Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Friday, June 12, 2009 3:00 PM
As Iranians vote today to choose a president, the country is more deeply polarized than at any time since the Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah 30 years ago. After a bitter campaign that included personal attacks on some of Iran's leading families, both sides are preparing to contest the results, and many Iranians wonder whether the social and economic rifts exposed by the election will deepen.
"The polling has been extended until midnight in Iran (3:30 p.m. ET). Turnout appears to be massive and it could surpass the historic turnout of nearly 80 percent that elected Mohammad Khatami president 12 years ago. The high turnout, especially among under 30 voters, is a good sign for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the challenger to current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad" said Mohamad Bazzi, adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an e-mail interview with washingtonpost.com
Bazzi was online Friday, June 12, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss the latest election news from Iran.
Mohamad Bazzi: Good afternoon. This is Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. I am eager for our discussion about today's presidential election in Iran.
The polling has been extended until midnight in Iran (3:30 pm EDT). Turnout appears to be massive and it could surpass the historic turnout of nearly 80 percent that elected Mohammad Khatami president 12 years ago. The high turnout, especially among those under 30 years old, is a good sign for reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Virginia: Is Iran a democracy?
That depends on your definition of democracy. In some ways, Iran is more democratic than many other countries in the Middle East, where elections are not held or there is often one name on the ballot -- that of the current leader. But Iranian elections are not entirely fair and open.
Only a small group of candidates are allowed to run by the Guardian Council, which is an unelected body of 12 clerics that have the authority to veto all electoral candidates and parliamentary decisions. Half of the members of the Guardian Council are directly appointed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The other half are appointed by him indirectly.
Vienna, Va.: Why was the cutoff for voting extended?
Mohamad Bazzi: The voting was extended until midnight because turnout was so high and it could break previous records. There is concern in the Iranian hierarchy of social unrest as a result of this election, and this was one way to minimize that threat so that Iranians have ample opportunity to vote.
Arlington, Va. : What makes this election different than other elections in the area?
Mohamad Bazzi: As I mentioned before, Iranian elections are often more open than elections in other Middle Eastern countries. But they are not entirely free and fair. The Guardian Council only allows candidates who are deemed sufficiently loyal to the ideals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Many segments of the population end up excluded (women, religious minorities, and, in recent years, many reformers).
This year Iranians were offered four presidential candidates to choose from: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the current president), Mir-Hossein Mousavi (a former prime minister), Mehdi Karroubi (former speaker of the Parliament), and Mohsen Rezaee (a former Revolutionary Guard commander).
Van Ness, D.C. : How do you think world leaders will react to the results of the election in the case of different winners or close results?
Mohamad Bazzi: If Mousavi, the leading reformist candidate wins, then world leaders will breathe a sigh of relief that Ahmadinejad will no longer be on the scene. We should keep in mind that despite the Iranian president's high profile, he is not the most powerful political figure in the country. That would be the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The president creates a cabinet and helps set economic, social and foreign policy priorities.
Khamenei will continue to set policy on the most important issues, such as engagement with the United States and nuclear development.
Arlington, Va.: Will Ahmadinejad contest the elections if he loses?
Mohamad Bazzi: That is entirely possible. It is also possible that Mousavi would also contest the election results if he loses. After previous elections in Iran, there were many accusations of fraud: ballot stuffing, cancellation of votes, and voter intimidation.
Bethesda, Md. : Were any organizations or NGOs such as the Carter Center involved in assisting with the election?
Mohamad Bazzi: Not that I am aware of. Remember, the United States and Iran have not have formal ties since the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran.
Seattle, Wash.: So, since the Supreme Leader is still the same, how does this change of second in commands affect foreign policy?
And was turnout highest in urban centers or in rural areas?
Khamenei, the supreme leader, has had contentious relations with all three of Ahmadinejad's opponents. In the 1980s, when Khamenei was president of Iran, he frequently battled with Mousavi, who was prime minister at the time. Khamenei also tussled with Rezaee when he was commander of the Revolutionary Guards. In 2005, when Karroubi publicly made allegations of electoral fraud, the supreme leader denounced him.
If Ahmadinejad is defeated, Khamenei will need to mend fences with the new president. Of course, Khamenei will still have the final say on foreign policy matters. But he could be swayed on some issues.
New York: Does Mir Hussein Mousavi have a chance to get over 50% and avoid a runoff?
Mohamad Bazzi: Mousavi does have a chance to capture 50 percent of today's vote and to avoid a runoff, but that is unlikely. The more likely scenario is for a runoff between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad.
Fairfax, Va.: Did former President Khatami play a role during the election campaign?
Mohamad Bazzi: Initially, Khatami announced that he would run again for president. He had a short-lived campaign of several weeks. He then decided to withdraw and throw his support behind Mousavi, who galvanized the reform vote.
Toronto, Canada: What if they both claim victory as we are hearing?
Mohamad Bazzi: With such a large turnout and a close election, it's natural that both Ahmadinejad and Mousavi will claim victory. The high turnout among young people under 30 (who account for a third of Iran's 46 million eligible voters) should help Mousavi.
Alexandria, Va.: If Mousavi wins do you believe that Iran and the West will find common ground? How about Iran's relationship with it's Arab neighbors?
Mohamad Bazzi: If Mousavi wins, it could create a new opening for dialogue with the United States. Ahmadinejad's continued presence would be a major obstacle to U.S.-Iran dialogue. Of course, Khamenei will continue to have the final word on these matters, but he often makes decisions by consensus rather than decree. If Ahmadinejad was out of the picture, it would make it easier for Khamenei to act.
Winchester, Va.: Are parliamentary elections being held at the same time?
Mohamad Bazzi: No. Parliamentary elections are also held every four years, but not at the same time as the presidential vote.
Fairfax County, Va.: Do you think President Obama's Cairo address has played a role in making this as competitive as it is, and the turnout so large, or is this a largely internal dynamic that would have played out with anyone in the White House?
Also, did Obama's address, or simply his election as president and the exciting 08 campaign, perhaps influence ex-pat Iranian voters? I gather they are voting around the world as well as in Iran.
Mohamad Bazzi: I don't believe that President Obama's speech in Cairo played a significant role in this election, or in the turnout. Many voters in Iran are going to be motivated to vote against Ahmadinejad just as much as they might want to vote for Mousavi. During Ahmadinejad's term, economic conditions worsened considerably, and social freedoms became more limited. Many Iranians who did not vote in the 2005 presidential election now realize that it does make a difference who is president.
Williamsburg: The state news declared Ahmadinejad the winner. It seems early, and there have been allegations of vote rigging in the mosques. Do the young stand down and accept this loss?
Mohamad Bazzi: Again, it's too early to speculate on the winner. The reformists wanted a high turnout today to ensure a second round run-off against Ahmadinejad. They assume that Ahmadinejad will reach his peak vote count in the first round. They got the turnout they wanted today.
Louisville, Ky.: Considering Mousavi's past history as prime minister and his relationship with Khamenei, also the influence of the mullahs, would a win by Mousavi affect Iranian foreign policy with the West or Iranian domestic issues (i.e. youth movement, economy) more?
Mohamad Bazzi: Yes, Mousavi could change the entire tenor of Iran's conversation with the West. The election of a more moderate president could change the makeup of at least some of those who advise the supreme leader. They could advocate more conciliatory foreign policies.
Northern Virginia: While I understand the extreme limits on the process you describe, it does appear that I am witnessing democracy today from afar: the president of Iran will be determined by ordinary citizens' votes. Are there other Middle East democracies (in addition to Israel)? It seems odd that we have lost so many lives and spent so much money to "bring democracy to the Middle East" via Iraq, if there are already democracies in the region.
Mohamad Bazzi: Another country in the Middle East held relatively free and open parliamentary elections on Sunday: Lebanon.
Mohamad Bazzi: Thank you all for your excellent questions. I'm sorry that I could not answer all of them. I'm sure that we will have much more to discuss on Iran in the coming days.
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