TEHRAN — Iran will hold presidential elections on Friday. Some analysts have said they are the most important elections since the 1979 revolution because the differences between the conservative and reformist candidates are so great and yet there is no clear front runner.
It is not a fait accompli that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be re-elected – a
powerful conservative and two reformists
have created stiff competition for him. NBC News’ Ali Arouzi explains who the four candidates are and what issues are at stake.
Who are the two reformist candidates?
Mir Hossein Mousavi was the last prime minister Iran had before that political position was eliminated in 1989. He was the prime minister during the war with Iraq in the 1980s, so he is credited with helping Iran through a very difficult period. There were almost no supplies during that time, but he rationed things very well and kept people supplied with food and basic goods.
So that’s why he’s become such a front runner in this election — because the economy is in such turmoil. He had a strong position in turning the economy around during the war with Iraq, so a lot of people think he might be able to help the economy this time around as well.
Another interesting thing about Mousavi is that he’s been out campaigning with his wife and she’s been dubbed the “First First Lady” of Iran. She goes to all of the campaign rallies with him, they hold hands and she makes speeches — all of which was unheard of here before. She still wears the traditional chador, the cloak worn by Iranian women in public, but it’s still a very Western way of campaigning and nobody has ever done anything like that before. It appeals to a lot of older female voters.
But Mousavi is a very gray character, that’s the problem with him. He’s not charismatic at all and so he doesn’t really inspire people. He doesn’t really appeal to a broad range of people because he’s not a great orator and when he gives press conferences he doesn’t answer a lot of questions.
But because he was the prime minister during the war, he is likely to get support in military circles.
Interestingly, also during the war, he was at odds with the supreme leader (the highest ranking political and religious authority in Iran). At that time, there was a supreme leader, president and a prime minister. Ayatollah Khomeini was the supreme leader and Ali Khamenei (who is the current supreme leader) was the president and Mousavi was the prime minister. There were actually some questions marks over whether or not Mousavi would be given permission to run because he had clashed with the current supreme leader, Khamenei, a lot during that period. But having said that, there is no way he would have become a candidate if the supreme leader hadn’t given him the nod.
Mahdi Karroubi is the other reformist candidate. He is a prominent moderate reformist mullah. He ran in the first round of the last presidential elections in 2005 against Ahmadinejad, Ali Akbar HashemiRafsanjani and others. He was actually quite ahead in the polls in 2005 when the three of them were battling it out in the first round, but his lead quickly dissipated. He famously said that he went to sleep for an hour and woke up at the bottom of the pile.
He’s been involved in Iranian politics for a long time — he was the speaker of the Iranian parliament for several years — which is a very powerful position here. And this is the second time he’s tried to become president.
One of the points of contention people have against him in the reformist camp is that he’s a spoiler. Many believe that he has no chance of winning the election, but fear that he will take votes away from Mousavi, which will help Ahmadinejad. So people are hoping that he will pull out of the race, but he hasn’t.
Who is the conservative candidate?
Mohsen Rezaei is sort of center-right, but he is trying to bill himself as a semi-reformist. This election has really been a gloves-off campaign and he has accused Ahmadinejad of hurting Iranian foreign policy with his comments about the Holocaust and Israel. He said that the comments haven’t done Iran any favors and that we need to change that.
But interestingly, he is wanted by Interpol for allegations that he helped plan the bombing of the AMIA building, a Jewish center in Argentina, in 1994. The attack killed 85 and injured hundreds. Rezaei was head of the Revolutionary Guards, one of the most powerful branches of Iran’s military, for 16 years. He is accused of planning the attack because the Revolutionary Guards were calling the shots at the time – and still are.
As a candidate, he’s a wild card. It is very unlikely that he will get elected. But out of all candidates — in terms of character and policy — he is probably closest to Ahmadinejad. He also has a strong military background, similar to Ahmadinejad.
What are the key issues?
The most important issue is the economy. The economy has taken a beating over the last couple of years, especially as oil prices have come down. That is people’s main concern and all the candidates are trying to tap into that.
Ahmadinejad has come out and said that if he gets elected, he plans to issue bonds to give people shares in the country’s oil wealth. He ran on a similar campaign promise when he got elected the first time in 2005. Every politician here campaigns on the same issue: “I am going to bring the oil revenue to your dinner table.”
But the problem is that Ahmadinejad hasn’t done that. Not only did gasoline become more expensive, but it became rationed. His main challenge is from the reform politicians who have accused his government of squandering Iran’s windfall of revenue from crude oil prices that were soaring until mid-2008. The reformers say, oil was at $150 a barrel, what the hell did you do with the huge profits? We should be in good economic shape, not suffering through an economic downturn.
Since he has a tough time convincing city dwellers that he is going to redistribute oil revenue, Ahmadinejad has tried to tap into his base of support in rural areas. Suddenly all the electricity is working, phones are working and people are able to get cheap loans. Ahmadinejad has reportedly even handed people checks for $50-100 in the villages. He’s been accused by Mousavi of buying votes. Of course, Ahmadinejad says that the money is to help the poor and disadvantaged. But a month before the election, it’s very suspicious.
The split here is really between the cities and the villages. People don’t think that Ahmadinejad will get votes in Iran’s cities. They think that Mousavi will get the big city votes, but they think Ahmadinejad will get all the votes in the rural areas.
How important are foreign affairs? Are relations with the U.S. and Israel an issue in the campaign?
A huge concern to people here is relations with the West. For the most part, people here favor better relations with the West because it would change their lives. They would see better products in Iran and it would open up the chance to travel for those who could afford it. It would also relieve some of the pressure and uncertainty about what might happen here next.
All the opposition candidates have all come out and said is that we need to fix better relations with the United States for the country to go forward.
Who is eligible to vote in Iran?
Any man or woman who is over 18 is eligible to vote.
How close is the election?
A government official, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, said that in the history of Iran since the Islamic Revolution, there has never been an election this close. He said that it's way too close to call. He said that it is really 50-50 between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi.
Under Iran's political system, if a leading candidate receives less than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election is held between the top two vote-getters. But this government official said that if the election goes to a second round like it did the last time, he believes Ahmadinejad will lose.
Since the revolution in 1979, the incumbent has always had a 70-80 percent chance of getting re-elected. But early polls show that Ahmadinejad has only about a 50 percent chance of winning this time.
How significant is this election? What is the mood on the street?
This is an important election. But essentially it’s not really going to change anything domestically. This is an Islamic Republic, so there are certain guidelines it has to adhere to, no matter who becomes the president.
But the very important thing about this election is that it could really affect how the West looks at Iran. If somebody like Mousavi comes in, it’s going to be a lot easier for the U.S and Israel to do business with Iran. But if Ahmadinejad remains in power, it will be more of the same.
How legitimate are the election? Are there international monitors?
The elections are considered to be fairly legitimate. The police and the army monitor the elections, but no independent monitors are allowed in, it’s all done internally.
But Iran does throw the doors open to the international press during the election. One of the reasons they do that is so that they can send a message out to the world that this is a free and democratic vote. Any journalist who wants to come in from the United States, Europe or anywhere else is allowed in during the election.
So while there are no international monitors, by and large, people feel that their vote does count for something. Even though, in reality, the highest authority here — the supreme leader — not elected.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints