Last month, the Iranian Interior Ministry announced that the next presidential election had officially been scheduled for June 14, 2013. Despite mechanisms already in place to limit reformers’ influence in the government, including the vetting process performed by the Guardian Council and the willingness to falsify election results as occurred in the 2009 presidential election, Iran’s presidency remains an avenue to liberalize the Iranian government. For this reason, the Supreme Leader considers the presidency a potential threat and will likely influence the upcoming election to make sure one of his allies comes to power. However, the dire economic straits that Iran finds itself in are likely to make an anti-reformist hijacking of Iran’s premier elective office a much harder sell this time around.
The current incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is term-limited, but it is unlikely that he could succeed in another open election. Having come into office with promises of renewed prosperity, he has become the scapegoat for Iran’s economic troubles in the eyes of the people and the Supreme Leader, and is now the weakest of Iran’s six post-revolutionary elected presidents. Ahmadinejad is expected to recommend his chief of staff and protégé, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as a candidate for the next election, but the Guardian Council wants to eliminate any of his preferred loyalists, and Mashaei is at risk of either arrest or disqualification as presidential candidate, given his leadership regarding the “deviant current” of the current president.
Following the June 2009 electoral fraud, when the same Interior Ministry announced the results before the votes were counted, an estimated three million took to the streets in protest. The government did not take kindly to this outpouring of democratic support. The paramilitary Basij spray-painted demonstrators to identify them for subsequent arrest, interrogation, and possible torture in the notorious Evin Prison. Despite the crackdown, presidential elections still represent the moments when reformist candidates and movements have found the greatest success since the clergy took power in 1979. As the highest directly elected official and the second most powerful leader in the clerical regime after the Supreme Leader, the president still represents an opportunity for advancement in Iran’s long, but steady, democratization process.