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Is Ahmadinejad going to lose?

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9 June 2009 15:38

As we enter the final week of Iran’s presidential election campaign, I want to draw your attention to a new Lowy Institute Analysis, Between defiance and détente: Iran’s 2009 presidential election and its impact on foreign policy. In the paper, Iranian researcher Mahmoud Alinejad looks ahead to the election on 12 June, assesses the four candidates’ prospects and analyses the potential impact of the election on Iran’s foreign relations.

The election is going to be really interesting, particularly since the chances of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad losing seem to be growing.

Predicting Iranian elections is notoriously difficult. Iranian opinion polls are unreliable and most elections involve some degree of voter manipulation. Both Ahmadinejad and his predecessor, former President Mohammed Khatami, were surprise victors in their first elections.

Of course, incumbency provides Ahmadinejad with considerable advantages. He has a solid base of support among Iran’s rural and urban lower classes and perhaps most importantly, he has the backing of the Revolutionary Guards, its paramilitary adjunct the Basij and, in all likelihood, Supreme Leader Khamenei.

But Ahmadinejad has faced strong and growing criticism, not least from within his own conservative camp in the regime, over his profligate economic policies at home and unnecessarily provocative approach to foreign relations. That criticism has even seen more pragmatic conservatives field their own candidate, the former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai.

Rezai is not expected to win. But the fact that he is even running is highly significant and his candidacy might well force the election to a second round, which would count against Ahmadinejad.

The President also faces a stronger than expected challenge from regime reformers. Despite the fact that the reformist camp is represented by two candidates, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Musavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi, this seems to have worked in their favour by attracting back to the polls those voters that abandoned the elections in 2005, effectively handing victory to Ahmadinejad. Musavi is polling the strongest of the two and seems to be building a real, and in many ways unexpected, momentum. He appeals not just to reformist voters but also to more pragmatically inclined conservatives.

The election result will have a significant, but not decisive impact on Iran’s foreign relations, in particular on the nuclear issue and the prospect of any US-Iranian rapprochement.

It will be significant because, should Ahmadinjead lose, a new president is likely to adopt a less confrontational tone in Iran’s relations with the outside world. He might even be able to shift the balance of opinion within the regime toward a more pragmatic posture on issues such as the nuclear program and relations with the US.

But it will not be decisive, because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei will remain the preeminent figure in foreign policy making. And even a more cordial atmosphere does not guarantee that the US and Iran will see eye to eye, particularly on the nuclear issue.

Iran is not about to give up its nuclear program. At best, a more pragmatic disposition within the regime may increase its willingness to reassure that the nuclear program is what the Iranians claim it is – civil - and not what many fear it is – military.  Whether such measures would be enough is far from clear.

Photo by Flickr user ManilaRyce, used under a Creative Commons license.

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