Iran’s presidential election
Good riddance to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The election might just bring something better
IN THIS election, more than 700 aspiring candidates have been barred from competing by a council of crusty clerics and lawyers. They are said to have failed to live up to the required standard of revolutionary and religious zeal, leaving just eight runners deemed worthy of the mantle being relinquished by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That may not seem like much of a choice to citizens of normal democracies. But in Iran it is the best on offer.
The first round of the presidential election takes place on June 14th, with a run-off a week later if no one gets a majority. The candidates, pictured before a television debate, are a glum bunch, with Saeed Jalili the apparent favourite of the hardliners and the most moderate being another former nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani. There is the added twist that the final say in the gravest matters of state, including the nuclear programme, is the preserve of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has fallen out badly with Mr Ahmadinejad in the past few years. All the same, the election is a meaningful, even menacing, event—and one whose outcome, on past experience, cannot be predicted (see article).
One thing to be hailed with joyful certainty is Mr Ahmadinejad’s exit. To the underdogs of the world, provided they did not actually have to live in Iran, he was an engaging populist, cocking a perpetual snook at the Great Satan of America and other lesser Western devils. To nearer neighbours, including the Arab Gulf monarchies and the endlessly reviled Israelis, his absurdities, including his Holocaust denials and threats against the Jewish state, were less funny. Even allowing for his limited role in controlling the centrifuges, the president can convey the mood of his country, especially in foreign forums, such as the United Nations, and in the corridors of nuclear negotiations. If anyone was liable to spark bonfires instead of dousing them, it was Mr Ahmadinejad.
His effect on the economy was arguably still more dire. Iranians became a lot poorer during his presidency. Inflation by some measures is above 45% a year. Unemployment, truly reckoned, exceeds 20%. Oil receipts, thanks to UN-imposed international sanctions, have plummeted. Mr Ahmadinejad did make a valiant attempt to curb subsidies. But everyone, except for the ruling elite and its ubiquitous Revolutionary Guard with its tentacular businesses, is feeling a painful pinch.
Two faces, same beard?
Guessing what the candidates might do involves decoding a lot of talk about “noble defiance” and “resistance economics”. Mr Khamenei has yet to endorse anyone. But Mr Rohani, who probably has the support of much of the country’s business class and more cosmopolitan types, looks a better bet than the grim-faced Mr Jalili. The chances are that Mr Rohani would be keener to open up the economy and less inclined towards wild-eyed posturing than the outgoing buffoon.
On the nuclear issue it is harder to detect differences: Iran seems ever closer to getting a bomb. Were the supreme leader to die, the president would be in a three-man temporary ruling council. But the 73-year-old Mr Khamenei seems in fair health. Four years ago Barack Obama offered Mr Ahmadinejad an unclenched fist that was rudely rejected. Whoever wins, America’s president should offer fresh talks—anything that reminds the Iranian people of the enticements on the table is useful. But for the moment there is no reason to put away a big stick.