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Will Iran's Supreme Leader Choose Further Isolation, Or Openness?


Will Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) back isolation and Mahmud Ahmadinejad for reelection...
Will Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) back isolation and Mahmud Ahmadinejad for reelection...
With former President Mohammad Khatami announcing his candidacy for the presidential election on June 12, Iranians will have a choice between him and incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Is there really any need to argue why Ahmadinejad's reelection would be a catastrophe for both Iran and the world? During his four-year term, he has aggressively pursued a course of confrontation and isolation, both domestically and internationally. And he has mismanaged the Iranian economy so grossly that unemployment, inflation, and poverty are the top concerns for the population of this oil-rich country.

And Khatami? Now that he has announced his decision to run, almost all commentators are recalling ad nauseam that he failed to deliver on most of his promises of reform during his two successive presidential terms (1997-2005), to the disappointment of many of those who voted for him.

It's all true. Khatami himself said at the end of his second term that his "hands were tied." In most crucial issues where he wanted to make a difference, he was torpedoed or simply ignored by conservative forces, or directly by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran's political system is such that ultimate authority lies not with the president, but with the supreme leader. He is the one who can disqualify any candidate in any election, and has the final say on defense, justice, media, foreign policy, and any other sphere in which he chooses to intervene. And this figure, who wields unlimited power, is not elected by the people but selected by the Assembly of Experts, a group of senior clerics.

From Isolation To Openness

Given those limitations, you might think that it doesn't really matter whether Ahmadinejad is reelected or Khatami returns to power. Not so.

Khatami's tenure was a period of relative economic recovery in Iran. He opened the doors to tolerance and to dialogue with both the Iranian people and the West. And, on the nuclear issue, uranium enrichment was halted for two years.

What most Iranians remember from Khatami's presidency is that the political pressure on media, women, and intellectuals considerably decreased. Unlike the Ahmadinejad regime, Khatami did not stand in the way of people voicing their concerns and demanding change. On the contrary. Government officials encouraged people to express themselves to find solutions within the framework of the Islamic republic's laws.

What prevented most of the important changes was not the unwillingness of the government, but their rejection by higher instances: the courts, the Guardians Council, a group of clerics and lawyers, or simply unofficial but freely acting "pressure groups," all of which listen only to what the supreme leader says, while ignoring the president.

In the last two or so years of the Khatami presidency, conservatives (and reportedly Khamenei himself) were increasingly alarmed that Khatami's opening up of society was getting out of control and that, if not stopped, it would create instability and threaten the whole political system of the Islamic republic, just as Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" did in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Some argue that Ahmadinejad's election was engineered with the sole aim of forcing the twin genies of social awakening and moderate foreign policy back into the box.

...or the openness of former President Mohammad Khatami?
We should bear in mind that of the various presidential candidates, the one Khamenei chooses is the one who will ultimately be elected. That Khatami has decided to run indicates that he has first double-checked with the supreme leader and received the green light. This doesn't necessarily mean that Khatami is Khamenei's choice.

It is unclear, and will probably remain so until the last minute, whom the supreme leader will endorse at the decisive moment: his absolutely loyal protege Ahmadinejad, who created an atmosphere of radical confrontation and isolation but at the same time acted as an air bag protecting the supreme leader from the pressure of social openness; or Khatami, who would again seek to open up society and pursue dialogue and cooperation with the West.

Risking Dialogue

Why should Khamenei take a chance now with Khatami? There are many reasons why he is unlikely to. Ahmadinejad has suppressed all political discontent, even from moderate pro-establishment forces, kept society as closed and -- in the short term -- isolated from foreign influence as possible, and responded to a threatening and confrontational U.S. policy with the same tone of sable-rattling.

President George W. Bush's Iran policy was cleverly used as a rationale for pressure at home and isolation abroad. The Obama administration has not formulated its Iran policy yet -- or if it has, the details are not yet in the public domain, so we don't know to what extent it differs from that of the Bush administration.

So a resumption of social opening under a President Khatami would revive the old risks for the Islamic republic, especially with an Obama administration in Washington that has raised expectations of dialogue and a peaceful resolution of Iran's problems with the West -- something that might accelerate the liberalization process and fuel demands for changes in foreign policy. And things might again get out of control.

But there are also many reasons why Supreme Leader Khamenei may choose Khatami. Continuing political and social pressure a la Ahmadinejad at a time of dialogue and peaceful resolution in international affairs might provoke exactly what is feared: uncontrollable social unrest. With the Bush administration history and an Obama administration ready to talk, there are fewer arguments -- either domestic or international-- that Ahmadinejad could use to justify his policies of confrontation and isolation.

We will wait to see who emerges as Iran's next president. It would undoubtedly be better for Iran, and for the world, if Ahmadinejad is not the winner. For the West and especially the United States, the issue is not which candidate to back, since it is the supreme leader, and not the president, who has the final say on any issue.

Whoever wins the presidential election, the most important thing is that the Iranian establishment -- conservatives as well as reformers and pragmatists -- should acknowledge that there is indeed a real difference between Bush's Iran policy and that of Obama. Real change will start to occur only when Tehran is convinced that Washington is not intent on regime change in Iran and that it is willing to treat Iran as it treats India or Russia.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting with RFE/RL. RFE/RL's Radio Farda's Mehrdad Mirdamadi contributed to this commentary. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

The original version of this article incorrectly described the process by which the supreme leader is elected.