Iran: June 2009 Elections and Nuclear Policy Implications

Iran: June 2009 Elections and Nuclear Policy Implications

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Paula Humphrey

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


The official, but contested, outcome of the Iranian elections on June 12 indicated a resounding victory for the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and an easy defeat of the Reformist challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Both candidates' declared positions and policies are similar. However, the number and scope of protests in the wake of the elections have created a clear divide between the candidates, both in the eyes of Iranians and outside observers. Additionally, instead of reaffirming the current regime, the elections challenged the power-holders in the country, and led to protests and instability. The Guardian Council, populated by numerous Ahmadinejad supporters, allegedly recounted 10 percent of the votes and reaffirmed his victory, an outcome that was quickly dismissed by Mousavi and his supporters.

In the tense and turbulent election aftermath, the question of how each candidate might affect nuclear and nonproliferation policies has been obscured. Mousavi, in the eyes of many Iranians and outside observers has become a Reformist savior, a sort of anti-Ahmadinejad. The incumbent, meanwhile, seems to have taken on an even more suppressive role with the apparent consent of the Supreme Leader. This analysis will review the policies of both candidates, and assess the tentative results of the election and its possible impact on nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Background: The Candidates' Political Histories

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Ahmadinejad displayed a tendency toward conservative extremism early in his political career. The Iranian leader attended Elm-o Sanaat University, where he established the Islamic Students Association and became a student representative for the Office for Strengthening of Unity (OSU), which at the time of its formation propagated conservative and anti-secularist principles. [1] This group also took an active role in the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover in Tehran, although Ahmadinejad's involvement in the planning and carrying out of the incident is not known. [2] During the Iran-Iraq war, Ahmadinejad reportedly served with the Special Brigade of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a group largely known for its extremist and violent actions. [3, 4] Partly due to his conservative leanings, the future president quickly advanced in his political career after the war. He first held the position of advisor to the Islamic culture and guidance ministry, after which he became governor-general of Ardebil. [5] During reformist President Mohammad Khatami's tenure, Ahmadinejad became a "trusted figure of the fringe of Islamic zealots who had been grouped under the title 'Ansar-e-Hezbollah,' or Followers of the Party of God." [6] In 2003, he was appointed Mayor of Tehran, and elected to the presidency in 2005.

Ahmadinejad has presided over a rapid mobilization of the country's nuclear program as president. Under his leadership, Iran's interaction with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the international community regarding its nuclear development has been difficult, with the most criticism stemming from Iran's lack of transparency. [7] Under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Iran is entitled to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel; however Iran has repeatedly refused to provide requested information and access to the IAEA, and has ignored UN Security Council resolutions calling for it to halt its enrichment activities and comply with IAEA requests. [8] A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released in late 2007 did not find any proof of diversion of nuclear materials for weapons purposes, although these findings have been criticized by some parties. Despite finding that Iran had not yet developed a nuclear weapon, the report estimated that Iran would have the capability to produce enough HEU for a weapon by late 2009, but more likely between 2010 to 2015. [9]

Ahmadinejad's statements regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions are numerous and unsettling, which has not eased Western countries' suspicions that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In 2007, after declaring amid great speculation that Iran was operating 3,000 centrifuges, Ahmadinejad also noted, "The Iranian nation has entered the phase of industrial scale of nuclear fuel production and the train of the Iranian nation's progress is irreversible." [10] His messages to the world community, and the United States in particular, largely do not address nonproliferation concerns but instead focus on the progress Iran has achieved through its pursuit of a nuclear program widely considered to be outside the bounds of nonproliferation agreements. This reinforces the notion that Iran's leaders are less concerned about assuring the world that its program is for peaceful purposes. The statements that do emerge from Iran's president promising the peaceful nature of the nuclear program have done little to assuage international fears, as these are interspersed with frequent references to Iran's enemies, the "Zionists" overrunning Palestine and the role of Iran as the general underdog facing the West.

In 2007, the resignation of Iran's primary nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, further stirred fear that the nuclear program could be intended for weapons-related purposes. Larijani was widely seen within Iranian political circles as an important asset in nuclear negotiations, as opposed to his replacement Saeed Jalili who has thus far been described as a negotiator who "specializes in monologue." [11] Jalili is also considered to be closer to Ahmadinejad and his policies than Larijani, who consistently disagreed with Ahmadinejad despite his own conservative views and assertion of Iran's right to a nuclear program.

After this point in time, and as Ahmadinejad's power in Iran became more polarizing, it appeared as though the president's statements regarding the nuclear program increased in intensity and lack of flexibility. In September of 2008 Ahmadinejad declared that Iran would not submit to U.S. "bullying" and in the event of an attack intended to damage its nuclear capabilities he said, "If there is a hand raised against our nation it will be cut off completely." [12] In this same UN General Assembly speech, he predicted what he referred to as the "Zionist regime" as being on a "definite slope to collapse." [13] He went further to suggest that the "American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road." [14] Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's apparent support of Ahmadinejad's handling of the nuclear issue has further intensified fears, as he is the ultimate power-holder in the political structure in Iran.

Ahmadinejad's policy on nuclear nonproliferation was further reflected in Iran's 2009 NPT PrepCom statements and its stance toward a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East. Before Iran will consider a NWFZ, it expects the nuclear weapons states to first pressure Israel to meet its disarmament obligations under the NPT. At the PrepCom, this issue was forefront in Iran's statements; additionally, it declared that the failure of India, Israel, and Pakistan to become members of the NPT presented a greater danger than Iran's peaceful development of nuclear technology. Thus, Iran's discussion and consideration of a NWFZ in the Middle East was relegated to the background of its statement, which was almost entirely focused on the lack of progress in disarmament by NWS and Israel. [15]

Just before the elections in June 2009, the IAEA released a report that found Iran had increased its nuclear fuel production and was operating 7,200 centrifuges, both of which suggest it is capable of producing nuclear weapons. The IAEA found no evidence that the fuel was being enriched to a weapon-grade level; however, its report noted that inspectors have not been permitted to access the Iran Nuclear Research Reactor making the purposes of this facility (whether peaceful or weapons-related) difficult to verify. [16]

Mir Hossein Mousavi

The political track record of Mousavi, who at this point represents the entire Reformist movement in Iran, is strikingly similar to that of Ahmadinejad. In 1973, his anti-Shah leanings led him to imprisonment, after which he moved to London. Following the revolution, Mousavi re-established his Islamic credentials by becoming a founder of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP). His history with the IRP is rife with examples of strict obeisance to the preceding Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei. [17] His path at the IRP crossed that of Khamenei, who served as Iran's president from 1981 to 1989 before being elected by the Assembly of Experts to the position of Supreme Leader. As Iran's prime minister during this time, Mousavi witnessed one of the worst purges of Iranian prisoners in history. His involvement and level of protest against these executions are still unclear. [18] His relationship with Khamenei during this time was not entirely amicable, as evidenced by his quick removal from office once Rafsanjani was elected president and Khamenei was placed in the role of Supreme Leader in 1989. Notably, in 1987 during his tenure as prime minister, Mousavi directly approved the acquisition of clandestine centrifuge technology from Pakistan's A.Q. Khan network. [19, 20] In the late 1980s, the Khan network began to provide nuclear components to Iran; additionally, during Mousavi's time in office, Iranian scientists were sent to Pakistan for training in nuclear technology. [21]

Mousavi's statements in support of the nuclear program preceding the election are substantively similar to those of Ahmadinejad. On April 14, 2009, he was quoted as saying that Iran's suspension of enrichment from 2003-2005 was a "bad experience and a tool to deprive Iran of having access to nuclear technology." [22] Further evidence of his conservative position appears in the following answer to a reporter's question about Iran's nuclear issues: "One is our right to nuclear energy, which is non-negotiable. The second issue is related to concerns about the diversion of this program towards weaponization. Personally, I view this second part, which is both technical and political, as negotiable." [23] This last statement implies that Mousavi considers weaponization of Iran's nuclear program a possibility, which could reflect his own beliefs or simply the position of the reformists. At this point in the run up to the election, his viewpoint thus appeared to be almost completely in line with the more conservative elements he was running against.

As the election approached, in late May he took on a more conciliatory tone when he said that "If elected as Iran's president, I will continue nuclear talks with the P5+1 group,"
[24] and referred to Ahmadinejad as his "extremist" opponent. [25] Such statements possibly indicate an attempt to differentiate himself from Ahmadinejad in the run-up to the election, or they could represent a slight change from his previous policy that mirrored that of Ahmadinejad.

While campaigning Mousavi also said, "We have to have the technology," in reference to the nuclear program, and suggested that abandoning Iran's nuclear status would be an "irreparable" decision. In that same news conference, Mousavi pointed out that the majority of Iranians support Iran's nuclear status. [26] A World Public Opinion poll released in April 2008 confirms this statement. While the data revealed that most Iranians support the country's program for energy production, the poll also indicated that six in ten Iranians consider the development of nuclear weapons to be "contrary to Islam." [27] This view is echoed by Mousavi's public statements, which consistently show that he favors Iran's nuclear energy program continuing uninterrupted. Another poll conducted by the non-profit institute Terror Free Tomorrow in May 2009 found that a majority (70 percent) of Iranians would support Iran's compliance with IAEA inspections in exchange for international aid. In this same poll, a slight majority (52 percent) favored the development of nuclear weapons, although less than half regard this as "an important priority" for Iran. [28] Such findings reveal why Mousavi would also support the continuance of the nuclear energy program in order to fully represent his country and garner support.

Additionally, the platform of the Reformist faction includes full support of Iran's right to nuclear energy. The current adviser to former President Mohammad Khatami, Seyyed Sadeq Kharazi, recently stressed this point in the run-up to the election, declaring that there is no difference on this issue between the two sides and that any obfuscation of this is the result of Ahmadinejad's campaign strategy. [29] He explained that the reformists' criticism of Ahmadinejad stems from the antagonism that has been generated as a result of his policies. Specifically, he pointed to the nuclear controversy escalating from the IAEA to the UN Security Council, a step that many Reformists saw as unnecessary. [30] Despite some minor differences in emphasis, the reformists' policies in comparison to those of Ahmadinejad's government are largely uniform on nuclear energy and nonproliferation.

Khamenei and Other Stakeholders

As the Supreme Leader of Iran, Khamenei apparently retains ultimate decision-making power. Khamenei has consistently supported Ahmadinejad's actions in furtherance of Iran's nuclear program. One of the exceptions to this arose with Larijani's resignation as chief negotiator in 2007, a decision instigated by Ahmadinejad and not entirely approved of by Khamenei. Khamenei declared in August 2008 that Iran's (and Ahmadinejad's) nuclear stance "protects Iran's dignity." He stated that "through its devotion to the values of the Islamic Revolution, the ninth administration has made a stand against Western cultural inroads and secular movements." [31] The statement signaled overt approval of Ahmadinejad and his approach to the nuclear program.

The additional power holders in Iran are represented by the Expediency Council and the Guardian Council, the latter of which retains the power to sanction the final election results. [32] Ahmadinejad retains strong support amongst the Guardian Council, although his formal rival Ali Rafsanjani heads the Expediency Council with a temporary appointment from Khamenei (the actual power that Rafsanjani retains is largely disputed). This power struggle is representative of a more widespread shift in loyalties following the elections, in which many clerics have come out to support Mousavi.

Within the president's cabinet, the Ministry of the Interior controls the monitoring of the elections, presenting a conflict of interest as the head of this Ministry is also a "wealthy confidant" of Ahmadinejad. [33] A growing consensus among experts reveals that Ahmadinejad is consolidating power by placing the military-security elite in key government positions. [34] It is unclear exactly how much power the Supreme Leader Khamenei retains in this evolving power struggle. However, Khamenei's rapid endorsement of Ahmadinejad's win in the widely contested election would suggest his strong approval of the president and intent to retain the current power structure.

Implications for Nuclear Policies

In light of the official handling of the questionable election results and widespread protests, it appears that Ahmadinejad is receiving continued support from the highest levels. It remains to be seen which players are the ultimate power-holders, and particularly whether Khamenei retains his supreme authority or is relegated to a more symbolic role under the control of Ahmadinejad and his core supporters.

What can be said with certainty is that Ahmadinejad's apparent win has left Iran in a tumultuous position. Before the elections, both candidates appeared to have similar policies with slight differences. The important difference between the two was largely symbolic; Mousavi perhaps would have represented a change in negotiating style, if not in substance, that might have improved chances for nuclear and nonproliferation negotiations with Western countries. Now, however, Ahmadinejad has been forced into a defensive position, making his next choices largely unpredictable.

In any new nuclear negotiations process, Ahmadinejad's statements and actions will likely be overshadowed by his past inflammatory rhetoric. Ahmadinejad has consistently insisted upon Iran's right to enrich uranium while also denouncing Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a German news source that "under a different regime the friendly relations that prevailed in the past could be restored," but this is contingent upon a total restructuring of the government, not the least of which means the replacement of Ahmadinejad with another leader. [35] While Ahmadinejad's widely publicized views may not have direct bearing on the country's nuclear posture, Israel understandably has been entirely resistant to engaging with such a leader. The opportunity for a successful Middle East NWFZ also depends on the relaxing of tensions between Israel and Iran, the potential for which appears to be fading with the re-election of Ahmadinejad.

The election of a new president in Iran might have relaxed this tension slightly in the Middle East, although to what extent remains unclear. It can, however, be inferred that the re-election of Ahmadinejad means a retention of all the negative associations of his previous term in office. In this sense, a Mousavi presidency would have made the transition to direct negotiations smoother.
[36] The Obama administration would have met with less resistance both domestically and internationally had there been a new face in Tehran to engage with. Additionally, Mousavi indicated his willingness to engage with the United States directly when he was questioned about this possibility in a news conference. [37] Despite this largely symbolic advantage, however, in the event of a Mousavi win, the United States nonetheless would have been forced to negotiate with a president whose past is both conservative and pro-nuclear, most clearly evidenced by his decision to procure nuclear technology from the Khan network. In terms of current policy, while Mousavi did agree that negotiations with the United States would be possible, he reaffirmed Iran's commitment to pursuing a peaceful nuclear program, including the uranium enrichment for which it is currently sanctioned by the United Nations and United States. Like Ahmadinejad Mousavi has stressed the Iranian government's and people's determination that Iran develop nuclear power.

Various analysts have cautioned that a Mousavi victory could lead to more stalemating and delaying of negotiations, an environment similar if not identical to what the United States associates with Ahmadinejad. [38] Obama pointed to this possibility when he said that the two candidates presented much the same challenge to U.S. policymaking with Iran. [39]

Conclusion: Election Aftermath Hampers New Negotiations

The aftermath of the Iranian election complicates the U.S. and other countries' nuclear negotiation strategies. Russia remains optimistic about future nuclear negotiations, but by most accounts, the aftermath of the election has only dimmed prospects for progress. [40] The leadership in Iran must now contend with domestic instability, which leaves little room for nuclear negotiations with the international community.

As the June 2009 presidential election approached, and with the new Obama administration in Washington, Ahmadinejad took a surprisingly conciliatory stance and discussed the possibility of negotiations based on a new package of incentives. He said that "The Iranian nation is a generous nation…It may forget the past and start a new era." [41] Additionally, the conservative nuclear negotiator for Iran, Saeed Jalili, indicated before the election that Iran was prepared to negotiate with the P5+1, a major step for the Ahmadinejad regime, suggesting a new flexibility. The election and its aftermath have eliminated this new opportunity, at least temporarily. On June 14, in a post-election victory speech, Ahmadinejad announced in reference to negotiations with foreign powers: "That file is shut, forever." [42] Also following the election result, a military officer representing Iran announced the European Union would be barred from future nuclear negotiations unless and until it "apologized for an alleged role in the Middle Eastern state's recent election protests." [43]

One month after the election, a shifting in Iranian nuclear policy is taking place, perhaps reflecting the leadership's desire to deflect attention away from the domestic unrest gripping the country. [44, 45] On July 11, Iran's foreign minister announced the government's intention to offer proposals for nuclear negotiations with the West. The content and seriousness of the offer have yet to be determined. Also noteworthy is the resignation of Gholam Reza Aghazadeh (a reputed supporter of Mousavi) from his position as chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization. [46] These internal changes are difficult to assess without further detail, but they do suggest a wavering of confidence by the top Iranian leadership in the aggressive posture taken by Ahmadinejad in the immediate aftermath of the election.

Mousavi, by contrast, has now become the face of the reform movement in Iran. Had he received the majority of votes in an uncontested election, the Obama administration might have had a clear opportunity to capitalize on the less extreme, albeit still conservative, regime that might have emerged out of Iran. This possibility is becoming more remote as the top leadership in Iran, represented by Khamenei, seems unwavering in its support of Ahmadinejad (despite the increasing split amongst clerics that hold lower positions of leadership). Mousavi's policies are now largely impossible to predict, as his persona has turned from Reformist opponent to the symbol of Iran's dissatisfaction with the current regime.

The chance for direct engagement with the re-elected Ahmadinejad is thus much less likely now that his own legitimacy in Iran has been questioned. It would have been a simpler task for Obama to negotiate with Ahmadinejad had he won the election uncontested. Instead, the Obama administration faces negotiations with a country that is led by a president many consider to be an unfairly elected dictator. Additionally, the intensity and violence of the post-election protests and the government crackdown add to the doubts about the legitimacy of the new regime. In future negotiations, the Obama administration may need to consider the issue of human rights.

Finally, the potential rigging of the elections begs the question of why the power-holders in Iran deemed it necessary to keep Ahmadinejad in power. There are a myriad of potential answers to the question: fear of Mousavi's possible social liberalism and secularism, personal dislike or preference for Ahmadinejad, and the more frightening possibility that the inflexible negotiating path taken by Ahmadinejad was preferred to the potentially softer approach Mousavi might have taken. Whoever holds the power in Iran, it is clear that the status quo of inflexibility on the nuclear issue was approved and is likely to continue.

[1] "Iran's new President has a past mired in controversy," Iran Focus, June 24, 2005.
[2] Ibid. Also, Sam Knight, "Photo 'shows Iran President with US hostage,'" Times Online, June 29, 2005,
[3] Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran (Basic Books, 2008), 11-12 and Greg Bruno, "Iran's Revolutionary Guards," Council on Foreign Relations, June 22, 2009,
[4] Global, "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad," 2009,
[5] Melman and Javedanfar, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran, 11-12.
[6] Kasra Naji, Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2008), p. 46.
[7] See, for example, "The New IAEA Resolution: A Milestone in the Iran-IAEA Saga," NTI, November 2005, and "IAEA Board Deplores Iran's Failure to Come into Full Compliance: Is Patience with Iran Running Out?" NTI, June 2004,
[8] David Albright and Jacqueline Shire, The Institute for Science and International Security, "Misconceptions about Iran's Nuclear Program," July 8, 2009,
[9] National Intelligence Estimate, "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities," November 2007,
[10] "Ahmadinejad: Nuclear programme 'irreversible,'" Telegraph Online, November 7, 2007,
[11] Scott Peterson, "In nuclear chief, Iran signals harder line," Christian Science Monitor, October 22, 2007,
[12] Bill Varner, "Ahmadinejad Says Iran's Nuclear Issues Are Resolved," Bloomberg, September 23, 2008,
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Miles A. Pomper, "Report from the NPT Preparatory Committee 2009," CNS Feature Stories, May 26, 2009,
[16] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," IAEA, June 5, 2009,
[17] Suad Jafarzadeh and Barbara Slavin, "'Evolved' Firebrand Faces Ahmadinejad," Washington Times, April 22, 2009,
[18] Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs (Basic Books, June 1990), and Muhammad Sahimi, "The Candidates: Iran's Presidential Election, Part III: the Candidates and their Supporters," Tehran Bureau, May 5, 2009,
[19] Jay Solomon, "Challenger Mousavi Has Conservative Past," The Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2009,
[20] "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006) and 1747 (2007) in the Islamic Republic of Iran," IAEA, November 23, 2007,
[21] "A.Q. Khan Nuclear Chronology," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vol. VIII. No. 8, September 7, 2005,
[22] "Mousavi: Iran will never halt enrichment" Payvand Iran News, April 14, 2009.
[23] Solomon, "Challenger Mousavi Has Conservative Past."
[24] The P5+1 Group is made up of the UN Security Council permanent members, the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia, plus Germany.
[25] Parisa Hafezi, "Mousavi vows to continue nuclear talks if elected," The Daily Star, May 30, 2009,
[26] Nasser Karimi, "Iranian Reformist Mousavi Would Talk to America If Elected, But Won't Bend on Nuclear Program," Huffington Post, April 6, 2009,
[27] "Public Opinion in Iran," April 7, 2008,
[28] "Ahmadinejad Front Runner in Upcoming Presidential Elections; Iranians Continue to Back Compromise and Better Relations with US and West," Terror Free Tomorrow, May 2009,
[29] Salih al-Qazwini, "Iran: Khatami's Adviser Says Reformists to Maintain Nuclear Policy," Kuwait Al-Dar in Arabic, Open Source Center, Document GMP20090527127001, Unclassified, May 27, 2009.
[30] Ibid.
[31] "'Nuclear stance protects Iran's dignity,'" Press TV, August 23, 2008,
[32] Amir Taheri, "Iran's Clarifying Election," The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2009.
[33] Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim, "Iranian election protesters refuse to give up but change tactics," The Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2009,
[34] Taheri, "Iran's Clarifying Election."
[35] "Interview with PM Netanyahu in the German newspaper "'Bild,'" Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 22, 2009,
[36] "Iranian Election Seen Affecting Approach in Nuclear Dispute," Global Security Newswire, June 12, 2009,
[37] Nasser Karimi, "Iranian Reformist Mousavi Would Talk to America If Elected, But Won't Bend on Nuclear Program," Huffington Post, April 6, 2009,
[38] Solomon, "Challenger Mousavi Has Conservative Past."
[39] Reuters, "Obama: Not much difference between Ahmadinejad, Mousavi,", June 17, 2009,
[40] "Experts Debate Effect of Iranian Protests on Nuclear Policy," Global Security Newswire, June 23, 2009,
[41] Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim, "Iran's Ahmadinejad offers new start with West, Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2009,
[42] Taheri, "Iran's Clarifying Election."
[43] "EU Not Welcome at Nuclear Talks, Iran Says," Global Security Newsire, July 1, 2009,
[44] Chip Cummins, "Iran Drafts Plans for Nuclear Talks, The Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2009,
[45] Global Security Newswire, "Iranian Election Seen Undermining U.S. Attempts at Outreach," NTI, July 16, 2009,
[46] Ibid.

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