LONDON — Iranians go to the polls Friday for the first round of a presidential election that analysts say pits hardliners against only slightly less hardline candidates. The experts believe that as a result, the outcome will make at most a difference in the tone of Iran’s policies, but not the substance.
Iran’s presidential candidates have appeared in several debates. Controls on who can run have severely limited the scope of opinions on key issues, however, such as Iran’s nuclear program and its negotiations with the West.
Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili advocates continuing the ‘no compromise’ policy. Hassan Rowhani, a former negotiator, might try to take a slightly softer approach.
But neither candidate would really make much difference on the nuclear issue, said Mark Fitzpatrick at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“I think it really depends on what the views of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are. If he wants to make a breakthrough, then it almost doesn’t matter who the president is. But I don’t really expect much in the way of a breakthrough,” said Fitzpatrick.
Ayatollah Khamenei said he does not endorse any candidate. Those he might have opposed were barred from running, though, including all reformists and all women. That means Iranians won’t have a real choice in this election, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Iran Human Rights, Ahmed Shaheed.
“The basic conditions for free and fair elections are not existent in Iran, and that is a serious concern. Under international law you cannot disqualify a candidate for elections unless you used criteria that were reasonable, objective and transparent,” said Shaheed.
Among those disqualified was the relatively liberal former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Experts say a key concern of ordinary Iranians is the economy, which has been devastated by international sanctions designed to get flexibility in the nuclear negotiations. But economist and oil market analyst Leo Drollas said some key segments of Iranian society may not be overly concerned.
“There are certain segments, of course, of the Iranian society, mainly associated with the Ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guards, and certain favored merchants, bazaaris, etcetera, who have done very well out of this situation. But the great majority of people are suffering, indeed, and nothing is likely to change,” said Drollas.
There had been hope that Iran’s election would lead to an easing of tensions and sanctions. Some analysts say the sanctions have hardened Iran's position, however, and they warn that continuing deadlock on the nuclear issue, as Iran builds its capabilities, could lead to a military confrontation.