As I noted yesterday, the Iranian election campaign has really heated up in its closing week. Former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani has been fighting back against Ahmadinejad's accusing him of corruption, denuncing Ahmadinejad's "lies," while candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi has been calling Ahmadinejad a dictator. I noted Gary Sick's collection of links to the campaign yesterday; Juan Cole is on the bandwagon today, quoting some of the same articles about the Mousavi pheomenon, and applying the US "red state/blue state" dichotomy to Iran's conservative rural aras and more progressive cities.
Rafsanjani, the former President who also runs the powerful expediency council, was defeated by Ahmadinejad the last time around, when there was no incumbent. But the rhetoric that time was nowhere near as harsh as it is this year. (An Iranian joke from a year or so ago: Rafsanjani and others in the clerical establishment are debating what to name a new highway. Rafsanjani suggests: "The Martyr Ahmadinejad Highway.")
Every Iranian incumbent President who has run for a second term has, so far, won his bid (they are term-limited to only two successive terms, though they can run for a third term that is not in succession, as Rafsanuani sought to do last time and Khatami considered doing this time). But this year may be different. The economy is a shambles and Ahmadinejad is vulnerable to the charge that he has been grandstanding on the world stage — posturing on the nuclear issue (which isn't really in the President's portfolio anyway), visting Latin America and his pal Hugo Chavez when the economy was tanking at home — rather than managing the country.
Mir-Hossein Mousavi, while presenting himself as a reformer, is not a reformer in the Khatami mold, and he has excellent revolutionary credentials, having served as Prime Minister in the 1980s and thus able to portray himself as a companion of the late Imam Khomeini.
Cole, in the link above, noted reports that the Revolutionary Guards Corps may be abandoning Ahmadinejad for Mousavi. The Guards onetime commander, Mohsen Reza‘i, is also one of the four candidates.
Unless the Mousavi surge is really turning into a tsunami, it still would seem likelier that the presence of four candidates will mean the vote goes to a runoff even if Mousavi runs first and Ahmadinejad second. But that could still lead to a Mousavi victory.
Iran is not a pure democracy of course: the Guardians Council chose the four candidates from hundreds who sought to run; and real power lies with Ayatollah Khamene'i, not with the President. But within the constraints of the system, people do vote competitively. Three days before the vote, everything seems to be in play. This could prove interesting.
One caution I would raise. We are already seeing commentary interpreting the Lebanese electoral results as a victory for the US and for President Obama's outreach to the Muslim world. Certainly the US will be much happier with the Lebanese results than if March 8 had won, but we need to beware assuming that the reasons Lebanese voted as they did has much to do with American actions, Obama's Cairo speech, or Joe Biden's visit to Lebanon. Lebanese voted against Hizbullah, I suspect, not because of the US but because of Hizbullah's behavior last year.
Similarly, if Ahmadinejad is voted out in Iran, we should not try to claim a great victory: nothing would taint a President Mousavi more, and Khatami never recovered from being portrayed as too soft toward the West.