relations with the West, and their agreement to the relaxing of restrictions on civil society seem to have threatened the regime. Many opposition activists and sympathisers have subsequently questioned the relevance of elections, with some calling for boycotts, and others, such as the influential Khatami, asserting that were he to run, the regime would once again crack down on opposition figures. The recent closure of pro-reformist news outlets and the arrests of seventeen journalists in the first five months of 2013 alone have been cited as evidence. This has further been compounded by the recent legislative elections, which resulted in Khamenei’s allies winning over seventy-five per cent of parliamentary seats, mainly because many reformist candidates refused to stand, and called for the election to be boycotted or for ballots to be spoiled.

The regime’s legitimacy has, ironically, further been threatened by Ahmadinejad. Aside from his adversarial rhetoric, his attempts to challenge Khamenei mean that was Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a candidate from Ahmadinejad’s camp, to win, or large protests to be organised as a result of Mashaei’s disqualification

Ahmadinejad’s attempts to arrogate to himself some of the authority of Khamenei began in 2011, when he fired Iran’s then-intelligence minister and Khamenei ally, Heidar Moslehi, a move which resulted in the president being rebuked. In addition, Ahmadinejad’s sacking of Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran’s then-foreign minister and a Khamenei loyalist, was part of the president’s attempt to obtain the power to appoint political envoys. Ahmadinejad sympathisers were subsequently labelled ‘deviants’ by Khamenei supporters and principlists, and the Guardian Council disqualified some of them from participating in the March 2012 parliamentary election. So much fear was generated about the ‘deviants’ that there was widespread speculation at the time of the 2012 election about the possible elimination of the process of presidential elections, with many arguing that Khamenei would seek to ensure that parliament was given the power to elect the president.

State of the economy

Iran’s economy is currently in the worst state it has been since the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war, which resulted in damages of over $1 trillion. Oil exports have dropped from around 2.5 million barrels a day in 2011 to under a million barrels per day since January 2013. Inflation last year stood at over 27 per cent, coming off 40 per cent between 2010 and 2012. Unemployment has increased to around 20 per cent, with unofficial figures putting it as high as 35 per cent. Further, government revenues, which are chiefly accrued from oil exports, halved in 2012, resulting in a depreciation of the value of the Riaal by over 66 per cent from 20 000 to the dollar in January 2012 to over 36 000 to the dollar in January 2013. This has been compounded by the government’s removal of energy and food subsidies, leading to the closure of many industries and a reduction in the output of Iran’s thriving car manufacture industry by over 40 per cent in 2012. As a consequence, there is a feeling of extreme desperation among the people. A December 2012 Gallup survey reported that over 31 per cent of respondents categorised themselves as ‘suffering’, a statistic similar to that of Egypt and Afghanistan, while over 75 per cent reported that it was not a good time to enter the job market.

This serious economic situation is a result of two key factors. Firstly, sanctions have contributed tremendously to the various problems in the country, with many Iranian officials arguing that over 50 per cent of these economic problems can be attributed to sanctions. The three rounds of UN sanctions (Resolutions 1737, 1747 and 1929), focusing on dual-use products and heavy weapons, have resulted in the country having to manufacture indigenous electricity-generation equipment, leading to an increase in pollution and supply vulnerability. In addition, the various unilateral US and EU sanctions have resulted in the halving of Iran’s oil exports, on which the country relies for over 75 per cent of its hard currency. Three pieces of sanctions are especially detrimental in this regard. The US Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 sought to freeze out of the US financial system any company doing business with Iran’s oil and gas sectors and any insurers underwriting Iranian oil shipments. This has led to many countries requesting and, in many instances, receiving waivers from the USA for oil imports, the stipulation being that these will decrease over time. The EU’s oil embargo and its removal of Iranian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) system have added to Iran’s problems, as many European companies, including Greece, are large Iranian oil importers. The 2012 Gallup survey reported that over 85 per cent of people attributed Iran’s poor economic performance to these sanctions, with over 83 per cent reporting that the sanctions were affecting them.

Iran has attempted to respond to this by conceptualising the ‘resistance’ economy, a term coined to refer to certain key factors:

  • Import restrictions, including on motor vehicles and mobile phones. Per capita imports have dropped from over $900 in 2012 to less than $700 in January 2013.
  • Oil revenue redistribution through an increase in taxes. A shift away from oil exports to gas exports, and attempts to refine excess oil.
  • The use of bartering and exchange bureaus to finance imports. Over 41 per cent of foreign trade in 2013 alone is reported to have been conducted via exchange bureaus, with an increase in corruption being a predicted consequence.

This has, to an extent, worked, and the economy, though battered, survives. The debt-to-GDP ratio stands at a minor nine per cent, and the current 2013 budget deficit stands at a manageable 3.9 per cent. A factor compounding sanctions-related problems is economic mismanagement by the incumbent Ahmadinejad government. The subsidy removal process was carried out in an inefficient manner, corruption has increased during the past four years, and job creation has halted. Most analysts argue that the other half of Iran’s woes can be attributed to economic mismanagement. A consequence for the coming election is that economics, rather than religious or ideological affiliations, will likely be the greatest factor informing voter choices. Most candidates have therefore stressed the centrality of the economy in their statements. Even candidates seen as foreign policy experts, such as Manouchehr Mottaki (who was not approved to run) have lamented the dire economic situation that the country is enduring and argue that its foreign policy needs to be modified to reduce inflation and unemployment.

The nuclear issue

Many in the international community are fervently following the election process, in the belief that it will impact on Iran’s nuclear programme. Some commentators have argued that should a ‘reformist’ candidate be elected, Iran’s nuclear programme would be halted or, at least, decelerated. The often-cited evidence is the so-called ‘trust-building measures’ adopted by the reformist Khatami when he was president from 1997 to 2005. However, this analysis is factually incorrect and displays a misunderstanding of how Iran’s structures of governance operate. It should be noted at this point that despite the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme, no credible evidence has yet been found by either the IAEA or the P5+1 countries (China, America, Russia, Britain, France and Germany) concerning Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons’ aspirations. The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) maintains that Iran has not yet decided whether to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

From a factual perspective, using the Khatami ‘trust-building measures’ as evidence that a reformist president will put the brakes on the nuclear programme is problematic for two key reasons.

  • Khatami admitted that the nuclear programme had continued during his presidency, and nuclear enrichment had been further advanced. He clarified that the cordial relations between Iran and the international community during his presidency were more a result of diplomatic honesty and interaction.
  • During the first four years of Khatami’s presidency, the ‘war on terror’ and ‘axis of evil’ paradigms had not yet crystallised. At that time, Iraq, not Iran, was projected by the West as the country with intentions to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The argument that a reformist president will halt or slow down nuclear development also misunderstands Iran’s political structure. Control over nuclear policy within the Islamic Republic is vested in the hands of the supreme leader. Khamenei continues to assert that possession of nuclear weapons is not in Iran’s interest, that their use is prohibited from a rational, religious and juridical perspective, and that Iran does not believe in the first-strike military doctrine. Thus, at most, the country seeks nuclear weapons’ creation capabilities (or nuclear latency), and that even were the worst case scenario realised and a nuclear bomb produced, Iran would use it only after attacked as per the country’s retaliatory military doctrine.

Lastly, Iranian citizens do not view the nuclear issue as a major election issue influencing their votes. The state of the economy and political and civil freedoms are pre-eminent issues for voters, and few or no pronouncements on the nuclear programme will be made by candidates. In fact, over 63 per cent of Iranians view the nuclear programme in a positive light, according to the Gallup poll cited earlier.

Ahmadinejad’s departure will, however, result in a change in rhetoric. A change in leadership and a renewal of the regime’s legitimacy will mean that the country will have the mandate to accept further compromises – on the nuclear as well as other issues.


Election candidates and strands of thought

Having discussed the main electoral issues, Iran’s complex presidential alliances can now be teased out and elaborated upon. During the 2009 election over 400 candidates applied, but only four were allowed to stand. In this election, 680 hopefuls reportedly applied, and only eight were endorsed by the Guardian Council. This increase in the number of candidates is mainly a result of the drastic consequences of the 2009 election. The candidates represent various alliances; Iran Election Watch (an election website) delineated five main strands of thought represented in the election. These are: neo-principlists, traditional principlists, the Ahmadinejad/Mashaei strand, centrists and reformists. Some analysts suggest that seven strands can be discerned, namely the Supreme Leader’s Committee; the Followers of Imam’s Line and Leadership Front; the Rafsanjani camp; Ahmadinejad’s camp; the ‘hard-line’ Endurance Front, which includes leading cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi; independent conservatives and principlist candidates such as Mohsen Rezai and the reformists. This article has narrowed the field down to three strands: principlists, nejadiya and reformists/centrists.


Principlists are mainly defined by their strict adherence to the tenets of the 1979 Islamic revolution, specifically the position of Velayat-e-Faqih. Were one of them to be elected, the many confrontations between the president and supreme leader observed during Ahmadinejad’s last two years would be severely reduced. They are also more conservative in matters concerning civil and political rights; many supported the 2009 crackdown, labelling opponents as seditionists. Economically, their position is similar to Ahmadinejad’s, preferring redistributionist policies, although they have criticised corruption during Ahmadinejad’s tenure and his economic mismanagement.

Six of the eight candidates authorised by the Guardian Council to run subscribe to this strand. These are: former Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) commander, Mohsen Rezai; current chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili; former Majlis speaker, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel; foreign minister from 1982 to 1997, Ali Akbar Velayati; current Tehran mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; and former telecommunications minister, Mohammad Gharazi. The front runners, however, are those in the ‘2+1’ coalition – Velayati, Ghalibaf and Haddad-Adel – and Saeed Jalili. Within the 2+1 coalition, it had been agreed that two candidates would drop out before the election, allowing the remaining candidate to garner a maximum number of votes. This was to have happened prior to the Guardian Council approval stage; however this should now occur just before the election or after the first round were two or more of the coalition’s candidates to proceed.

Key to this coalition are Velayati and Ghalibaf. Currently Khamenei’s chief advisor on foreign affairs, Velayati, a medical doctor, has been instrumental in shaping Iran’s current foreign policy. He also sits on the Expediency Council, and had ambitions of running for the presidency in 2005 – before withdrawing and backing Rafsanjani. Velayati’s appeal lies mostly in his loyalty to Khamenei. Ghalibaf, on the other hand, has held various positions, from Iranian air force commander to mayor of Tehran, his current position. He is popular with many constituents, including the military and citizenry. His period as head of Iran’s police service saw great improvements in prison conditions and the institution of an emergency hotline, while his various infrastructure projects since becoming mayor of Tehran have made him a popular favourite. Many argue that his participation in the coalition is an attempt by the principlists to appropriate this popularity. It is significant that in 1999, Ghalibaf, together with twenty-three other IRGC commanders, forced the then Khatami government to crack down on student protests, while the Tehran mayoral committee, though not a security institution, was ranked as the third-best institution by Iranian security agencies after it was instrumental in the 2009 suppression of protests.

Jalili’s appeal, like that of Velayati, is mainly a result of his allegiance to Khamenei. As well as being Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Jalili is chairperson of the Supreme National Security Council. Having lost part of his leg in the Iran-Iraq war, Jalili is seen by many as an old-era Iranian politician with a rigid anti-Americanism. Opponents have criticised this, and questioned his competency to hold office. In summary, then, the principlist strand will most likely be represented by Ghalibaf, Velayati and Jalili.


The Nejadiya, otherwise known as the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei trend, mainly refers to sympathisers of incumbent president Ahmadinejad. They favour redistributive economic policies, while they differ from the reformers politically in supporting, or at least tacitly accepting, constraints on civil rights. Their foreign policy positions are very similar to the principlists’, although with an appeal to Iranian nationalism instead of revolutionary Shi’a Islamism. The main distinguishing factor concerning this trend is this appeal to nationalism at the expense of Iran’s Islamic constitution. Examples are plentiful and include Ahmadinejad’s attempts to ‘appropriate’ the right to appoint his own ministers and the emphasis placed on Iran’s Persian culture and diverse ethnic groupings. This poses a great threat to the supreme leader, and Ahmadinejad supporters are often labelled ‘deviants’.

No Nejadi candidate has been authorised to run in the upcoming election. However, it is unlikely the Nejadiya will disappear or be easily curbed, especially considering that they enjoy the backing of many influential people, including Gholam-Hossein Elham (presidential deputy for management development and human capital), Ali Nikzad (minister of transportation and urban development) and Ali Akbar Javanfekr (current head of the Iranian state broadcaster IRNA). This is compounded by the fact that many Iranians are disconnected from the regime and many younger citizens perceive the mixing of politics and religion as an anathema. Prominent political analyst, Hooman Majd, argues that rather than ‘sacrificing for the revolution’, many Iranians would prefer living a normal life and are more concerned with economic conditions and easing sanctions. Hence, Ahmadinejad’s common touch and economic positions, rather than his religious credentials, were the main reasons he was victorious in the 2005 and 2009 elections.


Shunned after the 2009 election, and labelled as seditionists, reformists have a chance in this election to re-enter political life in Iran. This is no doubt influenced by the clerical establishment, specifically the supreme leader’s goal to ensure the preservation of the system and an increase in its legitimacy. Ahmadinejad’s eight years as president are viewed as the weakest in the regime’s history, causing huge fissures. The end of his term is seen as an opportunity to reincorporate the reformists into the political system. To this end, meetings between various reformist sympathisers and the supreme leader have occurred.

The reformist agenda is based on three key principles. First, that Iran’s isolation is mainly the result of its confrontational international stance. Thus, reformists advocate that, rather than being a revolutionary regime, Iran should merely be a state in the international system, with normal state goals such as economic growth. Second, that Iran’s economic problems are mainly a consequence of its confrontational international posturing and the mismanagement of its economy by Ahmadinejad’s government. Reformists are also of the view that more free market and integrationist policies need to be adopted to restore economic growth. Third, that civil and political freedoms need to be enhanced, jailed political opponents need to be released, and the explicit protections contained in Iran’s constitution need to be protected. Thus, with reference to the house arrest of Mousavi and Karroubi, Khatami stated that the past four years since 2009 have seen the system being corrupted. ‘Trust has withered away,’ he said. ‘The best individuals and those who have suffered the most for the revolution are in jail. We must invest in social capital. Why are the best of our youth in jail for strange and odd reasons?’

It is important to remember that an emphasis is placed in the reformist campaign on ‘saving the system’, that is, the Velayat-e-Faqih. Hence the ‘Fears and hopes’ report, published under the auspices of Khatami, which lamented the poor economic performance of the Ahmadinejad regime, but laid no blame on Khamenei and the security services.

With the reformists’ two main candidates, Karroubi and Mousavi, under house arrest, Khatami refusing to run for fear of a repeat of the 2009 violence, and Rafsanjani’s failure to be approved by the Guardian Council, Hassan Rouhani (Iran’s former national security head) is likely to run under the reformist banner. A Shi’a scholar who is close to Khamenei – he is Khamenei’s representative on the SNSC – Rouhani is best known for the nuclear negotiations he participated in on behalf of the Khatami government, and which led to the freezing of Iran’s nuclear programme in September 2003. ‘Constructive interaction with the world’ (diplomatic negotiations with western states) is a cornerstone of his election platform. Further, he has argued that were he to be elected president, interaction with the USA would resume. Unlike Europe, he argued, the USA, as a super power, has the power to enter into negotiations and to force smaller states to comply were a deal to be realised. ‘Many Europeans will need permission, but the Americans are, as the saying goes, the sheriff. So it would be easier if we rather hammer things out with the sheriff than deal with lesser authorities.’

Mohamed Reza Aref, a vice president and minister of information and communications technology in the Khatami government, had also been authorised to run. Also representing the reformist strand, Aref did not have great appeal, and was likely to suffer a first-round exit. He has consequently withdrawn and is likely to back Rouhani. It is noteworthy that Aref had previously resolved to withdraw were Khatami or Rafsanjani to stand.

It must be noted that Khamenei is able to reinstate any presidential nominee through a ‘leadership edict’. This is important as, prior to announcing his candidacy, Rafsanjani vowed that he would only run should his candidacy be given the nod by Khamenei. This suggests that Rafsanjani’s candidacy could be reinstated, as increasing disquiet around his exclusion may threaten the legitimacy of the regime since he was instrumental in the state’s establishment and the appointment of Khamenei as supreme leader in 1989. Such an edict from Khamenei is not unprecedented; in 2005, he reinstated reformist candidate Mostafa Moeen after he had been disqualified by the Guardian Council. Moeen subsequently did not make it through the first round, finishing fifth.


Electoral consequences

It is therefore apparent that the 2013 election is very important for the clerical regime. Successful organisation of the election will help replenish and renew the regime’s legitimacy. This is all the more important as the regime fights to stave off the consequences of sanctions. A reformist win will go some way to ensure an increase in civil liberties for citizens, while a principlist win would result in Khamenei’s grip on the system increasing.

However, were fraud to occur and the results tampered with, the regime’s credibility may be damaged irreparably. The few isolated calls for a change in the political system after the 2009 election could then increase. (In 2009, the Green Movement, in general, protested over the election result and not the system’s legitimacy.) In addition, disillusionment around the political process will prevail, resulting in an increase in voter apathy. The current exclusion of candidates representing the Nejadiya strand may result in protests erupting, similar to those of 2009. These factors will mean that Khamenei, instead of being able to focus on repairing the damage caused by the 2009 elections, will instead have to concentrate on containing the reaction. However, if last year’s municipal and parliamentary elections are to be used as a barometer, contestation will be minimal. The 2012 election saw Khamenei-allied principlists winning over seventy per cent of seats through both popular support and, importantly, the disqualification of Nejadiya candidates, without many objections from the general population.

From a foreign policy perspective, the election will have minimal consequences. The nuclear programme falls under the ambit of the supreme leader. The current increase in the production of low-enriched uranium from around 839 kilograms in 2008 to over 8 270 kilograms in 2013 and high-enriched uranium to over 280 kilograms by February this year, illustrates that sanctions are having minimal effect on the programme, with some Iranian politicians believing that the USA and EU have already played all their cards. In fact, many are of the opinion that further sanctions will encourage the growth of the nuclear programme as Iran’s ‘independent’ foreign policy position would be threatened by these and as the Islamic Republic would believe that acquiring a nuclear weapon would be the only method of easing the burden of sanctions.

Iran’s support for Syria’s Asad regime will continue after the election. Iran’s relations with Syria, despite the assertions of many analysts, are less ideological, and more strategic. For the Islamic republic :

  • Syria is a conduit through which to send arms and funds to Hizbullah and Hamas. This enables it to project power and, more importantly, to retaliate were it attacked. Interestingly, Iran has not invaded another state since the late 1700s.Syria also provides Iran with access to the Mediterranean Sea in the event of an attack, allowing the country to respond to attacks through two oceanic channels. Syria’s support to Iran during the war with Iraq, which led to the deaths of over a million Iranians, still elicits an affectionate response from the Iranian leadership. It is significant that, aside from Syria and Libya, no other state or international actor, including the USSR, supported Iran during the war.
  • The fact that the ruling Syrian regime belongs to the Alawi sect which – rather tenuously – is a branch of Shiism, does play a role in informing Iran’s support for the regime. However, this is minimal, especially since Ba’athism and Velayat-e-Faqih are irreconcilable. For these reasons, any incoming Iranian president is likely to maintain the relationship with Syria. In any event, major foreign policy issues such as this fall within the ambit of the supreme leader, not the president.
  • What may change is Iran’s engagement with the international community, specifically the USA. Under reformist presidents Hashemi and Khatami, relations with America had improved. For example, Khatami was even allowed to import products and medicines from the USA. , Rouhani has explicitly stated his intention to negotiate directly with the USA and improve relations with European countries. Thus a reformist win will most definitely result in an enhancement in Iran’s international relations, and may be reciprocated with sanctions relief. Conversely, were a principlist to be elected, not much would change. However, the sometimes irresponsible rhetoric that has characterised Ahmadinejad’s foreign relations will in most probability no longer continue.

In conclusion, it is noteworthy that two out of the eight candidates authorised by the Guardian Council are nuclear negotiators. This illustrates that the Guardian Council is aware of the damage that sanctions are causing Iran’s economy and the legitimacy of the regime, and is thus seeking to reassure the international community of the president’s authority. Many commentators, including Mehdi Khalaji, have called for the international community to approach Khamenei directly, rather than negotiate with government officials. Both Jalili and Rouhani have previously been lead nuclear negotiators and thus implicitly have the mandate to negotiate on Khamenei’s behalf.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 February 2015 15:06