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The new contender in the Iranian Elections.

Iran's presidential race has become more interesting, after the decisions last month by former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi to throw his hat in the ring and by former president Mohammad Khatami to withdraw his. This development poses the most significant challenge yet to President Mahmud Ahmadi-nejad--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 his country's elite as possessing the revolutionary and ideological credentials to run against Islamist fundamentalists such as Ahmadinejad. At the same time, he is associated with reformists, who believe that Iran must enact major domestic and foreign-policy changes to end its economic crisis and international isolation.

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

Mousavi played an important part in 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 Ahmadi-nejad 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 an elite few view the election as having the potential to lead to improved conditions for Iran. Ahmadi-nejad maintains some support among the poor and rural classes, but is regarded 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 (1997-2005). A recent op-ed in the right-wing Kayhan newspaper, which is closely associated with Khamenehi, 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 Ahmadi-nejad.

But change does not come easily to Iran. Ayatollah Ali Khamenehi is wary of Mousavi, who served as prime minister when Khamenehi himself was president, in the 1980s. The two were often at odds over economic, social and religious policies. Ahmadinejad, by contrast, has been loyal to Khamenehi and has largely followed his policies over the past four years. In Khamenehi's eyes, it was Ahmadi-nejad who kept Khamenehi's reformist opponents at bay and resisted 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 Khamenehi's support for, or at least acquiescence in, an electoral victory by Mousavi. Khamenehi 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 it is not accompanied by substantive advances in the relationship, could improve the prospect for a fairer, less manipulated election result.

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

Alireza Nader

Alireza Nader is an analyst at the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. This article was first published by Haaretz.
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Title Annotation:Commentary, text and context
Author:Nader, Alireza
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Article Type:Reprint
Date:Apr 17, 2009
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