Monday, December 17, 2007

Iranian Electoral Politics & National Security

What is the role of national security in Iran's electoral debate?
How do members of the Iranian elite define national security?

Former Iranian president Khatami has criticized Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, a criticism that strikes directly at one of the two key pillars in Ahmadinejad’s political support, which is based on economic assistance to the poor and nationalist resistance to American pressure.

Former Iranian nuclear negotiator and current director of a think tank under the Expediency Council Hassan Rohani has attacked a third pillar - national security, accusing Ahmadinejad of undermining rather than enhancing Iranian security. I distinguish the “pillar” of national security from that of resistance to the U.S. because Rohani’s remarks imply that he makes that distinction, i.e., that Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetorical “resistance” in fact undermines Iran’s real national security.

As campaigning for the March 14 parliamentary election heats up, a potential electoral coalition of considerable power is visible in these two speeches by leading figures, respectively, in what may be called the “reform” and “realist” factions. Iranian politics may be thought of as composed of three factions, with Ahmadinejad’s faction being the ideologues. A powerful group of conservative clergy who see some merit in religious orthodoxy, some merit in economic development, and some merit in cautious national security also exists, under the Supreme Leader, Khamenei. One could argue that this group constitutes yet another faction, but it may be more accurate to think of it as a less structured and more flexible balancing group keeping its options open.

It is noteworthy that a pro-Khamenei newspaper recently attacked criticism of reform and realist faction leaders by the Ahmadinejad faction as "slander,” and a pro-Khamenei conservative recently criticized Ahmadinejad for risking Iran’s nuclear program. Here again, an implicit distinction is drawn between loud advocacy of national security and actually enhancing it: Ahmadinejad’s public support for Iran’s nuclear program “risks” Iran’s nuclear program!

Other analysts will have different names for these factions, and certainly the reality is much more complicated than I have portrayed here, but this simplified model facilitates addressing some key questions:

  • What factional alignments, both for the parliamentary elections and for the never-ending behind-the-scenes jockeying for influence within the government, are realistic possibilities?
  • What would the likely policy outcomes of various coalitions be?
  • What influence does the outside world have on the outcome?

The implication of the attacks on Ahmadinejad by Khatami and Rohani is that a coalition of the reform and realist factions is possible. The anti-Ahmadinejad remarks by Khamenei supporters further raises the possibility of Khamenei swinging his critical influence behind an anti-Ahmadinejad coalition that would focus on pragmatic economic development and cautious efforts to enhance Iran’s national security.

Whether or not such a coalition will in fact emerge depends in part on the international situation: to the degree that international tensions are reduced, the door opens for an Iranian electoral campaign between now and March that focuses on national security and domestic issues. Such an outcome would probably weaken Ahmadinejad’s faction because it would put him on the defensive since his economic record is poor. It would also strengthen ties between the reform and realist factions and perhaps entice support from the balancing group.

To the extent that the international situation remains characterized by inflammatory rhetoric that Ahmadinejad can exploit to run a campaign based on fear, attention will be drawn away from domestic issues (e.g., economics and civil rights), and serious discussion of long-term national security will be overwhelmed by emotional zenophobia. This type of election would play to Ahmadinejad’s strength. Moreover, the balancing group, already composed of conservatives, would have difficulty resisting the ideologues’ combined call for religious purity and super-nationalism.

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