Texas Hold 'Em in Tehran

Can the Supreme Leader bluff and bully his way to getting what he wants in Iran’s crucial upcoming presidential election?

Iran's presidential elections can sometimes feel like bad theater, a sort of lackluster process of going through the motions -- until, of course, they're not. This year's contest has already been marked by several 11th hour twists. At first, the election appearted to be an exclusive race within Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's entourage. It quickly morphed, however, into a tripartite contest between Khamenei's allies, former-two term President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has placed his hopes on his son's father-in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The latter two wildcards entered the race on the last day of registration, only to be subsequently barred from the race by the omnipotent Guardian Council -- a 12-member body of clerics and jurists appointed directly and indirectly by the Supreme Leader. The electoral race has now returned full circle to a narrow contest between candidates loyal to Khamenei. But the high-stakes game of political poker is far from over.

The first presidential poll since the still-disputed 2009 election and its tumultuous aftermath, the 2013 election -- slated for June 14 -- is considered a test the Ayatollah's supremacy over the office of the presidency. If Khamenei wanted to restore his regime's domestic legitimacy amid the nuclear standoff with the West, he would have needed to countenance a free and fair -- by Iranian standards -- election with a high turnout. But at the same time, a truly open contest could bring back previously sidelined political rivals (read: reformists and pragmatists) who could push for a volte-face in foreign policy and even weaken Khamenei's grip on power.

When in his New Year's message, Ayatollah Khamenei dubbed 2013 the "Year of Political and Economic Epic," he didn't know what he was wishing for. But Iran's electoral law -- amended liberally over the years -- provides numerous options for excluding undesirable candidates. Out of the 686 registered candidates only eight were vetted byt the Guradian Council on May 21. By law, The council is not required to publicly disclose its reasons for disqualifying a candidate. So, it remains unclear on what grounds it rejected Rafsanjani -- once Khamenei's friend, now turned archrival. One step, however, remains largely unregulated: candidate registration, which began on May 7.

Yet, one day before the announcement, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, the Guardian Council's spokesman said, "If an individual who wants to take up a high post can only perform a few hours of work each day, naturally that person cannot be confirmed." It appears that the irony of disqualifying the wily politician on account of his age (he is now 78 years old) was lost on the members of the council -- whose powerful secretary, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, is eight years Rafsanjani's senior. Another potential pretext was probably to accuse the former president -- as the minister of intelligence did a few days before his registration -- of complacency in the 2009 revolt. But that would undermine the Supreme Leader's own credibility since he reappointed Rafsanjani in 2012 as the chairman of the Expediency Council, a body that advises him directly.

It was likely easier for the Supreme Leader to disqualify Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's preferred candidate, since he has already been demonized by the political establishment as a bizarre, anticlerical cult leader who managed to bewitch the lame duck president.Even the president's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, called Mashaei "the greatest threat to Islam," noting also that he had "bewitched Ahmadinejad." More importantly, Khamenei set a precedent for Mashaei's disqualification in 2009 by forcing Ahmadinejad to refrain from appointing him first vice president.

The risk is that Ahmadinejad could now go ballistic in reacting to his dauphin's disqualification -- a spectacle that would be problematic for at least two reasons. First, the president is technically in charge of conducting the election, meaning that the ruling clique's hopes of an incident-free ballot could be dashed. Second, Ahmadinejad might act on his earlier threats to expose a thick dossier of damning documents that implicate officials close to Khamenei in corruption scandals.

But the Supreme Leader might well call Ahmadinejad's bluff; experience has shown that the president typically caves when faced with Khamenei's immense institutional power. Even if he doesn't, Khamenei loyalists have laid the groundwork to soften the blow, announcing in advance that anyone who interferes with the electoral process or questions its results is doing the bidding of Iran's enemies. "Everyone, even those who make general recommendations about the election through [expressing] concerns, should take care not to serve the purpose of the enemy," Khamenei warned in January 2013. In other words, Khamenei can call for a witch-hunt if his patience wears thin.

Some observers argue that allowing Mashaei to run could be beneficial for the Supreme Leader. They note this would split the anti-establishment vote between Mashaei and Rafsanjani, leaving them both in a weaker position. That, however, would have been risky business, given that predicting voter behavior in Iran is an inexact science. In 1997, an underdog reformist candidate, Mohammad Khatami, rallied more support than expected in just a few weeks and went on to win the presidency. In 2009, an uncharismatic former prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi, morphed into an Iranian Che Guevara and inspired millions of people to protest the election results.  

Allowing Rafsanjani and Mashaei to run would also have invited a serious challenge to Khamenei's conservative clique. Reformists and pragmatists would have likely united behind Rafsanjani, while Ahmadinejad's allies would have thrown their support behind Mashaei. Khamenei's camp, meanwhile, could have been the one neutralizing itself by failing -- as is so far the case -- to coalesce around one or two viable candidates. 

It appears that instead of going back to the drawing board, Khamenei has concluded that a stitch in time is better than nine. He has decided to eliminate Rafsanjani and Mashaei now, rather than deal with the unpredictable ramifications of allowing them to run. But the decision is not cost free, as he has now openly demonstrated that for the man at the helm of power in Iran, security trumps legitimacy. 

In contrast, both Rafsanjani and Mashaei have much less to lose. No other high-ranking Iranian official has put himself to the popular test more often than Rafsanjani. He has tasted both victory and defeat. While he won the 1989 and 1993 presidential elections, his bid for parliament in 2000 and the presidency in 2005 ended in humiliating defeat. He had a quasi-comeback in 2007 when he was elected chairman of the Assembly of Experts -- a body in charge of selecting the Supreme Leader. This time, his disqualification is likely to redeem him as a founding father of the Islamic Republic, who was denied a last hurrah by an increasingly authoritarian leader.  

Mashaei's candidacy, meanwhile, was also a no-lose scenario. In the unlikely event that he would have run and won, the Putin-Medvedev model would have been successfully implemented. But now that he has been barred from running, Ahmadinejad and his team could demand a price for their silence from Khamenei. If he refuses, the gloves could come off.

Reactions to disqualifications and back room negotiations during the next few weeks will determine not the fate of the barred candidates and the constituencies they represent, but in a larger sense the fate of the republican identity of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

To say that Iranian politics is the realm of contingencies is a considerable understatement. Even now that the list of the vetted and approved candidates is out, the race could still change substantially as they maneuver and drop out. There's still more than a few hands of cards to be played before election day.

Ed. —This article has been updated to take account of the Guardian Council's May 21 rejection of the candidacies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.


National Security

Curing America's Fear of Commitment

Karzai is an ingrate, but the Afghans need us.

Not since the days of Charles de Gaulle has America spilled blood and treasure on a less grateful national leader than Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In a bid to be viewed as ideologically independent, Karzai has famously criticized the West, and the United States in particular, in apparent attempts to strengthen his political hand at home.

In one year, Karzai will leave office. Around that same time, America's formal commitments to Afghanistan will end. That's a mistake. A guarantee that the United States will maintain a presence in Afghanistan after 2014 is not just important for the future; it could have significant effects right now. It could change the presidential candidates' behavior in the coming election campaign, and it could smooth the transition of power later.

The Afghan people are frantic to secure their future, and the longer the United States remains mute on its plans, the more chaotic Afghanistan may become.

Fear of abandonment. The Afghans's circumspection about any U.S. dedication to their wellbeing can be seen on a daily basis. For instance, Afghan citizens have been told that those who served U.S. forces and agencies in various roles, but usually as interpreters, can obtain visas to the United States -- once they complete a lengthy application and review process. It is known as the U.S. special immigrant's visa program, or SIV. This isn't just a reward; it's a vital component of the two countries' abilities to work with one another. Afghans are under constant threat of Taliban retaliation once it is known they have worked for the Americans; without SIV, many Afghans would be at serious risk.

Unfortunately, due to a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nuance, many Afghans who work directly for the Americans are in fact ineligible for the visa. Afghans who were hired by the International Security Assistance Force instead of by the U.S. military directly are precluded from participating in the SIV program. As word has spread throughout the community, it reflects poorly on the United States. These are common people, without dual citizenship or condos in Dubai, people who aided the United States at their own peril. Combine this disappointment with the sense that America is about to bail on the country altogether, and you have a potentially critical resentment among the Afghans.

Hedging strategies. Additionally, throughout Afghanistan, the number of reintegrated citizens -- that is, those who have left the Taliban and agreed to rejoin their home communities and to live in accordance with the Afghan constitution -- has flattened out this past year. Why commit to the government of Afghanistan if the United States is just going to abandon it? Along with this growing unwillingness to commit to a democratic government, we are seeing a brain drain from Afghanistan, along with capital flight. Professionals and academics are fleeing, and currency and even gold bars are carried out on a daily basis from the commercial airport in Kabul.

Afghans tend to believe that history repeats itself exactly as it has in the past. Karzai's predecessor, Najibullah, managed to hold the country together for several years after the Soviets left, even in the face of attacks from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, because the Soviets kept funding the Afghan army. This lasted until the Soviet Union finally collapsed -- then financial support ended and the Afghan army dissolved into its ethnic components, ultimately allowing the Taliban to take over in Kabul. Thus, it's not hard to imagine how the Afghans see their future this time: America abandons Afghanistan and provides no aid, then the Taliban creeps right back into the power vacuum. A post-2014 commitment now could at least ameliorate some of this fear of abandonment and ill will before any more Afghans hedge their bets and give up on the idea of a democratic government.

The U.S. mission. Of course the U.S. mission in Afghanistan needs to shift and change as well -- and it will change by the end of 2014. But drifting along, silent on the issue of any enduring commitment, is creating a situation that could well predetermine the outcome of Afghanistan's future -- for the worse. American commanders on the ground need a clearly articulated policy statement in the face of increasing Afghan worries. The silence is eroding the best efforts of American leaders in Afghanistan, who do not know what's in store for the Afghans and cannot implement forward-thinking plans.

Currently, more than 60,000 uniformed Americans are serving in Afghanistan. At present, the plan is to withdraw approximately half of those forces by next February. There are two major inflection points left between now and the end of 2014: turning complete control of the fighting mission over to Afghan forces in 2013, and providing security assistance for the Afghan elections, scheduled for next April. (Though possibly the elections will be delayed a few months due to snow accumulations in the higher mountain passes or simply to the inevitable delays that come with conducting an election in Afghanistan.) The good news is that the United States is well on the way to reaching its goal of empowering the Afghan forces to take over and, by early 2014, an American force presence of more than 30,000 should be enough to enable Afghan security forces to provide for their own election security.

The election. The bad news is that all of this important work could be undone if a post-2014 commitment of some kind is not made soon. Afghanistan is in a delicate state, and at some point next year there will be a new administration. Candidates are already testing the waters, putting their names out there, and judging their viability. Who takes the helm of the nation will have a lot to do with Afghans's experiences over the next year.

This is a pivotal point: A new administration in Kabul will be at its weakest immediately after the election results are in and there's a handover of power. Assuming a credible election process, no mean feat in Afghanistan, Karzai's successor will have to deal with all the problems and responsibilities that go with sovereignty. Why not have a post-2014 commitment in place soon, so that the candidates out there now are informed of an enduring U.S. commitment? Armed with this narrative, candidates will know they are not going it alone. Otherwise, we may see candidates being forced into an early reconciliation process with the Taliban due to a perception that the United States will be abandoning the country.

This is not an argument for staying a day longer than needed in Afghanistan, as there is near-universal agreement that the goal of changing the mission at the end of 2014 is a wise one. The problem in this era of sequestration and budget cuts is that there is little domestic interest in discussing a post-2014 billion-dollar-plus program that continues funding for Afghan National Security Forces. However, reticence on the size and nature of the post-2014 training mission will only promote the ongoing quiet panic that is detrimental to America's interests. Better a fast announcement now, with some basic specificity in terms of numbers of trainers and advisers, than a carefully detailed policy that gets announced too late.

The fact that the United States is still in Afghanistan after 12 years -- in no small part because it decided to invade Iraq -- doesn't diminish the U.S. responsibility to leave an Afghan government behind that stands the best chance of achieving some semblance of stability and support for several years to come. Not to mention America's own interests in the matter: Allowing Afghanistan to fall back into the hands of the Taliban will only serve to further jeopardize U.S. national security. And that, at least, should be unacceptable to American politicians everywhere.