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Iran: Conservatives Given Free Rein by the Guardian Council

Commentary, 22 May 2013
Middle East and North Africa
Iran's Guardian Council has just published its list of approved candidates for presidential elections -notable for its absence of challengers to the Supreme Leader. The eventual winner needs to repair external alliances and re-energise faith in the Islamic Republic amongst Iranians.

Iran's Guardian Council has just published its list of approved candidates for presidential elections -notable for its absence of challengers to the Supreme Leader. The eventual winner needs to repair external alliances and re-energise faith in the Islamic Republic amongst Iranians.

By Mohammad Shakeel

Hashemi Rafsanji supporters 2005
Hashemi Rafsanji supporters in the 2005 Presidential Elections.

The list of officially approved candidates for Iran's presidential election on 14 June has been released, significantly reducing the chances of non-conservatives from mounting a credible challenge.

The election-vetting Guardian Council has brought to a premature end the ambitions of most of the 686 presidential hopefuls who had registered their candidacies by 12 May. While the majority of the disqualified will simply return to obscurity, the ruling establishment is likely to face a tougher time sedating the rage of two high profile, and now not-so-agreeable, hopefuls.

The Rejected Candidates

The gutsiest disqualification, and one that will strike at the heart of Iran's reformist movement, is that of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The eminence grise of the Islamic Republic-the one-time pistachio-farmer-turned-revolutionary-zealot-turned-former-president-Rafsanjani has long been a thorn in the side of both the outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As such his candidacy was viewed by many opposition supporters as providing a small vestige of hope for their ideals. With Rafsanjani stumbling at the first hurdle, however, the pretence of political equality between the reformist and conservative camps has been finally laid to rest.

The personal animosity between Rafsanjani and the supreme leader had reached such depths that Rafsanjani had dismissed talk of his candidacy barely a few weeks back. Speaking in April to a group of former reformist state governors, Rafsanjani reportedly claimed that his understanding of the threats and problems facing Iran were very different to Ayatollah Khamenei's. The gap was thus so large that he could not foresee himself being president again. Yet just minutes before the official registration process was about to end, Rafsanjani tossed his hat into the ring indicating that he was ready to challenge the supreme leader's preeminence. 

Such bravado on the part of Rafsanjani flew in the face of official attempts to weaken his stature. In March 2011 Rafsanjani lost his coveted position as the head of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body charged with appointing (and technically dismissing) the supreme leader. His not-too-discrete backing of the opposition Green Movement following the 2009 disputed presidential election exposed bitter differences with the supreme leader to the extent that Ayatollah Khamenei personally interjected into the post-election debate to declare that his views were 'closer to Mr Ahmadinejad's' than Rafsanjani's.

Rafsanjani's family has also been sucked into the political strife, with both his daughter and a son being targeted by senior establishment figures for 'anti-government' activities and sent to prison. That Rafsanjani probably also harbours ambitions on becoming a future supreme leader did not endear him well to Khamenei either, whose own credentials as an ayatollah, and hence supreme leader, are whispered to be tentative. To add to the intrigue, Rafsanjani's claim to also being an 'ayatollah' is itself contested by Khamenei supporters. Following the Guardian Council's verdict, the former two-time president's isolation is now complete. But Rafsanjani's disqualification is likely to deepen fissures in the top political and religious echelons of the Islamic Republic and publicly expose the deep-rooted antipathy between the reformist and conservative factions.

The least surprising exclusion was that of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a protégé of Ahmadinejad, and an extremely controversial character in his own right. While associating with Ahmadinejad-whose record in office was one of economic self-destruction and deep international isolation-was perhaps reason enough for his disqualification, relishing a reputation for anti-clericalism and 'deviancy' was never going to endear Mashaei to the Guardian Council.

The biggest worry now for the clerical leadership is that Ahmadinejad will take Mashaei's disqualification as a personal attack on his own presidency and thus seek to disrupt the election by doling out vitriol against the religious authorities. If the supreme leader harboured any hopes for a relatively smooth election, a disruptive Ahmadinejad/Mashaei sideshow and protests from Rafsanjani sympathisers are likely to put an end to any such hopes.

The Acceptable Few

There is no shortage of candidates on the other side of the political divide, however. The Guardian Council had no qualms about the suitability of Saeed Jalili, Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohammed Qalibaf, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel and Mohsen Rezaie, who have all, in one form or another, won the supreme leader's praise and are thus set to dominate the election campaign. Given their 'principlist' stance-that is, ideological closeness to the principles of the Islamic Republic- it's probably a fair bet to suggest that one of these will be the next president of Iran. Before that can happen, however, the priniciplist faction will need to unite behind one or two candidates, in order to muster a big enough vote in the first round to avoid a run-off in the second. A few principlists may choose to drop out, therefore, to narrow down the field.

The revolutionary and conservative credentials of each are indisputable. Jalili is currently the hand-picked secretary of the Supreme National Security Council with responsibility for heading Iran's negotiations with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) over its contested nuclear programme. He has the direct ear of the supreme leader.

Velayati, as the supreme leader's advisor on foreign affairs, has had a direct role in the evolution of Iran's international relations. For over a decade and a half from 1981, he served as the country's foreign minister. Meanwhile, buttressing his own revolutionary credentials, Qalibaf is a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards air force. He is now the mayor of the capital, Tehran, having succeeded Ahmadinejad after the latter's presidential win in 2005. Despite losing badly to Ahmadinejad in that presidential election, Qalibaf's ambition to become president has never wavered.

As for Haddad-Adel, being related by marriage to Ayatollah Khamenei can only help boost his credentials. He is also a former Majlis (parliament) speaker. And Rezaie, having formerly commandeered the Revolutionary Guards, is currently the secretary of the Expediency Council, a body that directly advises the supreme leader and mediates between the Guardian Council and the Majlis. One additional entry is that of Mohammed Gharazi, a former telecommunications minister, to whom the Guardian Council also gave its blessing, but who remains relatively unknown.  

In order not skew the election entirely in the principlists' favour, the Guardian Council also approved the candidacies of Hassan Rowhani and Mohammed-Reza Aref. Both served under the administration of former reformist president Mohammed Khatami. Rowhani was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator at the time, while Aref held various ministerial posts including that of vice president. Neither, however, has the panache nor the pull of Rafsanjani and is unlikely to garner too much support.

Damage Repair

Whoever succeeds Ahmadinejad inherits a formidable in-tray. Domestically, an economy on the brink of collapse as a result of official mismanagement requires immediate attention. A currency crisis which the government and the Central Bank have desperately tried to stem is being made all the more difficult to fix given Iran's isolation from the international financial system owing to sanctions.

Cutbacks on oil, which provides over 90 per cent of the country's fiscal and some 80 per cent of export revenue, are causing significant economic damage which, again, cannot be alleviated without a more palatable international approach. And a growing and restless young population with aspirations for work and a decent standing of living, and one which has only known life under the Islamic Republic, is making demands on the system that cannot be met under the existing political, diplomatic and economic framework. Post-Ahmadinejad, all of these festering concerns will need to be dealt with urgently.

However, progress on the domestic economy is unthinkable without changes to Iran's foreign policy. The two are inextricably tied. Despite claims of self-sustainability and indigenous development, the economy is in desperate need of foreign investment and expertise. The hydrocarbons industry-the mainstay of Iran's economy-is teetering on the brink in the absence of foreign technical assistance.

Whether the next president and government is able to break the current diplomatic impasse and kick-start a new era of relations is by far the most important issue that Iran must address. That the nuclear file is under the direct control of the supreme leader who will make the call on how far and fast the nuclear programme will develop will also tie the next president's hands. But given that every officially approved candidate for president is unerring in his belief in Iran's nuclear programme, the path to international compromise is bound to remain turbulent.

As Iran's current nuclear negotiator, Jalili has taken a hard line on areas that Iran will and will not cede on, while Qalibaf has previously welcomed the idea of bilateral talks with the US. Similarly, for Velayati, Haddad-Adel and Rezaie, Iran's nuclear programme is unassailable but talks to engender trust will be necessary. As Haddad-Adel recently stated, for Iran 'there is no need to fight all the peoples of the world'. That was probably the closest to negotiations that the former parliamentary speaker could bring himself. Rowhani, meanwhile, has long espoused constructive dialogue with the P5+1 in order to build trust and to overcome the diplomatic impasse.    

Ultimately, whoever wins will assume the dual task of repairing Iran's external alliances and of re-energising faith in the Islamic Republic and its system among Iranians themselves. Given the amount of repair work needed, it may be that the next four years are not enough to fulfil these responsibilities. And staying on the right side of the supreme leader will pose very significant challenges of its own.

Mohammed Shakeel is a senior Gulf political and economic risk specialist based in Abu Dhabi.

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