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Iran’s promising presidential contender

by Alireza Nader

WASHINGTON — Iran’s presidential race just got more interesting, with former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi throwing his hat in the ring and former President Mohammad Khatami withdrawing his. This development poses the most significant challenge yet to current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — and a potential opportunity to alter the relationship between Iran and the West.

Mousavi, who believes that Iran is in “poor shape,” is perceived by many of the Iranian elite to possess the revolutionary and ideological credentials to run against Islamist fundamentalists such as Ahmadinejad. At the same time, he is associated with Iranian reformists, who believe that Iran must enact major domestic and foreign policy changes to escape its economic crisis and international isolation.

A Mousavi presidency could lead to foreign policies that incorporate engagement with the United States and European Union on a number of issues, including Iran’s nuclear program. However, Mousavi will face many obstacles in the months leading up to the June 12 vote, and he will succeed only if allowed to by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mousavi was an important part of the revolutionary movement that overthrew the Shah in 1979. As prime minister from 1981 to 1989, he was credited for steering Iran through the crises of the early revolutionary period and the Iran-Iraq war.

Widely viewed as a capable technocrat, Mousavi has often been able to navigate Iran’s complicated economic and political maze. He appeared to have abandoned an active role in politics after his post was abolished in 1989. But now he has ostensibly resurfaced, like a Persian Cincinnatus, to help Iran in its hour of need.

Iran under Ahmadinejad is facing its worst economic crisis in decades. Inflation, unemployment, sanctions, and falling oil prices have created a perfect storm, threatening the stability of the regime. Yet the public and the elite few view the presidential contenders as being capable of improving Iran’s conditions.

Ahmadinejad maintains some support among the poor and rural classes, but he is viewed with disdain by much of the ruling class, even within his own political camp. His economic failures have highlighted the need for a more moderate and capable president.

Former President Khatami, meanwhile, is reviled by the fundamentalists and the top brass of the Revolutionary Guards, who repeatedly obstructed his reform agenda during his presidency. A recent Op-Ed in the rightwing Kayhan newspaper, which is closely associated with Khamenei, had warned Khatami to avoid the same fate as the assassinated Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. It is no surprise that he backed out of the race, leaving Mousavi, a technocrat and a revolutionary, as the only viable challenger to Ahmadinejad.

But change does not come easily to Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is wary of Mousavi, who served as prime minister during Khamenei’s presidency in the 1980s. The two were often at odds over economic, social and religious policies.

Ahmadinejad, by contrast, has been loyal to Khamenei and has largely followed his policies over the past four years. In Khamenei’s eyes, it was Ahmadinejad who kept Khamenei’s reformist opponents at bay and resisted U.S. President George W. Bush’s attempt to “dominate” Iran and the Middle East.

A perceived change in American “behavior” under the Obama administration may facilitate Khamenei’s support for, or at least acquiescence in, an electoral victory by Mousavi. Khamenei may be fundamentally opposed to full U.S.-Iranian relations, but a new Iranian president may provide some cover for limited accommodations, including perhaps on the nuclear front.

And an easing of U.S.-Iranian tensions over the next few months, even if unaccompanied by substantive advances in the relationship, could improve the prospect for a fairer, less manipulated election result.

Mousavi is the man to watch. As always, elections in Iran are neither predictable nor transparent. The dominant actors — Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards — will continue to exert potentially decisive influence.

Alireza Nader is an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. © 2009 Project Syndicate