Iran: Major Candidates, Possible Outcomes, and Implications for U.S. Policy


An excerpt from a report published by the Congressional Research Service: “Middle East Elections 2009: Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq” (18 May 2009).

Major Candidates and Possible Outcomes

The incumbent is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a non-cleric elected in a two-round contest in 2005, who derives support from conservative factions and has opposed any compromise with the international community that would curb Iran’s right to enrich uranium.  In recent months, the number and profile of potential conservative as well as reformist (those who advocate more social freedoms) candidates have fluctuated, and there were reports that members of both major camps were trying to unify around a rival to Ahmadinejad.

The election contest began to take shape on February 8, 2009, when Mohammad Khatemi, the reformist President who governed Iran from 1997-2005, announced he would run again.  He declared his candidacy even though many reformists feared that his running again would begin a potentially wrenching and divisive political battle between conservatives and reformists.  However, on March 18, 2009, Khatemi withdrew from the race when another reformist, Mir Hossein Musavi, said he would run.  Musavi had served as Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989, the period including the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, but has been out of politics since his prime ministerial post was abolished in a constitutional revision in 1989.  Khatemi said in a withdrawal statement that he did not want to divide the reformist vote.  Musavi shares much of Khatemi’s policy outlook on domestic reforms and social freedoms, and also seeks to avoid confrontation with the international community.  However, Musavi is viewed as less confrontational to conservatives than Khatemi.  Another reformist, Mehdi Karrubi, who ran in 2005, also has registered to run.

Musavi, the most prominent reformist candidate, benefits from having been out of politics since 1989, because he is untainted by recent allegations of corruption or by crackdowns on civil society groups.  Musavi is an advocate of strong state intervention in the economy, building on his terms as Prime Minister when he successfully managed the state rationing program during the privations of the Iran-Iraq war.  In an interview on April 13, 2009 with the Financial Times, Musavi also stated that Iran needs “better relations with the world” than has been the case under Ahmadinejad’s presidency, an apparent reference to the fact that Ahmadinejad’s defiance on nuclear issues has led to a series of U.N. Security Council Resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran.*

Ahmadinejad might also have rivals emerging in the conservative camp.  The conservative camp split into “pro-Ahmadinejad” and “anti-Ahmadinejad” camps in the March 2008 Majles (parliament) elections.  One conservative, former Revolutionary Guard Commander-in-Chief Mohsen Rezai, has registered to run.

The outcome of the June 2009 election is difficult to foresee.  In urban areas, Ahmadinejad has been greatly weakened by the perception that his defiance on the nuclear issue has caused Iran to become isolated internationally.  Musavi benefits from contrast with that position.  Students have conducted several high-profile anti-Ahmadinejad protests in recent years, most recently in late February 2009 when authorities tried to rebury the bodies of some killed in the Iran-Iraq war on the campus of Amir Kabir University of Technology.

However, Ahmadinejad continues to exhibit support among lower classes and rural voters, which could potentially carry him to re-election.  He has raised wages and lowered interest rates for poorer borrowers, cancelled some debts of farmers, and has increased social welfare payments and subsidies.  Some believe these moves have fed inflation, but rural Iranians see him as attentive to their economic plight.  In addition, Ahmadinejad could benefit from the consistent support for his government expressed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i.  It is believed that Khamene’i’s tacit backing helped Ahmadinejad to his unexpected victory in the 2005 presidential election and that Khamene’i might assist him again in 2009.

Karrubi, on the reformist side, and Rezai, on the conservative side, will likely siphon votes from the main candidates similar to their ideologies.  However, few observers expect either to emerge as frontrunners in the election.

Implications for U.S. Policy

The Obama Administration is officially neutral in the contest.  However, virtually all observers believe that the Administration perceives that Ahmadinejad’s defeat would benefit U.S. interests by enhancing the potential for Iran to meet international demands to curb its nuclear program.  In the Financial Times interview mentioned above, Musavi ruled out suspending the enrichment of uranium, but it is widely believed that he might be more amenable to accepting international community incentives to curb that program — or to avoiding further penalties by continuing enrichment at current levels — than is Ahmadinejad.

There also is a view in the Administration that a Musavi presidency would proceed more cautiously on support for Shiite Islamist and other Islamist movements, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Iraqi Shiite militias, and dissident movements in the Gulf states.  This increases the prospects for a lessening of tensions between Iran and its neighbors and other countries in the region.  On the other hand, some argue that Iran’s foreign policy is a product of consensus in Iran’s leadership and that Iran’s policy under a Musavi presidency would differ little from that observed under Ahmadinejad.

*  Interview with Mir Hossein Musavi.  Financial Times, April 13, 2009.

This is an excerpt from a report published by the Congressional Research Service: “Middle East Elections 2009: Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq” (18 May 2009).  It is reproduced here for informational purposes.