The Middle East Channel

The nuclear issue in Iran’s election

June will mark the end of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office and bring a new leader to the forefront of Iranian politics. At the same time, the country continues to cooperate with the United States and its allies, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), and separately ...

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

June will mark the end of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office and bring a new leader to the forefront of Iranian politics. At the same time, the country continues to cooperate with the United States and its allies, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), and separately with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in ongoing nuclear negotiations. But progress has slowed. Observers have noted that the regime will be unwilling and unable to agree to a compromise until after a new president is chosen. Because of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s close involvement in, and even control over, Iran’s elections, however, all indications of progress may not have slowed to a stop. In fact, the country’s choice of president could provide insight into Iran’s next move.

The upcoming presidential vote is the first since Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009, when mass Green Movement protests erupted after the defeat of reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi. Last week, eight final candidates were chosen by the country’s powerful Guardian Council and two high level candidates were rejected. One of these candidates, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was seen as the Green Movement’s best hope for putting a reformist back in office. Rafsanjani, who publically supported the 2009 election protests, was also the most likely candidate to be open to change on the nuclear front. Ahmadinejad’s own candidate, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, was also disqualified, though his rejection came as less of a surprise. Ultimately, these two rejections send a strong message that the supreme leader intends to allow only those candidates with views aligned with his regime. 

The most high profile of Iran’s remaining candidates is Saeed Jalili. Currently the lead negotiator in charge of nuclear talks with the P5+1, Jalili is a hardline conservative who has at times shown a willingness to cooperate with world powers on issues concerning the country’s nuclear program but has always stopped short of the compromise necessary to reach a deal. In October 2009, Jalili became the first Iranian official in three years to meet with a U.S. diplomat one-on-one, meeting privately with then Under Secretary of State William Burns on the sidelines of negotiations with the P5+1. Recently, however, Jalili has chosen to put nuclear politics at the forefront of his campaign, reiterating Iran’s current hardline stance. On his campaign’s official Twitter feed, Jalili indicated that his objective as president would be to accelerate Iran’s peaceful nuclear program. He also addressed the position of one of his key opponents at the time. "Other policies will be seriously criticized [and the] current nuclear approach… defended," Jalili’s campaign stated. [We] "shall see what [is] Mr. Rafsanjani’s policy." 

Another frontrunner close to Khamenei is Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former air force commander and ex-head of the Iranian police force who succeeded Ahmadinejad as Tehran’s mayor soon after Ahmadinejad took office. Qalibaf has confirmed that he would pursue nuclear talks "more intelligently" and "neither sanctify nor reject the possibility of holding direct talks with the United States," but will continue to pursue the same "resistance diplomacy" that has characterized Tehran’s position so far. As the wide field has narrowed, so has the candidates’ perception of the nuclear issue. Importantly, none of Iran’s current frontrunners seem to share the belligerent nature of their predecessor, and the Guardian Council’s choices are more malleable than the candidates they’ve left behind, perhaps the reason for their success. For this reason, it seems more likely that the supreme leader seeks a president who will serve as an instrument of his regime with as little pushback as possible.

Even as onlookers were caught up in the possibility of Rafsanjani’s election, one important fact remained: Iran’s new president will still answer to Khamenei. The candidates’ principles will not change this fact. Past leaders have demonstrated, however, that the influence of Iran’s president cannot be discounted entirely. A new president loyal to the regime could, in theory, act as a powerful tool for Khamenei. Inasmuch as he is the face of Iran’s public relations, the new president will have a great impact on the world’s perception of the country and Iran’s strained domestic environment, thereby opening, or closing, the political space the supreme leader has available to make a decision. Khamenei may still plan to use this political opportunity to his advantage.

Although Iran’s overarching nuclear vision may remain when the dust clears in June, this election still holds a small opportunity for change. And as the supreme leader’s influence wanes in the midst of government infighting and a flailing economy, there are some indications that Khamenei may be open to a shift. Under Ahmadinejad, whose holocaust denial and aggressive proclamations made him an inflammatory figure on the world stage, the country has become increasingly isolated and harsh international sanctions have taken their toll. This is not necessarily the status quo, nor is it something Khamenei is comfortable with, particularly as his closest allies in the region have come under increased pressure from unhappy populations. Under Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, Iran was able to demonstrate its commitment to international obligations and maintain a relatively good relationship with the West. It is during his time that Iran agreed to halt its uranium enrichment activities and grant U.N. inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities, all under the watchful eye of the same supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The supreme leader states that he continues to remain open to direct talks with the United States, but such talks will not yield results until the United States agrees to lift sanctions. A new president will have a small opportunity to capitalize on this potential opening to set his own agenda and move away from the inflammatory rhetoric and policy of the provocative Ahmadinejad. Over the past four years, the country’s economy has come under extreme pressure as a direct result of economic sanctions brought on by nuclear intransigence, and there are some indications that even the supreme leader may be looking for a way out.

Even in the case of a political shift, however, the United States will be faced with an ultimate decision in the hands of Khamenei, a leader with whom they have had virtually no relations. For this reason, the United States and its allies should be careful not to place a disproportionate amount of hope in the outcome of Iran’s upcoming elections. A new leader could provide a crucial opening for a shift in relations, but the end game will remain the same. In order to find a solution to the current nuclear impasse, the United States and Iran must work to find common ground. If the two sides are unwilling or unable to compromise, negotiations will not succeed, regardless of who comes to power in June.

Laicie Heeley is director of Middle East and defense policy at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

June will mark the end of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office and bring a new leader to the forefront of Iranian politics. At the same time, the country continues to cooperate with the United States and its allies, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), and separately with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in ongoing nuclear negotiations. But progress has slowed. Observers have noted that the regime will be unwilling and unable to agree to a compromise until after a new president is chosen. Because of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s close involvement in, and even control over, Iran’s elections, however, all indications of progress may not have slowed to a stop. In fact, the country’s choice of president could provide insight into Iran’s next move.

The upcoming presidential vote is the first since Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009, when mass Green Movement protests erupted after the defeat of reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi. Last week, eight final candidates were chosen by the country’s powerful Guardian Council and two high level candidates were rejected. One of these candidates, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was seen as the Green Movement’s best hope for putting a reformist back in office. Rafsanjani, who publically supported the 2009 election protests, was also the most likely candidate to be open to change on the nuclear front. Ahmadinejad’s own candidate, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, was also disqualified, though his rejection came as less of a surprise. Ultimately, these two rejections send a strong message that the supreme leader intends to allow only those candidates with views aligned with his regime. 

The most high profile of Iran’s remaining candidates is Saeed Jalili. Currently the lead negotiator in charge of nuclear talks with the P5+1, Jalili is a hardline conservative who has at times shown a willingness to cooperate with world powers on issues concerning the country’s nuclear program but has always stopped short of the compromise necessary to reach a deal. In October 2009, Jalili became the first Iranian official in three years to meet with a U.S. diplomat one-on-one, meeting privately with then Under Secretary of State William Burns on the sidelines of negotiations with the P5+1. Recently, however, Jalili has chosen to put nuclear politics at the forefront of his campaign, reiterating Iran’s current hardline stance. On his campaign’s official Twitter feed, Jalili indicated that his objective as president would be to accelerate Iran’s peaceful nuclear program. He also addressed the position of one of his key opponents at the time. "Other policies will be seriously criticized [and the] current nuclear approach… defended," Jalili’s campaign stated. [We] "shall see what [is] Mr. Rafsanjani’s policy." 

Another frontrunner close to Khamenei is Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former air force commander and ex-head of the Iranian police force who succeeded Ahmadinejad as Tehran’s mayor soon after Ahmadinejad took office. Qalibaf has confirmed that he would pursue nuclear talks "more intelligently" and "neither sanctify nor reject the possibility of holding direct talks with the United States," but will continue to pursue the same "resistance diplomacy" that has characterized Tehran’s position so far. As the wide field has narrowed, so has the candidates’ perception of the nuclear issue. Importantly, none of Iran’s current frontrunners seem to share the belligerent nature of their predecessor, and the Guardian Council’s choices are more malleable than the candidates they’ve left behind, perhaps the reason for their success. For this reason, it seems more likely that the supreme leader seeks a president who will serve as an instrument of his regime with as little pushback as possible.

Even as onlookers were caught up in the possibility of Rafsanjani’s election, one important fact remained: Iran’s new president will still answer to Khamenei. The candidates’ principles will not change this fact. Past leaders have demonstrated, however, that the influence of Iran’s president cannot be discounted entirely. A new president loyal to the regime could, in theory, act as a powerful tool for Khamenei. Inasmuch as he is the face of Iran’s public relations, the new president will have a great impact on the world’s perception of the country and Iran’s strained domestic environment, thereby opening, or closing, the political space the supreme leader has available to make a decision. Khamenei may still plan to use this political opportunity to his advantage.

Although Iran’s overarching nuclear vision may remain when the dust clears in June, this election still holds a small opportunity for change. And as the supreme leader’s influence wanes in the midst of government infighting and a flailing economy, there are some indications that Khamenei may be open to a shift. Under Ahmadinejad, whose holocaust denial and aggressive proclamations made him an inflammatory figure on the world stage, the country has become increasingly isolated and harsh international sanctions have taken their toll. This is not necessarily the status quo, nor is it something Khamenei is comfortable with, particularly as his closest allies in the region have come under increased pressure from unhappy populations. Under Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, Iran was able to demonstrate its commitment to international obligations and maintain a relatively good relationship with the West. It is during his time that Iran agreed to halt its uranium enrichment activities and grant U.N. inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities, all under the watchful eye of the same supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The supreme leader states that he continues to remain open to direct talks with the United States, but such talks will not yield results until the United States agrees to lift sanctions. A new president will have a small opportunity to capitalize on this potential opening to set his own agenda and move away from the inflammatory rhetoric and policy of the provocative Ahmadinejad. Over the past four years, the country’s economy has come under extreme pressure as a direct result of economic sanctions brought on by nuclear intransigence, and there are some indications that even the supreme leader may be looking for a way out.

Even in the case of a political shift, however, the United States will be faced with an ultimate decision in the hands of Khamenei, a leader with whom they have had virtually no relations. For this reason, the United States and its allies should be careful not to place a disproportionate amount of hope in the outcome of Iran’s upcoming elections. A new leader could provide a crucial opening for a shift in relations, but the end game will remain the same. In order to find a solution to the current nuclear impasse, the United States and Iran must work to find common ground. If the two sides are unwilling or unable to compromise, negotiations will not succeed, regardless of who comes to power in June.

Laicie Heeley is director of Middle East and defense policy at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

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