Iran went to the polls yesterday to choose a new president and observers wait with bated breath for the result, an odd situation considering that despite regular elections, Iran is not truly a democracy. Iran’s ‘elections’ are rigged from the start – only candidates approved by the Shora-ye Negahban-e Qanun-e Assassi, the Guardian Council of the Constitution, are allowed to stand, and the results are often unpredictable and followed by accusations of rigging.

At 08 00, Tehran time, 66,000 polling stations opened across the country for over 50 million people to choose from six presidential candidates, and 207,000 local council seats. Polling remained open until 22 00 across Iran and until 23 00 in Tehran due to long lines. Voter turnout has been rumoured to be above 75%. Over 450 foreign journalists covered the elections.

Opinion polls conducted a day before the elections indicated that Hassan Rouhani, a law doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian University (though some doubts have been expressed), is the favourite with 38% of the respondents and Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, second with 25%. Rouhani, endorsed by former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, is seen as the best moderate choice against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s man, Saeed Jalili.

Yet whoever wins the elections little is likely to change. No candidate will question fundamental policies such as Iran’s support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria or its nuclear programme. Contrary to media wisdom, Iran is far more nationalist than it is Islamic, and issues vital to Iran’s strategic well-being will not be easily negotiated away.

One reason for this is that the president of Iran does not have the final say in policy-making – according to the Iranian constitution, the office of the Supreme Leader is the most powerful in the land. The president is the second most powerful, more concerned with quotidian implementation of the constitution.

Another reason is that the vetting by the Guardian Council would have already disbarred any candidate liable to rock Iran’s foreign or security policy boats.

A third reason is that any Western hope that a new president might be able to put the brakes on Iran’s nuclear programme, reduce its support to Syria, or abandon Hezbollah is pure fantasy – Iranians are far more nationalist than given credit for, usually misunderstood because of the media penchant for portraying them as crazed Islamic radicals.

Tehran’s Islamic government, despite its public anti-Israel rhetoric, continued buying arms from Tel Aviv until 1992, and the nuclear programme that the ayatollahs are fiercely defending was initiated under Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi in 1957.

While the international community has little skin in Iran’s elections, the outcome will certainly affect ordinary Iranians. As Karim Sadjadpour notes, the president can play a major role in managing the economy, Iran’s “domestic atmosphere, and its international image… Whereas Khatami is most remembered for his slogan calling for a dialogue of civilizations, Ahmadinejad will be remembered for his Holocaust revisionism and diatribes against Israel.”

In addition, a new president brings new personnel to important administrative positions in Tehran as well as in the provinces and they could change the present pervasive flavour of hopelessness in the country.

As polls closed around the country, the counting of votes has already begun in Iran. Sources tweeting from Iran indicate that Rouhani and Ghalibaf are the likely first and second placed candidates as the opinion polls predicted, but in a six-way election, no candidate is likely to acquire over 50% of the popular vote. Therefore, a second round run-off will be held on June 21 between the top two candidates in the first two rounds.

While many people do not believe in Rouhani, the backing of previous moderate presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami seems to have gained him many votes. Ghalibaf seems to have benefited from his tenure as the mayor of the capital city and his image as someone who might be able to improve the country’s economy. Iranian voters are also far too realistic to believe that Khamenei will refrain from tampering with the voting, and some still expect a last-minute Jalili surge.

An old Indian adage goes, “It takes two hands to clap.” If the new Iranian president is unable to persuade the West into reducing sanctions by conceding some ground on the nuclear issue, Iran’s top executive will be busy trying to woo countries to continue trading with Iran despite the US and EU stranglehold.

The president’s power to influence the economy will be weakened, and to maintain control over a population already restless with the state of the economy, social reforms (if any are planned) will likely be put on the back burner. The winning candidate’s presidency could be defined more by countries like India, China, Korea, and Japan than by domestic factors. As the French seem to be fond of saying, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (meaning the more things change, the more they stay the same).

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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