The real question about these possible crises is the impact that each might have on the strength and stability of the Islamic Republican regime.
This is the latest in a
series of entries looking at what we can expect in 2013. Each weekday, a guest analyst will look at the key challenges facing a selected country – and what next year might hold in store.
In addition to its ongoing economic problems, which are unlikely to be overcome next year, there are three potential crises that could affect Iran in 2013. One is the possibility of public unrest concerning the succession to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who cannot run for a third consecutive term as president. Another possibility is the incapacitation or death of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei setting off a power struggle to succeed him which also results in public unrest. A third possibility is that the Iranian nuclear crisis boils over, and either the U.S. or Israel (or both) launch an armed attack to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The next Iranian presidential election is scheduled to take place on June 14, 2013. The leadership of the Islamic Republic very much wants to avoid the outburst of opposition that occurred in response to the widely-disbelieved announcement that Ahmadinejad had won re-election by a wide margin in June 2009. New regulations that further tighten clerical control over who is allowed to run for president are likely to be put into effect which even some regime insiders – most notably President Ahmadinejad himself – have voiced objection to. If indeed the only candidates allowed to run for president are just those few approved by the regime, the Iranian public may come to regard the entire presidential election process as illegitimate. With the downfall of long-ruling leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen (and possibly Syria by mid-2013) providing role models for what popular uprisings can accomplish, the Iranian public may launch a more concerted effort in response to what it regards as an illegitimate presidential election outcome in 2013 than it did in 2009.
In addition, Khamenei – who wields much greater power than the Iranian president – will be 73 years of age at the beginning of 2013. This is not particularly old, and he could go on to rule for another decade or more (his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, lived to age 86). But if – despite his own vociferous denials – the reports that Khamenei is in poor health are true, it is possible that he could become incapacitated or even die sooner rather than later. Unlike the one and only previous occasion in 1989 when a Supreme Leader (Khomeini) died and Khamenei was able to move up from being president to the top position, it is not clear yet who could replace Khamenei.
Not being a cleric, Ahmadinejad is ineligible for this position – as would be any other non-clerical. Yet even if the next president is a cleric, the religious establishment might not consider him suitable for the supreme leadership post. Given the importance of this position, a power struggle over who should fill it could easily erupt. Finally, an unpopular choice could arouse public opposition not just to the new supreme leader, but to the institution of an unelected supreme leader exercising so much power over elected officials.
Finally, it may be especially difficult for the Iranian leadership to reach agreement with the P5+1 on the nuclear issue during a year in which there will definitely be a presidential transition and possibly a supreme leadership transition (or even just increased politicking over it). At the same time, work on Iran’s various nuclear projects is likely to continue – even if only as a result of bureaucratic inertia. Heightened frustration over this situation may induce the Israeli and/or the U.S. government to launch a military attack against Iran out of the conviction that this is the only means of preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Such a move, of course, could have enormous consequences both for Iranian domestic politics and for international relations more broadly.
Of these three crises, the most likely to occur in 2013 is one over the presidential election since this has now been scheduled. Whether armed conflict will take place over the Iranian nuclear issue depends on decisions taken in Washington and/or Jerusalem, while the possibility of a succession crisis over Iran’s supreme leader post depends most on the state of Ayatollah Khamenei’s health. The real question about these possible crises is the impact that each might have on the strength and stability of the Islamic Republican regime.
Domestic political unrest caused by a negative public reaction to the outcome of the upcoming Iranian presidential election could severely undermine the legitimacy of the Islamic regime, and could even lead to its downfall if a process similar to the successful Arab Spring uprisings unfolds. A negative public reaction following the selection of a new Supreme Leader after the incapacitation or death of Khamenei could similarly undermine the legitimacy of the regime. By contrast – and despite how much Washington and Jerusalem might hope and even expect otherwise – an American and/or Israeli attack on Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons could result in a nationalist backlash and increased Iranian public support for the regime.
Of course, any two or even all three of these crises might arise in 2013. Indeed, if Iranian public opposition does arise in response to the outcome of the 2013 presidential elections (and possibly a crisis regarding the position of Supreme Leader), Tehran may actually seek an exacerbation of the nuclear crisis as a way of discrediting the Iranian democratic opposition through claiming it is being supported by America – the same country threatening to attack (or having actually attacked) Iran directly or via its Israeli ally.
Whether such a ploy would actually succeed at a time of heightened internal opposition to the regime cannot be foretold. Tehran, though, can certainly be expected to seize upon exacerbated international tensions over its nuclear program as an excuse to forcibly crack down on its internal democratic opponents. Western governments – particularly the United States – whose principle concern about Iran has been with preventing it from obtaining nuclear weapons, would do well to consider carefully how their policies regarding this will impact a crisis of legitimacy that the Islamic Republic could well face in 2013
Mark Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, and is the author of ‘Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan.’