Iran Election 2013: It's A Referendum on the Economy, But is True Reform Possible?


On June 14, Iranians will cast their vote to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from a list of eight candidates already approved by the Guardian Council. While the international community is focused on Iranian involvement in Syria and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, most Iranians will make their decision with one issue in mind: the economy. In recent presidential debates, discussion of the ailing economy has been pervasive and everyone from foreign analysts to the supreme leader himself has acknowledged that the economy is a critical election issue. Despite the candidates’ rhetoric and various plans for economic growth, little will change during the next administration as the supreme leader remains committed to pursuing reckless foreign policies and the chosen field of candidates have pledged loyalty to him.

During the election’s first presidential debate, candidates painted a grim picture of the Iranian economy and acknowledged the destructive effects of international sanctions and domestic mismanagement. They pointed out that many factories have been closed, privatization has been sidelined in favor of the security sector, and the increasing budget deficit led the government to borrow directly from the central bank. Currently, unemployment is at 14% and the inflation rate is above 30%. While these facts are not news to Iranian citizens, their open discussion on live television demonstrates how important the economic issue is in this election. As one government employee explained after watching the debate, “People think about the economy day and night and won't vote for a candidate who appears out of touch or lying.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even acknowledges that the weak economy will be the election’s “main issue.” However, he seems misguided about the source of the problem, saying, “If we can shore up the economy, the enemy will be left defenseless in its confrontation with the Iranian nation.”

While the supreme leader is trying to suggest that Iran could work around international sanctions in order to render them irrelevant, the truth is the Iranian economy is in a steady decline and sanctions will continue to get tougher in the absence of productive international negotiations. Just last week President Obama announced a new batch of sanctions targeting Iran’s currency and auto industry. Sanctions already in place have reduced the value of the Iranian rial by 80%, halved the country’s oil exports, and considerably impaired the industrial sector.

The eight presidential candidates differ on how to improve Iran’s economy but have a similar tendency to sidestep or ignore the fact that a more moderate foreign policy could ease crippling sanctions. In the election’s second debate, candidate Mohsen Rezaei theatrically held up a 10,000-rial bill and said, “Today, it's equal to 3,000 rials this time last year.” His main point, however, was that “cultural programs are ineffective until economic problems are tackled.” This may be true but he ignored the fact that “economic problems” will not be “tackled” until sanctions are lifted.

Taking a more oblivious tone, presidential frontrunner Saeed Jalili recently argued that his administration would fix Iran’s economic problems by making use of “the youth’s capacities in different sectors,” as if the 800,000 college graduates currently unemployed simply haven’t been looking for work in the right place.

Nevertheless, veiled references to the harmful effects of Iran’s foreign policy prove that not all candidates are ignorant to the real problem. Independent candidate Mohsen Rezaei sounds the most realistic when arguing that Iran should find a “logical solution for sanctions” in order to curb inflation. He also pointed out, “The fallout from bad decision-making in our country has been worse than what any enemy could do to us.” Additionally, presidential candidate Ali Akbar Velayati acknowledges that Iran needs to improve relations with the world, and candidate Mohammed Qalibaf said his administration would refrain from hasty decisions that create instability.

The truth is, however, that whether the next president acknowledges Iran’s self-harming foreign policies or not, their administration will have little influence over the decisions made. Supreme leader Khamenei retains full control over Iran’s foreign affairs and as the eight presidential candidates were vetted for loyalty instead of competence, any divergence from his policy agenda is unlikely.

Iranians, aware of this powerlessness, will head to the polls nonetheless in order to vote for the candidate they feel is least corrupt. When the economy is this bad, an opportunity to express a political opinion, even in a highly controlled undemocratic system, will be taken advantage of. Unfortunately, real change is not on the horizon and the supreme leader said it best when he claimed, “A vote for any of these eight candidates is a vote for the Islamic republic.” While they continue to debate minor differences in economic policy, a vote for any of the eight candidates is a vote for the supreme leader and a hopeless continuation of the status quo.