As President Obama calibrates his engagement policy with Iran and plans his next steps with the vexing Islamic Republic, that nation will go to the polls on June 12 to elect a president. The election will have important implications for the U.S. and the future of Middle East stability since it constitutes a referendum on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's confrontational global policies and domestic economic policy failures as he likely runs for a second four year term.
And Ahmadinejad's opponents are wasting no time questioning whether Iran can afford another four years of his demagoguery and missteps.
In the run up to next month's election the candidates are anxiously jockeying to garner crucial support within a broad cross section of Iranian constituency groups as they crisscross Iran campaigning.
Ahmadinejad has the advantage at the outset since he controls Iran's vast state media which will inevitably give short shrift to the challengers. While there is no "pre-voting," the next several weeks of electioneering contain all the trappings of a combined primary/caucus system. Somewhat like the Iowa's caucus system or MIchigan-like straw voting (admittedly a bit of a stretch), leaders of key voting blocs throughout Iran's cities and provinces begin to demonstrate their leanings by taking sides and providing crucial financial and political aid in the run up to the actual balloting.
Although Ahmadinejad's electoral fate is important because it signals where Iran may tilt in its confrontation with the west, the June election should not be interpreted as a dispositive referendum on Iran's dangerous game of chicken with Israel and the United States over its nuclear program.
Because under Iran's constitution the fate of the nuclear program resides not with its elected president but with its unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Although the Iranian president is the person most in the international spotlight, Khamenei is the SOLE decider when it comes to Iran's nuclear aspirations and state sponsorship of terrorism. Moreover, none of the key contenders would dare criticize Iran's nuclear ambitions -- to do so would be political suicide.
But Ahmadinejad's electoral fate could influence how the Supreme Leader gauges Iranian public opinion and the consequences of continuing on the path of confrontation with the West and Arab states.
Ironically, the ever cagey Ahmadinejad has yet to officially declare his candidacy for re-election (and why he is waiting has led to many a conspiracy theory). But no one believes he would step aside and not seek a second, four year term unless he were to be tossed overboard by the Supreme Leader. After all, Ahmadinejad takes great pleasure grabbing the international spotlight with his bellicosity, cut-throat domestic political record and vicious anti-Israel and holocaust-denying diatribes. So far, Ayatollah Khamenei has not evidenced sufficient displeasure with Ahmadinejad's antics to cast doubt on his reelection chances.
Joining Ahmadinejad on the ballot is a lengthy list of challengers. But three candidates stand out and are, by most observers, the leading contenders. They are: Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Mehdi Karroubi, a former Speaker of Iran's parliament. And Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was a prime minister in the 1980s.
Rezaei, 57, is the most ultra-conservative of the bunch -- and surprisingly, the most vocal critic of Ahmadinejad's confrontational foreign policies (he has even indicated a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on "regional security"). He has attacked Ahmadinejad for provoking global antipathy toward Iran and unnecessarily subjecting Iran to economic sanctions that have undermined Iran's economy. Coming from a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards that is tough talk that may resonate among the president's core supporters. Rezaei is not viewed as the leading challenger, however. Rather, he is viewed as a potential spoiler -- taking crucial conservative votes away from Ahmadinejad. True to his Revolutionary Guard pedigree, Rezaei is wanted by Interpol in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Karroubi and Mousavi are vying for the "reformist" label, and are allied with former President Muhammad Khatami, who abruptly withdrew from the race.
Mousavi is viewed as the leading challenger to Ahmadinejad. A respected reformist who has the backing of Iran's former president Akbar Rafsanjani. Leaving the dirty work against Ahmadinejad to Rezaei, Mousavi is calling for a new social compact among the Iranian people and supports improved relations with the west. His chances of unseating the incumbent will greatly depend on whether the reformers can forge a sufficient anti-Ahmadinejad coalition and coalesce around Mousavi, or wind up splitting the protest vote among reformist candidates. The back room haggling to prevent that from happening has begun in earnest.
Ultimately, a win for Ahmadinejad may augur a dangerous showdown with Washington and Jerusalem, with enormous consequences to Iran in the long run. Alternatively, a win for one of the reformers could signal a stand down from confrontation and usher in a long period of tentative engagement with the west and major reforms at home that could set the Islamic Republic on a more moderate road. The whole world is watching which of these two roads Iran's voters prefer from their Supreme Leader.