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Iran Elections: And the winner is…

Dr. M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
Col Rajeev Agarwal is Assistant Director (Admin). Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 13, 2013

    Iran goes to polls on 14 June to elect its 11th President. The process and the selection of candidates have created considerable controversies in stead of public debate on the election manifesto. The 2009 Presidential elections still continues to haunt Iran. The power centres and the current process is a clear indication that Iran and its Supreme Leader are in no mood to repeat the mistakes of 2009 again.

    According to Article 113 of the Iranian constitution, after the office of the Supreme Leader, the President is the highest official. He is responsible for implementing the constitution and acting as the head of the executive, except in matters directly related to (the office of) the Supreme Leader. As per Article 99 of Iranian constitution, the Guardian Council is responsible for scrutinizing the applications for the Presidential elections, approving the candidature of selected candidates and supervising the election of the President of the Republic. The election to the President is thereafter held through a direct vote by all eligible citizens. After the vote count, if no candidate secures 50 per cent of the vote on the first round, a runoff is scheduled (the date this time is June 21).

    The 2009 election is remembered for a number of issues including the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad despite widespread allegations of majority votes polled in favour of his rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the brutal suppression of the reformist “Green Movement” and the sudden announcement of results. But more than any of the above issues is the serious miscalculation by the Supreme Leader in backing Ahmadinejad for re-elections. As the events in past four years have shown, there have been major differences between the two. The Supreme Leader has often felt Ahmadinejad transgressing his political authority, the most significant being the allegations of ‘Deviant Current’, a reference to allegations to weaken the Islamic establishment by people in the inner circle of Ahmadinejad including his Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Also the suppression of the violent public protests in the aftermath of elections, the arrest of the leaders of ‘Green Movement’ Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi and the subsequently deteriorating relations between the Supreme Leader and the President have highlighted major lessons for Iran in exercising control and caution in approving candidates for the present elections.

    Of the 686 candidates who registered for the current presidential race, only eight candidates were endorsed by the Guardians Council. Amongst the disqualifications, two stood out prominently. The Guardians Council disqualified a well known politician and one of the founding member of the Islamic Republic and two terms president of the country, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who is also the head of Expediency Discernment Council. The Guardian Council also disqualified Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s close ally. It is believed that Mashaei is the main reason of the ideological rift between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who has even gone to the extent of questioning the legitimacy of the very principle of the velayat-e-faqih and tried to promote Iranian nationalism as well as the undermine role and influence of the clerics in Iranian politics.

    While old age was given as the reason for rejection of Rafsanjani’s candidature, the true picture seems quite different. Weeks after the 2009 presidential elections, Rafsanjani had criticized the brutal attack against the opposition and spoke out for the people’s right to peacefully protest. He later toned down and made statements in favour of the regime and the supreme leader, but he is clearly out of favour.

    Among the eight candidates, four of them, Saeed Jalili, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel and Ali Akbar Velayati belong to the ‘Principalists Group’ formed during the Majlis (Parliament) election of March 2012.1 In those elections, Conservative factions loyal to Khamenei emerged victorious. Ahmadinejad’s hard line forces were badly defeated. The outcome of the Majlis election pushed Ahmadinejad further on to the back foot. It is believed that the ‘Principalists Group’ is the unofficial representatives of Khamenei and is fully committed to the principle of velayat-e-faqih (Guardianship of the Jurisprudent) and is likely to repress all opposition including reformists as well as hardliners in order to establish Supreme Leader’s absolute authority.

    Jalili (Secretary of Supreme National Security Council, SNSC and Chief nuclear negotiator) is the frontrunner. Ideologically too, Jalili is considered closest to the Supreme Leader. Jalili is also considered the frontrunner because other principalist candidates have been given indication for their withdrawal in his favour. During his campaign, Haddad-Adel said that in order to avoid diversity of principalist candidates, the coalition has planned a number of methods including reviews to observe which candidate enjoys more popularity among the Iranian citizens. He went on to say “if surveys indicate that Saeed Jalili has high chances to win a majority of votes, we cannot ignore this”, implying that the three members of the coalition could withdraw in favour of Jalili.2

    Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the current Mayor of Tehran looks like the only other candidate who could challenge Jalili. He too is known as a pragmatic conservative and loyal to the Supreme Leader. Ali Akbar Velayati is a seasoned politician and has been the Supreme Leader's longstanding advisor on international affairs. Hassan Rohani was Ayatollah Khamenei's representative at the Supreme National Security Council and a chief negotiator in nuclear talks with the EU. He currently heads the Expediency Council's Strategic Research Centre and is often described as a "moderate" or "pragmatic conservative".

    The remaining four candidates are Hassan Rohani, former nuclear negotiator and Khamenei’s man on the National Security Council; Mohammad Reza Aref, former Vice President and represents the reform group; Mohsen Rezaei, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, a stand-in for the Ahmadinejad faction; and finally Mohammad Gharazi, an independent. Asan Rowhani and Muhammad Reza Aref representing the reformists do not seem to have major public support. The lone independent, Mohammad Gharazi, is a name little heard in Iran politics. He is standing in the elections for the first time and looks like the candidate approved for elections just to provide some sanctity in the process and variety in candidates.

    Iran Presidential elections come at a crucial juncture in its history. Nuclear talks have not made any headway and sanctions have put serious burden on the economy. The ‘Arab Spring’ has further isolated Iran in the region with the rise of Sunni Arab Islamism. Russia and China have kept restraint on any global action on Syria, but how long will Iran and they hold out in Syria is a question mark.

    The June 14 elections are significant in Iran’s political history. Ahmadinejad was a non-clerical president. His attempts at populist measures and pursuit of independent authority drew ire of the conservatives and the Supreme Leader. It upset the largely prevalent pro-cleric outlook of the Iranian republic; a distinct feature since the Islamic revolution. The Supreme Leader has had to confront Ahmadinejad style of leadership as well the rising profile of the Green Movement. Allegations of infighting and discontent within the conservatives have added to the challenge. Such a scenario when seen in context of the regional situation would compel Khamenei to take measures to ensure that the authority of the Supreme Leader and that the future President ‘Toes the Line’.

    The elections are thus likely to be carefully conducted and monitored. The selection of candidates has put to rest any speculations on the nature of likely successor to Ahmadinejad. Whether Jalili wins or Valeyati or Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; it is clear that the ultimate winner in the elections will be the authority and control of the Supreme Leader.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.