Over the coming month, international attention will turn towards Tehran, where Israel’s gaze has long been trained, writes Stephen Oryszczuk.

On 22 May, candidates for Iran’s upcoming election will be announced, and on 16 June, Iranians go to the polls to choose their next president.ah

On the face of it, Iran’s elections sound democratic. Optimists may even call them hopeful. Two-term incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (pictured right) bows out, there is talk of ‘reformers’ running for top job and there are rumours of internal disagreements over whether to cut a deal with ‘the Great Satan.’

Israel has long sought a shift in direction from the revolutionary Islamic Republic, but has always assumed that such a shift would need to be forced, rather than be self-imposed.

Dare Jerusalem dream?

To answer that, we must first ask whether the elections will be fair, and whether they will they make the slightest bit of difference to Israel.

The short answer to both questions is ‘no.’ The long answer to both questions is ‘unfortunately no.’

Still, the world will take an interest, in part because many expect this country of 77 million people to soon be on the receiving end of an attack by Israel and/or the United States over its ‘civilian’ nuclear programme.

Arak1

That interest is justified. Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu have repeatedly said that ‘all options are on the table.’ Any attack would (presumably) be hard, fast and over in a flash, targeting Iranian nuclear installations (such as the Arak heavy water plant, pictured left) from the air and sea, with other countries (e.g. Azerbaijan) helping to a limited extent, by allowing the use of airbases etc.

Such a strike would be called ‘pre-emptive’ and Israeli strikes on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear sites, in 1981 and 2007 respectively, provide the precedents. Experts are divided over whether it would work, given the geography and the underground nature of facilities. They’re equally unsure as to how Iran would hit back. Scenario planners have played this game for years, but truth be told no-one really knows what Iran would do. All this makes it interesting to the neutral but nerve-wracking for those who may take the brunt of any backlash.

Interest in the election also stems from the fact that Iran has effectively been phased out of the international economic system in recent times.

Crippling sanctions seem to be having an effect on everyone but the leadership, and on everything but the country’s nuclear programme. Still, they will continue, because the situation is circular and self-sustaining: Iran must now continue pursuing its suspicious nuclear programme precisely because it cannot be seen to be suffering from the sanctions imposed on it because it was pursuing a suspicious nuclear programme. It all has a horrible feel, like a car-crash in slow motion. But again, it has the world gripped.

Sanctions and sabre-rattling cannot go on forever. Something has to give. Optimists smell an opportunity with these elections, asking if a change of president is the excuse the ayatollahs need to negotiate a face-saving retreat. With oil sales halved, the economy shrinking by 4% a year and inflation running at 30% now would indeed be a good time for a change of heart.

But the idea that any new Iranian president might mothball Arak, Isfahan, Bushehr, Fordow and other sites is about as likely as an anti-establishment candidate being elected on 16 June.Khamenei1

That’s because the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (pictured right), has the final say on all matters relating to the state and – as so often happens with fundamentalist revolutionary clerics with power and paranoia in equal doses – he’s not for budging.

Be that as it may, he still has to manufacture a win, and that’s where the Guardian Council comes in. This body of censors has the power to block any candidate for (almost) any reason.

The most dangerous threat to Khamenei comes from the nationalist camp, led by outgoing president Ahmadinejad and represented this month by his anointed successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The Supreme Leader’s people have accused them of putting Iran before Islam. Naughty boys. Mashaei may thus be blocked from running.

There are others in the mix. The old school is represented by 79-year old ‘moderate’ candidate Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, while the Revolutionary Guards wield former air force commander Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf.

But it is those most loyal to the throne, including Saeed Jalili – Iran’s nuclear negotiator and Khamenei’s closest ally – who are likely to win. Indeed, Khamenei’s cronies took the vast majority of seats in the parliamentary elections earlier this year, in a process once again purged of undesirables by the Guardian Council before any votes were cast.

Protest1Unlike in 2009, there is no reformist camp this year. Its two key leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest, four years after an election many believe was rigged in favour of Ahmadinejad (protests, pictured left). Another reformist leader, Mohammad Khatami, is not running himself, and has urged people to back the elderly Rafsanjani – possibly because he is the best of a bad bunch.

Israelis know better than to trust a hope. If there’s anything that Jerusalem will be looking for in these elections, it will be pragmatism.

Rafsanjani may provide it, say the optimists. A former president, military commander and founding member of the Islamic Republic, he doesn’t look great on paper. But he fell out with the Supreme Leader a few years ago, and his practical approach means that he has done well in his role mediating between parliament and the ruling clerics.

Jalili too might bring his negotiation experiences to the presidency. He has spent several (admittedly unsuccessful) years talking to the West, so at the very least he’s briefed.

But if, as expected, the new president carries no new broom, we go back to guessing how this mess will end. There are, it seems, three options.

The first is that we wake up one night to spectacular footage of explosions ripping through Iranian nuclear facilities and Israelis running for shelters. The second is that the negotiators cut a deal, with Iran slowly halting production in exchange for the drip-feed easing of sanctions. The third is that the regime slowly crumbles from within.Parliament

The first option carries too many risks, and the second is highly unlikely, but the third scenario just may come to pass.

For the last three decades the Islamic Republic has survived on the popular support it gained from distributing public services and subsidising everyday goods. Remove that, say analysts, and the people will rise up against it.

But that’s hopeful, to say the least, because the Iranian people are used to sanctions and self-sufficiency, and the Republic’s security forces are used to violent suppression.

Israel is convinced this leopard’s spots will remain unchanged. In the words of Israeli President Shimon Peres, “they have become a brutal dictatorship which casts a stain on Persian history and is a nightmare for its people”.

Peres went on to say that Iran sought hegemony over the region, had terror agencies across the Middle East, smuggled weapons into Arab countries to undermine their stability, exported wild incitement against Israel, denied the Holocaust and threatened a new one. Oh, he added: they were also building nuclear weapons.

When US President Barack Obama came to office four years ago, he extended his hand to Iran. Former Defence Minister Ehud Barak says Israel also extends its hand to regional enemies. The difference, he says, is that Israelis keep their other hand firmly placed on the gun in their pocket.

That gun may be needed before the end. In the meantime, Jerusalem would be better off practicing mid-air refueling than dreaming of a change of Iranian heart. But in the Middle East, who knows? Maybe these elections will throw up a surprise. After all, we’ve been surprised before.