With negotiations underway over Iran’s nuclear program, and with the start of an extraordinarily unpredictable Iranian presidential campaign, the weeks ahead could prove pivotal in determining whether Iran moves toward an easing in tensions with the West or further isolation.
Much will depend on who wins the June 14 presidential election, which will end Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial tenure as chief executive. Any nuclear deal would be unlikely until after Iran has chosen its next president.
Although official campaigning will not begin until early May, there are 20 candidates who have announced their intentions to run, and all indications are that the election season will be a volatile one.
Besides a growing list of conservative political figures, possible candidates include two former presidents, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, both of whom are considered to be reformists within the clerical establishment. Like Ahmadinejad, both are viewed with suspicion by clerics who see them as a threat to their continued dominance in politics.
Although Khatami is the most recognizable member of the reformist camp, some analysts believe he is unlikely to expose himself to the risks of a political campaign after a disappointing end to his two-term presidency, which ended in 2005.
Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, is acting like a man who intends to maintain a strong role in Iranian politics even after he leaves office, lobbying hard for his top adviser, former chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to succeed him.
It is unclear whether the 12-member Guardian Council, a conservative-dominated body that is tasked with vetting presidential candidates, would allow a reformist, or even Mashaei, to run. The presidencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami both saw Iran move away from the anti-Western ideology that had been central to Iran’s identity since the toppling of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.
But the prospect of a wider field of candidates has enlivened a race that most observers had thought would include only conservatives closely aligned with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“What seems to be happening in the run-up to the elections is the shifting of alliances and enmities on an immense scale between a wide range of the political elite — far wider than was predicted by Western analysts even three months ago,” said Kevan Harris, a Princeton University sociologist who conducts research on Iran’s economy and travels regularly to the country.
Whoever wins will inherit a series of challenges and opportunities that no previous Iranian president has faced.