The man chosen to be Iran’s new president in the June elections is guaranteed a special place in the history books: he will be remembered as the leader who either found a solution to the nuclear crisis or led his country down the path to military conflict. As likely or not he will have to tell his people what Iran’s fate will be very soon, probably by the end of this year.
The ultimate decision, of course, will not be taken by the president but by Iran’s Supreme Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the president’s advice will be heeded, because the new head of state will be a close confidant of Khamenei. In all the speculation surrounding the forthcoming elections and Iran’s future in general this is one certainty: Khamenei and his ultra-conservative backers are resolutely determined to ensure that the election throws up their preferred candidate. As Kasra Naji, of the BBC’s Persian TV service, said during a discussion on Wednesday evening at the Frontline Club in London, “Khamenei wants someone who is subservient to him and his policies, and carries out what he wants done.”
The conservative candidate (and Iran’s next president) will be one of the following: former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; or the Supreme Leader’s top adviser Gholamali Haddad-Adel (whose daughter is married to Khamenei’s son).
The conservatives have learned from their past mistakes and humiliations. They have never recovered from the shock of seeing the reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami sweep to power in 1997; and they never want to see another loose cannon like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. So one can expect the all-powerful Guardian Council to be even more diligent than usual in weeding out candidates who could represent a threat to Khamenei’s grand plan. Ahmedinejad’s eccentric nominee, Esfandiar Mashaei, looks certain to fall into this category. Leaders of Iran’s Green opposition movement, closeted in their homes, know they would be wasting their time even putting their names forward.
So don’t expect a particularly lively or interesting election campaign. Having said that, the poll matters hugely to Khamenei and his backers. For above all else they want to avoid a repetition of the violence that erupted after the 2009 elections. In Naji’s view, Khamenei’s would like the elections “to take place without incident and with a high turnout. He wants to restore the legitimacy that was lost in 2009”.
The likelihood is that the June elections will pass off peacefully. The consensus among speakers at last night’s Frontline discussion was that despite the severe economic hardships caused by sanctions there was no sign of Iranians being inspired by the spirit of the Arab Spring. As Kelly Golnoush Niknejad, editor of the Tehran Bureau blog, put it: “Iranians are revolutioned out.” Naji agreed: “Iranians have little appetite for another revolution without knowing where they are going next.”
So in that respect Iran’s new president will have nothing to worry about. But there will still be plenty to keep him awake at night. On his watch not only will the nuclear issue have to be resolved one way or another, but the likelihood also is that Iran will have to find a new Supreme Leader, given Khamenei’s advancing years. Momentous months lie ahead for a president who will have no choice but to make history.