Engineering elections in Iran, it turns out, is more difficult than what Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his allies in the Revolutionary Guards had imagined. With Friday's elections a day away, every indication is that a candidate's chances of victory is inversely correlated to their professed or perceived closeness to Khamenei. His son's father-in-law, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, pulled out when even the regime's own published polls showed him with no more than low-single-digit support. Khamenei's other favored candidate, Saeed Jalili, hitherto in charge of Iran's nuclear negotiations—and praised by sites close to Khamenei as a "living martyr" for the leg he lost in the Iran-Iraq war—has also failed to garner the kind of support the regime hoped. Even among Khamenei's closest circle of advisors, Jalili has been ridiculed for offering nothing but empty slogans.
While conservatives continue to bicker and bite, the moderates have coalesced around the candidacy of Hassan Rouhani, once the head of Iran's nuclear negotiating team. Mohammad Reza Aref, the token reformist allowed to run, withdrew with less than a week to the election day. He has yet to publicly support Rouhani and when announcing his withdrawal, he made it clear that he was doing so on the direct request of Mohammad Khatami, Iran's reformist president from 1997-2005. Not only Khatami but Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, arguably the second-most-powerful man in the country, have declared their support for Rouhani. Some of Rouhani's campaign events have turned into occasions for anti-regime slogans and calls for immediate release of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi. At least one independent poll has Rouhani leading all candidates.
But nothing captures Khamenei's beleaguered reality better than what he and some of the country's leading political figures have said in the last few days.
In the third televised debate, a chorus of candidates criticized Iran's nuclear policy—ostensibly to attack Jalili. Ali Akbar Velayati referred to at least two occasions when a deal was reached with the West but then was torpedoed by "some elements" in Tehran. Turning to Jalili, Velayati said diplomacy is not just saying "no" and reading prepared statements in negotiations. But as Jalili often declares, and virtually everyone in Iran knows, Khamenei has been the chief architect of this failed policy. In a defensive tone Khamenei later said that after the election, he will have something to say on the nuclear issue.
Rafsanjani's comments in the last few days have been more remarkable. On the one hand he accused Khamenei allies, particularly the intelligence minister, of preemptively aborting his own candidacy as they knew he would win in a landslide. It was already assumed that Rafsanjani's disqualification had been masterminded by Khamenei, but Rafsanjani's words turned a public whisper to official narrative. The Guardian Council all but confirmed the story when it said that in arriving at its decisions, the council seeks advice from many sources. Rafsanjani also criticized those whose wrongheaded policies in the last year have brought the country to the precipice of collapse. There is no mistaking that the unnamed "those" are none other than Khamenei and his allies in the Revolutionary Guards.
But the most glaring indication of the regime's desperation are Khamenei's own words. After weeks of exhortations by him and his clerical allies about voting as a religious duty—one cleric even claimed that those who do not vote are sure to go to hell!—and about how people's epic participation in elections will help defeat the enemy, in his most recent statement Khamenei asked those who don't support the regime to go to the polls "for the sake of the country."
So far, though, what the election has shown is that not just the opposition, but more and more of the regime stalwarts see Khamenei's failed leadership as the cause of the country's blighted situation. In some ways, he might end up the biggest loser of the election he so assiduously tried to engineer.
Abbas Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and the author, most recently, of The Shah (Palgrave Macmillan). He is a contributing editor at The New Republic.