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Zakaria: Iran election could make history

  • Story Highlights
  • Fareed Zakaria: Ahmadinejad is not popular with Iran's mullahs
  • He says the incumbent's competence is one issue in the election
  • Zakaria: Election gives closed society a taste of political participation
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Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN at 1 and 5 p.m. ET Sundays.

Fareed Zakaria says an incumbent president of the Iranian Republic has never been defeated in an election.

Fareed Zakaria says an incumbent president of the Iranian Republic has never been defeated in an election.

(CNN) -- Voters turned out in heavy numbers Friday in Iran's election. Some lined up before polls opened, and others waited more than three hours under the hot sun to cast their ballots.

Reformist Mir Hossein Moussavi and two other candidates are challenging President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, blamed by many Iranians for the nation's four-year economic turmoil and known in the West for his vehement rhetoric regarding Iran's nuclear program and condemnation of Israel.

Officials had to extend the polling time from 10 hours to 12 hours to accommodate the massive lines of voters. Kamran Daneshjoo, head of the elections office, called the turnout unprecedented. Moussavi is the main challenger among the three candidates vying to replace Ahmadinejad.

The others are former parliament speaker and reformist Mehdi Karrubi and hardliner Mohsen Rezaie, the former head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Ahmadinejad still has staunch support in Iran's rural areas. CNN spoke with Fareed Zakaria about the significance of the elections.

CNN: Why is there so much coverage about the Iranian elections? Isn't it just window dressing?

Fareed Zakaria: Although Iran is certainly not a democracy, as we know, it is neither a monolithic dictatorship. The electoral system is highly restricted, and the regime only allows prospective candidates that are committed to the continuation of the revolutionary system.

Fareed Zakaria: GPS
See analysis of Iran's crucial election on this week's "GPS"
Sunday, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. ET

CNN: Why do the elections matter, then?

Zakaria: Well, they do allow the public an opportunity to weigh in with their views.

CNN: I thought Ahmadinejad came to power as a man of the people and he would win easily. Is that not true?

Zakaria: He is a layman with no family connections to major ayatollahs, which makes him a rare figure in the ruling class. He was not initially the favored candidate of the supreme leader in the 2005 election. Even now, the mullahs clearly dislike him, and he, in turn, does things deliberately designed to undermine their authority.

However, his initial support from the people has given way as the standard of living within Iran has deteriorated. During the debates, issues of his competence to manage the country have been brought up over and over.

CNN: What about his comments regarding the Holocaust and the nuclear program?

Zakaria: These statements capture the attention of the West, but most Iranians are concerned about domestic issues, such as the price of bread. And on the elite side, many are disturbed by Ahmadinejad's comments. Matter of fact, two of his opponents, Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Moussavi, have questioned Ahmadinejad's rationale for denying the Holocaust and argued that such statements only harm Iran's national interests.

And though the regime appears united in its belief that Iran has the right to a civilian nuclear program -- a position with broad popular support -- some leaders seem sensitive to the costs of the current approach. It is conceivable that these "moderates" would appreciate the potential benefits of limiting their nuclear program, including trade, technology and recognition by the United States.

CNN: What do you think will happen?

Zakaria: All signs indicate the process will continue after this weekend. It appears that no one candidate will get the majority of votes, so there will probably be a runoff between the top two vote getters -- most likely between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi.

CNN: So is all this coverage at this stage overkill?

Zakaria: No. First of all, we get to see a closed society getting a taste of political participation. Calls for boycotting the election are not being heard as in the past.

And on a historical front, if Ahmadinejad were to lose, it would be the first time an incumbent president has lost an election in the Iranian Republic's history. We will have to wait and see what happens.

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