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Iran’s Election: What’s At Stake For The U.S.?

Above: Iranian women attend an electoral campaign rally in support of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 9, 2009 in Tehran, Iran.

Iran's presidential election on Friday is generating unusual excitement, with massive rallies and demonstrations for the four candidates, including incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his chief rival, pro-reform Mir Hossein Mousavi.

The election results could have a significant impact on relations with the United States and on issues ranging from Iran's nuclear program to Tehran's influences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Observers expect a strong turnout in a political climate so volatile that few are willing to predict the result.

There is a chance that no candidate will gain the 50 percent of the vote needed for a first-round win. In that case, the top two vote getters will face each other in a runoff a week later.

Here's a look at the candidates, the issues and the stakes for the U.S.

The Field

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — The 52-year-old incumbent is running for a second term. He won his first term in 2005 with a populist campaign that garnered support from religious conservatives and rural and working-class voters. He has stirred controversy at home over his economic policies and rancor from abroad with denunciations of Israel and the U.S. He has defied the United Nations with a stepped-up nuclear program that the U.S. suspects is aimed at developing a nuclear weapon.

Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, notes that no incumbent Iranian president has ever lost a bid for a second term, but she says this election is likely to serve as a referendum on Ahmadinejad's personality and his controversial policies.

Political polling inside Iran has been notoriously unreliable, but a new poll conducted by telephone from outside the country finds that 34 percent of Iranians surveyed say they favor Ahmadinejad. Ken Ballen, the president of Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion, which conducted the survey along with the New America Foundation think tank, notes that only 14 percent support Ahmadinejad's nearest rival, but he says that 27 percent are undecided and many of those indicated they supported government reforms. The poll was conducted by the firm KA Europe SPRL May 11-20, with 1,001 interviews proportionally distributed over all 30 provinces of Iran. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Mir Hossein Mousavi — The 67-year-old, pro-reform Mousavi was prime minister during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and is well-regarded by many older Iranians who see him as having guided the country through a time of crisis. Iran's former President Mohammad Khatami withdrew his own candidacy for president in March and threw his support to Mousavi, saying he didn't want to divide the votes of pro-reformists.

Analysts say that Mousavi's main weakness is that he has been out of politics for decades and has only recently become well known among younger voters. Although Mousavi's poll numbers are lower than Ahmadinejad's, Maloney says she takes all poll results with a grain of salt. "We're absolutely in a stage where it's impossible to predict a winner," she says.

In a debate on Iranian television, Mousavi blasted Ahmadinejad for reckless spending and a combative foreign policy that has left the country isolated.

Mehdi Karroubi — Karroubi is a 72-year-old Shiite cleric and a former speaker of Iraq's Parliament. Known as an advocate of civil rights and especially of women's rights, Karroubi is considered a very long shot for the presidency, with only about 2 percent in the Terror Free Tomorrow poll. Maloney says he has been organizing reformist opposition to Ahmadinejad in the form of a new political party and a newspaper. She says Karroubi may have enough support to split the pro-reform vote, a situation that could doom Mousavi.

Mohsen Rezai — The former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, 55-year-old Rezai is running as a conservative. He has challenged Ahmadinejad for questioning the Holocaust and denying Israel's right to exist, but Rezai's own son has accused him of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, an attack that killed 85 people. Rezai is officially wanted by Interpol in connection with that bombing and for alleged human right violations in Iran.

The Issues

Iran's Economy — Despite its status as a major oil exporter, Iran suffers 25 percent inflation and high unemployment. Ahmadinejad's opponents say he has mismanaged the economy, spending heavily without a coherent plan. "Iranians, like most people, do vote on bread-and-butter issues," says Maloney. "By any measure, life is not better in Iran now than it was in 2005."

Maloney notes that Ahmadinejad's spending has broadened his political base, especially outside the cities. Ballen says that his group's polling shows a drop in the number of Iranians who think the country's economy is headed in the right direction —from 42 percent a year ago to 33 percent now. "But the good news for Ahmadinejad is that people seem to be about equally divided as to whether he should be held responsible for the economic problems," Ballen says.

Mousavi often takes credit for keeping Iran's economy afloat during the Iran-Iraq war.

Iran's Nuclear Program — Ahmadinejad has refused to end Iran's nuclear enrichment program, despite U.N. resolutions and sanctions against it. He says Iran's program is designed only for peaceful purposes and has called nuclear weapons "against our religion." Although Ahmadinejad is closely associated with the nuclear program in the eyes of the West, his office doesn't actually set Iran's nuclear policy. That is decided by the Supreme National Security Council, which is controlled by Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran's Relations With Other Countries — Ahmadinejad has been roundly criticized for rhetoric in which he called for the destruction of Israel and appeared to deny that the Holocaust ever happened. At various times he has tried to qualify these comments, but Mousavi blasted him for them in their televised debate earlier this month. Ahmadinejad shot back that Mousavi had called for the destruction of Israel when he was prime minister.

The U.S. and other countries accuse Iran of supporting terrorist groups and militias in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. At a rally at Isfahan University in May, Mousavi accused Ahmadinejad of "disgracing" the Iranian nation with his "thoughtless policies."

The Terror Free Tomorrow poll found that Iranians have a generally negative view of Israel. Only a quarter of those surveyed said that Iran should enter a peace treaty recognizing Israel, even if an independent Palestinian state is established. More than 60 percent supported the government for providing funding to Shiite militias in Iraq, as well as groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Implications For U.S. Foreign Policy — Regardless of who wins, the Obama administration will need to be careful, analysts say. In an article written for the Saban Center, Maloney says the administration must walk a fine line between criticizing Iran's constraints on democratic elections and recognizing that the presidential votes have strong popular participation.

She also cautions against welcoming any possible reformist victory too enthusiastically, saying a U.S. "embrace of any individual Iranian politician would likely taint him and limit his room for maneuver."

Ballen says his poll results show that regardless of who wins, the Iranian people are open to better relations with the West.

"What's interesting is not the horse race aspect of it, but what the Iranian people really think," Ballen says. "They're not giving [their leaders] a mandate for belligerent policies or rhetoric."

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