Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 12/2009

Iran's Presidential Elections: What Impact on External Relations?

Shireen T. Hunter

May 2009

Istituto Affari Internazionali


In June 2009, Iran will hold its 10th presidential elections since the establishment of the Islamic regime in 1979. As a rule, in past elections the incumbent president was elected to a second term. Even Muhammad Khatami, despite his problems with the conservative elements and disagreements with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was reelected in 2001. This year’s election is different in that it is a real possibility that the incumbent president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, may not be reelected. Another distinguishing feature of this year’s elections is that matters related to Iran’s external relations and the performance record of the Ahmadinejad administration could very well play a very important role in the election outcome. It is true that, during the 2005 elections, Khatami’s supporters harshly criticized his foreign policy, which they characterized as “concessionary” toward the West, in regard both to regional issues, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and to the nuclear question. Critics emphasized that Khatami administration helped the US in Afghanistan, only for Iran to be labeled as part of an Axis of Evil, and that it agreed voluntary to suspend its nuclear enrichment program in the hope that the EU would normalize Iran’s nuclear dossier, only to be disappointed. However, in 2005 domestic issues, especially difficult economic conditions and the seeming lack of connection of the country’s political and intellectual elite from the concerns of ordinary Iranians, played a more important role in deciding the fate of the elections. Ahmadinejad, with his “man of the people” image and his folksy manner, benefited from these sentiments.