This year's Iranian presidential election is likely to produce a strong political figure who will have a significant impact on the Islamic Republic's foreign and domestic policies, helping to ensure Iran's continued internal development and bolstering its regional importance. Yet every four years, a combustible mix of pro-Israel advocates, Iranian expatriates, Western Iran "experts," and their fellow travelers in the media try to use Iranian presidential elections as a frame for persuading Westerners that the Islamic Republic is an illegitimate system so despised by its people as to be at imminent risk of overthrow.
Iran's election processes, pundits tell us, will be manipulated to produce a winner chosen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei -- a "selection rather than an election" -- consolidating Khamenei's dictatorial hold over Iranian politics. Either Iranians will be sufficiently outraged to rise up against the system, commentators intone, or the world will have to deal with increasingly authoritarian -- and dangerous -- clerical-military rule in Tehran.
But this year's presidential campaign, like its predecessors, challenges Westerners' deep attachment to myths of the Islamic Republic's illegitimacy and fragility. The eight candidates initially approved by the Guardian Council represented a broad spectrum of conservative and reformist views. While one conservative and the most clear-cut reformist -- neither of whom attracted much support -- have withdrawn, they did so not from intimidation but to prevent conservative and reformist votes from being dissipated across too many candidates from each camp.
Contrary to an engineered selection, Iran is in the final days of a real contest. Candidates have had broad and regular access to national media, (including the broadcasting of extended videos about each candidate prepared by their campaigns), have advertised and held campaign events, and have participated in three nationally televised (and widely watched) debates.
High-quality surveys by both Western and Iranian pollsters show that the campaign is having a powerful effect on the eventual outcome. Western pundits and journalists have regularly identified nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili as Khamenei's "anointed" candidate and the clear "front-runner." But high-quality polls have never identified Jalili as the clear front-runner. As election day looms, moreover, polls conducted after the final debate show Jalili losing ground to three rivals: Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezae, and former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani (the only cleric on the ballot).
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