Jun 3, 2013 | 11:00 GMT

4 mins read

Iran's Political Debate

Iran's Political Debate
(ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran's domestic pressures came to the fore during the May 31 candidates' debate, the first during Iran's current presidential campaign. The eight candidates vetted by the Guardian Council debated a number of topics relating to the current state of Iran's economy. The candidates raised a number of familiar points — that Iran must decrease its dependence on hydrocarbon revenues, lessen the large military presence in the economy and expand domestic industrial output and consumption.

While many Western media outlets have touched on what might be considered laughable aspects of the debate — for instance, the disagreement between candidates and moderators over the format of the debate, or the reasoning behind asking multiple choice questions — they have overlooked the fundamental reality expressed by the debate: The Islamic Republic of Iran has democratic institutions, and its political dialogue is real. And although framed under the supervisory role of its clerics, Iran's institutions have allowed the Islamic republic to survive and will help it continue to evolve, in stark contrast to the repressive dictatorships and monarchies of its Arab neighbors.

Iran's candidates are in the midst of a campaign that will end with a presidential election on June 14. Sometime in August, Iran's incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will leave office and contemplate his political career from the sidelines for at least four years. This transition of power is significant. The relatively easy transfer of power between popularly elected leaders in Iran is almost unique in the Middle East. Part of this is because the president serves under the Supreme Leader, who serves for life. The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (himself president under the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini), has seen four presidents take office during his tenure.

The transition from Khomeini to Khamenei was one of the first evolutions of Iran's revolutionary government. In 1989, a decade after the overthrow of the Shah, Iran transitioned from a semi-presidential prime ministerial government to one with an empowered president kept in line by a Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad has been locked in a bitter power struggle with the Supreme Leader for much of the past four years, yet he has been allowed to remain in office because the clerical establishment is unwilling to risk the public backlash (and threatened exposure of corruption) that would follow the ousting of a popular president.

This highlights one of many paradoxical elements of the Iranian government and its relationship with dissidence. Although foreign media outlets characterized the 2009 election as stolen, Ahmadinejad was and remains a highly popular candidate who likely would win a third consecutive term if he were legally permitted to run again. Still, the violent reaction to the Green Movement protesters and the attempted suppression of the reformist agenda in 2009 cannot be denied. Iran's political system is tailored to manage the idiosyncrasies of the Iranian state, and it is not a perfect facsimile of Western-style democracies.

But many similarities hold true, and the language of this presidential campaign is critical of the outgoing administration, even if the candidates do not have clear policy initiatives of their own. Rather than railing against Israel and against regional Sunni competitors such as Saudi Arabia, or inveighing against the foreign policy of the United States, the candidates have largely addressed the economy, the need to create jobs for the country's burgeoning youth population, and universal healthcare reform — that last represented on Twitter by the phrase "#RouhaniCare." Even if the clerical regime wished to hold a monopoly over public discourse, the proliferation of independent and privately owned media outlets and shifts in public opinion have stayed beyond the reach of Iran's government censors.

In the 34 years since the Iranian Revolution, Iran's political system has changed to meet the needs of its day. This has been reflected by the pragmatic, economic focus of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency following the end of the Iran-Iraq war; President Mohammad Khatami's quiet attempts at reform and foreign policy engagement beyond Iran's borders during the late 1990s and early 2000s; and the highly nationalistic, populist policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in many ways sought to push back against clerical control of the broader political system. The upcoming election will be a key indicator of the health of the republic, whether it proceeds smoothly and the clerical elite accede to some of the political rebalancing pursued by Ahmadinejad, or they instead attempt to reconsolidate power under a previous iteration of the regime.

However the election turns out, Iran's regional policy ambitions and security concerns mean that we can expect little change in Tehran's support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad or Iran's pursuit of its nuclear program. Iran's political system and democratic institutions promote Iranian prerogatives, and a relatively commonplace change in political leadership at the presidential level is unlikely to do much to shift Iran's regional policies more in line with those of the United States or the European Union.

Changes in Iran's domestic politics will remain nearly indiscernible to a foreign audience waiting to see a Western-style liberal democracy flourish in Tehran, espousing new regional ambitions that would mitigate U.S. concerns. But change can be expected, and in years to come Tehran and Washington may very well open channels for dialogue. Evolution, not revolution, will instigate the Iranian government's future engagement with the West.

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