Iran's Electoral Choice: Stalin or Gorbachev

On June 12, the Iranian presidential election will be held. Despite the hopes and dreams of those believing that the tension with Iran relies upon the status of Ahmadinejad and not the regime as a whole, this election isn't a referendum on whether to become a friend of the U.S.; nor is it a campaign about whether to eliminate the position of supreme leader, the head mullah who controls all the meaningful levers of power and is the true guiding force behind the regime's actions and ideology. This is a debate about how best to prolong the life of the regime -- whether to take a more Stalinist approach to the rising popular discontent or to engage in limited liberalization and tactical shifts in rhetoric and policy to solicit Western investment and appease the anti-mullah population.

Western observers need to remember that Ayatollah Khamenei and the mullahs of the Guardian Council decide who can run in the elections and therefore that no genuinely liberal candidate can emerge. To give you an idea of the high standards to which the mullahs' hold the prospective candidates, consider that only four of about 475 people who sought to run for president were approved. It's tempting to paint this as a clash between the anti-American conservatives, President Ahmadinejad and Mohsen Rezai -- a former Revolutionary Guards commander thought to be involved in a 1994 bombing in Argentina and who likes to present himself as the more sensible hardliner -- and the pro-West "liberal reformers" of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, and Mehdi Karoubi, a former speaker of parliament. However, such thinking fails to account for the political structure of the regime or the great deception Khamenei may be planning by creating (or allowing) a victory by a candidate more appealing to the West.

The truth is that neither Mousavi nor Karoubi can be expected to change the threat Iran poses in any meaningful way. Karoubi, while criticizing the power the Guardian Council has over the election process, has publicly stated that should he become president, he'd continue Iranian sponsorship of Hamas. Mousavi, though he has called for complete women's rights and other positive reforms, was a staunch supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini and was a fiend to his liberal opponents when he was the editor-in-chief of the regime's official "newspaper" after the Islamic Revolution. Mousavi's appearances are often met with protests from Iranian students and political activists seeking answers about his alleged role in authorizing the execution of some 30,000 political opponents in 1988.

The general wisdom is that the June 12 election will result in a run-off between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad on June 19. The Iranian population would much rather have Mousavi win, but huge numbers boycotted the previous elections and will boycott these as a form of silent protest. As it is impossible to estimate how many Iranians will vote for moderate change out of desperation and how many will stay home, it's unwise to make any firm predictions on whom voters will choose.