Polls are predicting that about half of Iran’s 50 million eligible voters will go to the polls Friday to elect a new president, but Middle East expert Uzi Rabi said the winner in the six-man race is not expected to make any major changes in his dealings with Israel.
“They are all part of the same system,” he said today in a conference call organized by The Israel Project, an independent, non-profit group that provides information about Israel to the press and public.
He pointed out that Iran’s unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been “very quiet on political issues lately.”
“He doesn’t come up with his own preferable candidate to avoid demonstrations,” Rabi said. “It is clear that what the Ayatollah has in mind … is to avoid an Iranian spring. He is hoping for a huge turnout so he can say Iran is run in a democratic way.”
Although eight candidates had been approved to run for president by the country’s Guardian Council, two dropped out this week. One of them, Mohammad Reza Aref, who was vice president to former President Mohammad Khatami, was seen as a reformist candidate. It is believed he withdrew because the other perceived reformist in the race, Hassan Rouhani, did better in the presidential debates and has more support among reform leaders. By withdrawing, he would not split the reformist vote and “his withdrawal makes Rouhani stronger.”
“If there is a reformist camp, they would prefer Rouhani, and in the newspapers today they are asking the conservatives to come to a consensus around a conservative to make sure a conservative wins against a reformer.”
But, Rabi pointed out, “reformists are still part of the system.”
He said Khamenei, who remains firmly in control of the country, is hoping the election takes place “smoothly and that one candidate is chosen in the first round. But there will probably be a second round, which would bring about more opportunities for protest.”
The last time there was a presidential election in Iran in 2009, it was a hotly contested election that sparked joyous street rallies among those hoping for reform. But when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner with 62.63 percent of the vote and his nearest rival, Mir Hossein Moussavi, was said to have received only 33.75 percent of the vote, widespread street protests erupted from those charging massive fraud.
Ahmadinejad brutally crushed the street protests and dozens were reported killed. The Green Movement, the opposition group that championed reform, was later destroyed by security forces, who arrested Moussavi and another opposition leader, Mehdi Karoubi. Both remain under house arrest.
“Unlike 2009, there is no Green Movement today that challenged the whole system,” said Rabi.
After the election, attention will once again turn to the conflict in Syria and talks with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, which the West believes is to develop nuclear weapons and Iran claims is strictly for peaceful purposes.
“The Iranians want a president who will talk differently than Ahmadinejad,” Rabi said.
“They want a nicer face to do the negotiating with the West, but there will not be a shift in policy; it will only be tactical. … The power regarding Iran’s nuclear program is still in the hands of the Ayatollah.”
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Asked which of the candidates would be best for Israel and the West, Rabi said: “I don’t see any real differences. Saeed Jalili is the most hawkish and I would rather see someone else win.”
If the winner “speaks in a different way [to the West], he might have a chance of removing some sanctions” imposed by the West to get Iran to end its nuclear program.
Rabi said he believes Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who is now serving a second term as mayor of Tehran, is “acceptable to the Ayatollah, and he looks like a reformer who could deal with the economic conditions. But I don’t think he’s a changer. I think any changes would be tactical and not strategic.”
Asked if the election really matters, Rabi said frankly: “Unfortunately, I don’t think it matters, at least not dramatically. The Iranian republic is more totalitarian than it was in 2009. I see the Islamic Republic practicing the art of survival. And when it comes to a challenge to his [the Ayatollah’s] reign, they will be fierce and assertive. So I don’t see any change.”