Perhaps the only unequivocal good that can be expected from the presidential elections that start tomorrow in Iran is that they will see the back of that belligerently undiplomatic tub-thumper, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With political power still so closely controlled by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and but one reformist candidate still in the race, the best that might be said is that the new president is unlikely to grate more on international nerves than his predecessor. But he will not be steering his country any nearer to secular democracy either.
How different the prospect was before the last such vote, in 2009. Amid a desire for change – from the urban middle class, in particular – unprecedented since the 1979 Islamic revolution, there was real hope that public pressure might loosen the grip of the mullahs and drag Iran out of theocratic lock-down. When tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against the highly dubious success of the Ayatollah-backed Mr Ahmadinejad, however, the regime cracked down hard. And with Mirhossein Mousavi, the alleged rightful winner, still under house arrest, the promise of a “green” revolution has dwindled to all-but nothing.
Indeed, the most striking aspect of the current contest is the lack of political engagement in an electorate fully 80 per cent of which turned out in 2009. The repressive theocracy of the mullahs may be losing its shine for a population with an average age under 30; the well-educated middle classes may be ever more politically disenfranchised; and the economy may be in tatters, thanks to the international sanctions designed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But with the credibility of tomorrow’s poll undermined by both the continued absence of Mr Mousavi and the state’s whimsical candidate-selection procedures, swathes of voters may choose not to dignify the charade with their participation.
There is still one reformer in the running. Better still, Hassan Rohani – a former nuclear negotiator whose conciliatory tendencies lost him his job – has the support of the two former presidents whose backing of Mr Mousavi proved crucial in propelling him to legitimacy in 2009. The endorsement from Mohammed Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (himself disqualified from the race) could perhaps help Mr Rohani through to a second round, should tomorrow’s vote not be conclusive. With no fewer than three candidates implicitly approved by the Ayatollah standing against him, however, even that is far from certain.
Against so discouraging a background, is it any wonder that many educated Iranians have turned off? Perhaps not. Yet it is a great shame, nonetheless. Not only because it tells an unhappy tale of the quiescence to which the green movement has been reduced. But also because, given the flux in the region – with turmoil in Iraq, a tentative Kurdish peace in Turkey, and Tehran-sponsored Hezbollah militants propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria – the vote is a vital one. Even a signal of public disaffection that is ignored is better than none at all.
Sad to say, there is little that the international community can do, not least because the West’s relationship with Iran is dominated by the vexed question of Tehran’s quest for nuclear weapons. A new president might be an opportunity for progress here, and the US should repeat attempts to break the stalemate. Mr Ahmadinejad’s bellicose rhetoric may be over at last but with Saeed Jalil – another nuclear negotiator, renowned for his inflexibility – as the frontrunner, there is little cause for undue optimism.
Taken together, then, an election that could and should count for so much looks set to deliver regrettably little. Expect a change of faces in the coming weeks, but very probably not much more.