On June 12, Iran’s electorate will go to the polls to decide whether to keep Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as their president or replace him. If Ahmadinejad loses, as the latest polls suggest that he might, it will be the first time since 1981 that Iranians have denied a president a second term.

As far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned, Iran’s office of the president is a peculiar and ever so ambiguous institution in the country’s maze of power centers. During Mohammad Khatami’s tenure, the Bush administration discredited his reform policies at home and détente initiatives vis-à-vis the West on the grounds that the president wields no real power and were as such meaningless. Yet, ever since Ahmadinejad’s firebrand rhetoric and penchant for defiance over diplomacy has marked Iran’s foreign policy, the Iranian president has become, in Washington’s eyes, the most dangerous man in the world.

By and large, Obama’s Nawruz address to the Iranian people marked a dramatic policy departure from his predecessor as well as previous U.S. administrations and may well herald the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington. Seemingly shedding “regime change rhetoric,” the Obama administration wants to treat Iran just like any other country and as such, will eventually have to sit down with the Iranian government. Iranian elections are notoriously hard to predict, but a closer look at the highest-profile challengers gives some insight into the likely government the United States will soon face.

Conservatives for Ahmadinejad

Since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, conservatives and reformists have largely determined the fault-lines in Iranian politics. After four years of Ahmadinejad, Iran’s political leadership isn’t only faced with popular resentment over the state of the economy and the level of political repression but also increasingly divided along new lines. During the course of the last year, a new split between the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the clergy at large has opened up.

Under Ahmadinejad, the clout of the IRGC network increased significantly. IRGC firms have been awarded numerous lucrative gas and oil contacts, and former and current officers have taken on cabinet positions and other high-profile government posts. Iran’s clerical establishment, on the other hand, is concerned that the IRGC may well jeopardize their own clerical crony capitalist networks and is outraged by Ahmadinejad’s own interpretation of Shi’a eschatology and his claims to have personal contact with the Mahdi, the prophesized Messiah of Islam. As much as Ahmadinejad’s authoritarian populism and notorious statesmanship has contributed to Iran’s international isolation, so has it earned him resentment and alienation among the clergy, the technocratic elite, and the educated middle class.

Eager to confront this new challenge — the growing role of Ahmadinejad’s IRGC and Basij (paramilitary group) allies as well as the clergy’s perceived marginalization — traditional conservatives initially seemed to support the ticket of a moderate conservative capable of undermining Ahmadinejad’s reelection. Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, former Majlis Speaker Nateq Nouri, and Tehran’s current popular mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf had all received support from a cross-partisan base and were initially thought to be leading an anti-Ahmadinejad coalition from the moderate conservative camp.

Thus, with official backing from the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad has managed to woo away the more cautious conservatives. The threat to Ahmadinejad, however, has not been so much from his right, but from his left: former Prime Minister and reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Reformist Comeback?

Mousavi, who was prime minister from 1981 to 1989 during the war with Iraq, has since kept out of the political limelight. He had already proved his revolutionary credentials in 1979, oversaw a war-torn economy throughout his entire premiership, introduced rationing and austerity measures, and largely favored a state-led economy. These moves earned him some criticism from those advocating free-market economics, including Ayatollah Khamenei himself.

On the international diplomatic scene, Mousavi’s government earned its stripes during the Algiers talks with the United States, which led to Washington’s pledge not to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs and the release of the U.S. hostages from Iran in January 1981. Mousavi was also involved in the secret “arms for US hostages in Lebanon” negotiations, sending Iranian envoys to meet with Reagan administration officials in the mid-1980s. These meetings, which congressional enquiries subsequently disclosed as part of the Iran-Contra affair are a chapter in U.S.-Iran relations that Republicans would like to forget as much as their Iranian counterparts.

Mousavi’s main credential remains his handling of the war economy in an efficient manner, which raises his appeal amongst Ahmadinejad’s base, the poorer classes. However, Mousavi literally shunned public office since 1989. So he is unknown to the majority of the electorate. Almost half of the electorate is between 16 and 29, with some 6 million first-time voters. Mousavi’s biggest electoral challenge will be to court the youth.

America’s Candidate?

So far, Mousavi’s campaign has presented him as a crisis manager with a proven track record of integrity and obedience to the law. He has positioned himself as someone who wouldn’t only end Ahmadinejad’s erratic management style at home and revolutionary spirit abroad, but also engage in talks with the Obama administration. At his first press conference, Mousavi stressed his reformist credentials and pragmatist pedigree, stating that “extremism has damaged us greatly. We have to actively work to earn trust at the international level.” On the prospect of talks with the United States, the presidential hopeful said “we are studying the change advocated by Obama…but actions must now follow. We will pay careful attention to what happens next. If his actions are in keeping with his words, why shouldn’t we negotiate?” He made it also clear that a new bilateral framework between the United States and Iran is needed in order open channels of communication and eliminate mutual misperceptions.

As far as the nuclear program is concerned, Mousavi’s stance coincides with the current Iranian government policy. He, too, insists on Iran’s right to nuclear technology, but also stresses the need for Iran to engage in international negotiations and the imperative to provide guarantees that would verify the non-diversion of the program into nuclear weapons. By and large, the election of Mousavi would change not the substance of the nuclear issue but rather the tone. Being a fundamental part of Iran’s national security doctrine, the Supreme Leader’s Office is in charge of all aspects pertaining to the nuclear talks. So although Mousavi will and cannot make concessions on enrichment activities, he’s likely to engage in confidence-building measures vis-à-vis the United States and create a sustainable bilateral working relationship. Given his track record and that of his fellow reformists, Mousavi’s cabinet would express Iranian security concerns more constructively as well as recognize U.S. security perceptions and demands.

Eager to appeal to these key constituencies — reformists, conservatives who have been alienated by the incumbent president, and the undecided — Mousavi is playing the role of a political mediator and crisis manager. Criticizing the current government’s appalling human rights record, the reformist candidate has already stated that he would abolish Ahmadinejad’s stricter public morality enforcement policies by which the police have violently enforced the Islamic dress code. Mousavi has aimed this call at the young electorate as part of presenting himself as the savior of the alienated educated youth.

Condemning the current government’s level of corruption and nepotism, as well as its general failure to abide by the rule of law, Mousavi emphasizes human rights and made the right of freedom of expression and access to information a major tenet of his campaign. Most significantly, speaking at Ahwaz University, Mousavi called for the reform of the country’s Guardian Council, a powerful 12-member constitutional body in charge of vetting candidates running for public office (including the presidency) and with the right to veto any parliamentary bill deemed contrary to Islamic values and revolutionary principles. Mousavi’s bold call for a constitutional amendment to diminish the powers of the council indicates that, should the reformists regain Iran’s executive, they may well use the momentum of a renewed popular mandate to challenge existing power structures. Should they in fact win the election, reformists certainly do not want to repeat Khatami’s tenure, during which the Guardian Council thwarted most reformist initiatives and policies. However, given that the Guardian Council will oversee and potentially reject any new amendments regarding the limiting of its authority, any reformist call for constitutional change will be a rather difficult task.

Challenge within the Ranks

Perhaps the greatest challenge to Mousavi comes from the ranks of the reformists themselves — in the form of Mehdi Karrubi. Karrubi has been a member of parliament for 16 years and Majlis Speaker for two terms. He is currently the leader of the reformist National Trust Party. Advocating human rights and civil liberties at home and a more moderate foreign policy vis-à-vis the West, Karrubi largely follows Khatami’s footsteps of implementing gradual reform. The 72-year-old cleric has yet to quit the race in favor of Mousavi and as such, may well split the reformist vote in the first round of the election.

Despite the oil windfall of the last three years, Ahmadinejad hasn’t succeeded in meeting his 2005 campaign promises “to bring the country’s oil money to every family’s dinner table.” Far from introducing sustainable diversification and industrialization policies, Ahmadinejad engaged in a populist spending spree on pet projects and cash handouts to the urban disenfranchised, the conservative poorer strata, and the rural population. His bid for re-election counts on these constituents as well as his IRGC and paramilitary Basij allies. Reformists will undoubtedly exploit his poor economic track record.

Even though the parliament’s majority belongs to Ahmadinejad’s “Principalist” faction, Speaker of the House Ali Larijani has been at odds with the president on numerous occasions and largely represents the mainstream conservatives — the clerical establishment in Qom — who are unhappy with the state of the country. Led by Larijani, for instance, the parliament didn’t approve the government’s budget proposal for the year ahead. Part of the budget would have reduced certain state subsidies and allocated $34 billion directly to the poor. The move would have largely catered to Ahmadinejad’s constituents just weeks before the election.

Nonetheless, the election remains close. A recent poll by the website Parsineh, which surveyed 35,000 people across the country indicated that 24.8% would vote for Mir Hossein Mousavi, 23.6% for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 22.3 % for Mehdi Karrubi and 8.5% for Mohsen Rezai.

Impact on U.S. Foreign Policy

Ever since 1979, Iranian politics has become unpredictable. In the absence of multiple, unbiased, and scientifically accurate opinion polls, projecting a presidential winner is extremely difficult. For the United States, anyone but Ahmadinejad would be the obvious choice. When official campaigning begins on May 21, as stipulated by Iranian law, Washington will pin its hopes on the reformist contenders Mir-Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karroubi. There is a good chance that these reformers can use the momentum of sanctions, economic downturn, and political dissent against the current president.

A reformist comeback would certainly substitute confrontational tactics and volatile rhetoric with moderation and reason. Although the nuclear position will not shift, the United States will likely be able to engage constructively with a reformist government in Iran. But such a government will also have to deal with a hostile conservative parliament, and may have trouble delivering on the key issues needed internally in order to secure and maintain dialogue with the United States.

Ironically, it may actually be easier for a government like Ahmadinejad’s to anchor engagement with the United States within the Iranian body politic. At the same time, the Obama administration would be hard-pressed to engage Ahmadinejad if he captures a new mandate from the electorate. Whoever wins the upcoming presidential election in Iran, the country will remain a diplomatic challenge for the Obama administration, perhaps its greatest one.

Bernd Kaussler is an assistant professor of political science at James Madison University, an associate fellow at the Institute for Iranian Studies, University of St Andrews, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

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