A review of Iran’s domestic politics over the past few weeks can give us a number of insights on what has been simmering unseen over the past four years, and what Iran has to look forward to in the coming years.
First and foremost, the Iranian leadership is not unified. Despite all Khamenei’s efforts, it remains deeply divided, particularly on Iran’s nuclear program and the way it’s been handled.
After three presidential debates, we now know there's a deep rift amongst top-ranking officials, even those close to the Supreme Leader, on major policy issues, a rift that hints at a bitter animosity. The clearest glimpse behind the curtain came during the third debate, when Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s top foreign policy advisor, harshly criticized Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, indicating that many, even those close to Khamenei, who believe Iran’s nuclear program and the way it’s been handled over the past years is a failure. Hassan Rowhani, the former nuclear negotiator, made a similar argument about Jalili’s failure to keep Iran’s dossier on the right track, resulting in a chain of costly sanctions and the country's political isolation.
These public debates have created a space for analysts and the media to challenge Jalili’s—and by extension the Supreme Leader’s—narrative of their performance with regards to the nuclear program. Before now it was almost impossible and personally dangerous to challenge that narrative publicly, but in the course of just a few days, the pride of “economic resistance” has been deflated, and Jalili’s image is now sullied with accusations of incompetence, a lack of experience, and a reckless way of resisting the West.
Second, because of the severe crackdown imposed by the Iranian intelligence and police over the past four years, the voices of opposition have been silenced for some time, particularly since the house arrest of two opposition leaders: Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi, in February 2010. Now, in the campaign events of the reformist candidate, Mohammadreza Aref, and the moderate candidate, Hassan Rowhani, we are seeing an overwhelming frustration with the current human rights situation and the condition of social and political rights. In Rowhani’s campaign events in the northern city of Sari and Tehran's Shiroudi Stadium, the major chants included “political prisoners should be released” and “Mousavi and Karroubi should be released.” In the third presidential debate, Rowhani’s one-liner to Ghalibaf, Tehran’s current mayor and former chief of police, that “I’m not a general but a jurist,” has been circulated widely on social media and also on posters in campaign events.
Even since the disqualification of Hashemi Rafsanjani on May 21, whose campaign had gathered sizeable momentum in just a few weeks, many Iranians have felt demoralized, disconnected and doubtful of even voting at all. But the impertinence of the two reformist candidates is now again creating a new wave of support and engagement. On Sunday, Iranian national TV refused to air Rowhani’s campaign video until the parts where Hashemi Rafsanjani spoke in favor of him were removed. This makes it even more obvious that the reason that Rafsanjani was removed from the race was not because of his age, as the Guardian Council argued, but because he had a real chance to win the election.
Third, for many, Jalili’s approach towards policy issues, both domestic and international, seems to be a disaster for the country’s future. If it appears that he has a high chance of winning, many people might turn out to vote for the reformist and moderate candidates. If one of these two candidates steps down for the other one, unifying reformists behind one candidate, then the big fight will be between Jalili and Rohani/Aref, whichever remains. Many analysts think this potential match-up could play out as a referendum on both Iran’s nuclear program and also the Supreme Leader’s favoritism.
Amongst all the presidential candidates, not surprisingly, Jalili appears to be the most supportive of Ahmadinejad. And Ahmadinejad, along with the powerful Guardian Council, is in charge of holding the election and counting the votes. Which brings us to a big, scary question: Will they, once more, hold a fraudulent election and cheat? If Jalili and any other conservatives, even Ghalibaf, make it to the second round, there is a very powerful possibility that many of those marginalized and disappointed people who decided not to vote because of what they endured in 2009, will then come out to support Rowhani, and there is a possibility that this may change the course of the race. That’s why many are suspicious of the possibility of one of these candidates going to the second round, and afraid that if the election does go to a second round the regime will make sure Rowhani is not still a candidate.
Fourth, even though the regime paid a high price to ensure that all branches of government are in the control of conservatives and the Leader’s favorites, still there is an overwhelming frustration within the society. There are still demands for basic human rights and dignity. There is still a civil society that is itching for any openings, despite being weakened over the past eight years. And there is widespread dissatisfaction with government policies, from Iran’s nuclear program to domestic policies, chief amongst them the handling of Iran’s economy, which coupled with the impact of sanctions is worsening ordinary people’s lives day by day, making them nearly intolerable.
In such an environment, and after such a public revelation by high ranking officials like Rowhani, Rezaie and Velayati, that Iran’s nuclear program could be handled differently to prevent economic sanctions, now the Leader’s “economic resistance” seems like more of a shallow slogan and has become much harder to sell.