Part of Foreign Affairs Report: The Iranian Election

The Ayatollah's Game Plan

How to Prevent Another Green Movement

In normal presidential elections, it is only the candidates and their platforms that matter. Not so in Iran. There, the key player in the upcoming presidential elections is the septuagenarian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is constitutionally barred from running for the office. He recognizes that the election result will have a profound impact on his own rule and on the stability of the Islamic Republic. So behind the scenes, he has been doing everything in his power to make sure that the election serves his interests. But the eleventh-hour declarations of candidacy by Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president between 1989 and 1997, and by Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff and close confidant, have made his task more difficult.

The first part of Khamenei’s four-pronged strategy is to conduct an orderly election. The nightmare scenario for Khamenei is a repeat of the June 2009 presidential election, in which allegations that Ahmadinejad had stolen victory from his challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, led to massive demonstrations and the birth of the popular reformist Green Movement.

Khamenei could have stayed above the fray, as elites expected him to do. Instead, he lost credibility as a neutral arbiter when he sided with Ahmadinejad, rejected all allegations of fraud, and blamed Ahmadinejad’s opponents for inciting violence. His offer of public support for the president opened a fissure among the elites that has never quite healed. It also preceded a massive crackdown on activists who were castigated as American stooges and arrested. Even more, the disputed election alienated millions who felt truly robbed of their voices.

Given that history, Khamenei has made a concerted effort this time around to discredit potential protesters before they take to the streets. The Revolutionary Guards and security forces have launched a propaganda campaign to link any interruption on election day or after to the United States and its purported plans to destabilize the regime. For example, Yadollah Javani, the head of the political bureau of the Revolutionary Guards, has warned that the slogan “free and fair election” is a U.S. code word for sedition.

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