Tomorrow, Iranians will go to the polls to elect a new president in what has become the most anticipated political event in that country since the Islamic Revolution three decades ago. The results, however, are already a foregone conclusion. Whoever ends up becoming president will have little real power -- and even less influence over Iran's geostrategic direction.
The reason has everything to do with the country's convoluted power structure. On paper, the Islamic Republic possesses all the attributes of a pluralistic government, endowed with an independent legislature, an active judiciary, and a robust executive branch. In reality, however, these secular organs are overlaid by a mosaic of religious institutions which dictates its direction in both foreign and domestic affairs.
These entities have had a profound influence over the presidential playing field. As of mid-May, there were over 400 candidates of various ideological persuasions and political stripes. Today, there are just four -- incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; conservative challenger Mohsen Rezai, onetime commander of Iran's feared Revolutionary Guard; former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi; and Mir Hossein Moussavi, the charismatic politician who served as Iran's prime minister from 1981 to 1989. The rest were disqualified by Iran's powerful Guardian Council, a government oversight body tasked with enforcing adherence to "revolutionary" principles. The results are telling; whether "conservative" or "reformist," the remaining contenders for Iran's top political post have been cleared by Iran's clerical elite as conforming to the regime's foundational principles.
Chief among these is the idea of "exporting the revolution." That priority, extolled by regime founder Ruhollah Khomeini and enshrined in the country's 1979 constitution, commits Iran to the "struggle to extend the supremacy of God's Law in the world." The results are painfully evident; as the latest edition of the State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism outlines, Iran remains "the most active state sponsor of terrorism," responsible for violence and instability that has thwarted "international efforts to promote peace, threatened economic stability in the Gulf, and undermined the growth of democracy."
Similarly, the Islamic Republic cannot be expected to change course on its nuclear program. Over the past two decades, and especially since September 11, atomic acquisition has become something of an article of faith among Iran's ayatollahs -- a way to preempt preemption by the United States, consolidate domestic power, and garner greater international prestige. It is also an enormously popular domestic enterprise; a 2008 poll by worldpublicopinion.org found that fully 81 percent of Iranians surveyed believed it was "very important" for their country to master nuclear technology.
Iran's presidential contenders understand this very well, and have thrown their weight behind their government's atomic project. "I do not think any government will dare to take a step back in this regard, since people will question the decision," Moussavi, Ahmadinejad's main challenger, told supporters in a speech back in April. "Given the long-term interest, we are obliged not to back down on this or other similar issues."
Indeed, even if Ahmadinejad or one of his rivals were to have a change of heart about the prudence of nuclear acquisition, he would be powerless to do anything about it. Iran's Supreme Leader, and not its president, is the country's ultimate arbiter of foreign policy and national security -- including the regime's strategic arsenal. The Iranian president may be a cheerleader for the regime's atomic effort, but he is not a driver of it.
Last year, while still on the campaign trail, then-candidate Obama defended plans for dialogue with Iran by reassuring critics that it would not involve the Iranian president, who is largely irrelevant in policy terms. Yet today, his administration's focus on engagement with the Islamic Republic has left it inclined to interpret a changing of the presidential guard in Tehran as a sign of newfound moderation -- and a signal that its outreach is reaping real dividends. That could end up being a potentially fatal misreading of Iranian politics, in which the only clear and consistent winner is the regime itself.