The 2013 presidential election in Iran: Big issues lurking in the shadow

On 14 June, the next presidential election will take place in Iran. Last time in 2009 the election lead to huge demonstrations, and since then the country has gradually moved further into a crisis of legitimacy over the future of the Islamic Republic. So what are the big issues at stake this time around?

The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently caught in conflict-ridden times. The country is facing international sanctions and war threats due to its nuclear programme, not to forget the high inflation and economic crisis that create hardship for the people. Moreover, Iran is also dealing with an internal power struggle over who holds the best solution for the future of the Republic. The conflict is not only played out between the state and the opposition, but also within the state. On the one hand, the current president Ahmadinejad has served his second and final term of presidency, but is still very eager to name his follower. The Supreme Leader Khamenei, on the other hand, is fed up with having an uncontainable president and is likely to cement his solitary authority once and for all. In October last year, he even introduced the idea of implementing a radical constitutional amendment to eliminate the position of the president altogether, saying: “If deemed appropriate, Iran could do without a president”.


The Islamic Republic of Iran is caught in conflict-ridden times. The 2013 election can set a new course for the country. (Photo: Marianne Bøe)

The big political topics concerning international relations and internal power struggles are likely to overshadow the presidential campaign. Concurrently, the political opposition is severely weakened. The opposition suffers a lack of leadership as Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of the Green Movement (Jonbesh-e sabz), have been kept in house arrest since 2011. Moreover, a range of activists has been put under surveillance, arrested, and forced into exile over the last couple of years. As a result, the election is likely to stand between different conservative candidates with affiliation to either Khamenei or Ahmadinejad. Still, which candidates will pass the vetting of the Guardian Council remains unknown for the time being.

However, the big issues are not only silencing the political opposition, they also draw attention away from fundamental challenges faced by the Iranian population. They distract the widespread discrimination of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as an ongoing debate on women and gender issues. I have been following the debate on family law legislation in Iran with particular interest for over a decade, to which definitions of women and gender issues are central. The last effort came in 2007 with the so-called Family Protection Bill (Layehe-ye Hemayat-e az Khanevadeh). Among the most contentious issues were if a husband could contract a polygynous marriage without the first wife’s consent, if extravagant amounts of dower should be restricted and even outlawed by the state, and if the practice of temporary marriage is in need of registration or not. The Bill was met with fierce debate, and criticised by a number of women’s rights activists, as well as by politicians and religious scholars. The debate revealed that there is in fact no unanimous agreement within the state or among the opposition over how to define women and gender issues. Thus, the codification of Sharia is not a given, and will continue to be a topic of public debate.

Family law has served as a marker of national, cultural and religious identity throughout different political periods in Iran, and even to this day. In a recent article, Nadje Al-Ali (SOAS, University of London) argued that through conceptions of women and gender issues it is possible to recognise what kind of big issues are at stake in state policies. Although often marginalised, women and gender issues are key factors to understanding how hierarchies, inequalities, and power relations are constructed and normalised, particularly in periods of change and revolution.

Iran is currently in a period of political transferal, and suffers a crisis of legitimacy over what kind of principles should found the basis of the Islamic Republic. In many ways, the 2013 election is the final act towards what can set a new course for the Republic. Since 2012, the debate over the Family Protection Bill has been put on hold due to the larger political conflicts that are being play out in Iran. However, it is expected that the debate will be continued as soon as the dust of the election has settled. The issue of family law is currently in the shadow of the presidential election, but is bound to reappear as soon as it is time to set course for the next phase of the Republic.