Part of Foreign Affairs Report: The Iranian Election

Don't Discount the Iranian Election

The Surprising Tie Between the Vote and the Nuclear Negotiations

Many commentators have dismissed the upcoming Iranian presidential election, reasoning that the Supreme Leader makes all the important political decisions anyway -- above all, those relating to the nuclear program. But the presidential election does seem to matter to Ali Khamenei -- which is precisely why it should matter to observers in the West. The election should be understood as a forum that signals the Supreme Leader’s political intentions, including those concerning the nuclear issue.

Although the Supreme Leader has attempted to stay above the political fray, he has frequently found himself at odds with Iranian presidents looking to exercise their executive authority and trying to pursue policies that challenged his preferences. That was certainly true for Mohammed Khatami, who sought reform domestically and bridge-building internationally. President Ahmadinejad may not have been keen on bridge-building internationally, but he adopted a populist approach, sought to build an independent power base, and created great dissonance within the elite by making repeated accusations of corruption.

Though Ali Khamenei has wanted to reduce the fissures within the elite, he has wanted to do so on his terms. Khamenei has always been suspicious of making deals with Washington -- the West, he has argued, interprets concessions as a sign of weakness -- and he has generally valued tight control over the political elite, in service of those conservative values, over the convening of a broad consensus. Indeed, since ascending to the position of Supreme Leader, he has worked to shape a new political consensus that reflects his own philosophy of economic self-sufficiency and hostility to the United States.

During the 2009 election, Khamenei was prepared to drop all pretense of being above political infighting; he seemed to think that by intervening to assure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory, he would guard against the reemergence of more reformist, pragmatic forces that could challenge his policy orientation more directly. Little did the Supreme Leader suspect that, having saved the Iranian president from defeat, Ahmadinejad would then challenge him and become a source of constant tension -- and one that may not let up even after Ahmadinejad leaves the presidency.

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