Iran’s presidential shortlist exposes a fearful regime

The removal of two outspoken Khamenei critics indicates the narrowing of legitimate discourse in the Islamic Republic, experts say

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani registering his candidacy for president in May 2013. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani registering his candidacy for president in May 2013. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

The shortlist of candidates authorized to run in Iran’s presidential elections, which excluded two critics of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, exposes a weakening regime fearful of internal dissent, experts on Iran told The Times of Israel Wednesday.

The identity of Iran’s next president is crucial as the country moves ever closer to producing enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon, suffering crippling international sanctions as a consequence.

The most dramatic development as the final list of candidates emerged on Tuesday was the disqualification of veteran politician Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served as Iran’s president between 1989 and 1997.

A religious conservative, the 79-year-old Rafsanjani has become an outspoken critic of policies espoused by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, most recently his backing of the Assad regime in Syria and his unwavering hostility toward Israel.

Rafsanjani also supported reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the 2009 elections, a decision which cost him his position as head of the prestigious Assembly of Experts (a religious body that appoints the Supreme Leader) and as sermon-deliverer in Tehran’s Central Mosque.

Another leading candidate booted from the race is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s close adviser Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, demonized by his detractors as “head of the deviant stream” for his criticism of the prerogatives enjoyed by the Supreme Leader and his call for a more nationalistic form of Islam.

Ahmadinejad Ally  Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (photo credit: AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Ahmadinejad Ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (photo credit: AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

The three remaining front-runners, Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, National Security Council head Saeed Jalili, and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, are either conservative centrists or radicals who toe the official line, the experts said.

“On June 14 what will take place is selections, not elections,” said Meir Javedanfar, who teaches Iranian politics at Herzliyah’s Interdisciplinary Center. “The candidates will put on an act, and the one who impresses the Revolutionary Guards most will be chosen.”

Javedanfar said that unlike Rafsanjani, the remaining candidates are unlikely to challenge the regime’s controversial policies, including Iran’s nuclear program or its policy on Syria.

“Today the regime is weaker, and Khamenei is far less tolerant of criticism of his policies,” Javedanfar added.

Moreover, Rafsanjani was the only candidate who could save Iran from the economic abyss — its economy is expected to deteriorate further as the political status quo is maintained — and strengthen its negotiating position with the west on the nuclear issue. In that regard, Javedanfar argued, his disqualification “is great news for Israel.”

Of the remaining candidates, Jalili is most likely to win as he best reflects the positions of Ayatollah Khamenei and enjoys the support of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, Javedanfar assessed.

“He reads from the script, doesn’t improvise, and does not have the image of a corrupt politician,” he said.

Since its inception in 1979, Iran’s Islamic regime has prided itself on allowing for a range of ideologies in its presidential nominees, vetted through free elections and serving as a counterbalance to the nondemocratic authority of the Supreme Leader. In that regard, narrowing the range of “legitimate discourse” is a significant change in Iranian policy, said Raz Zimmt, a research fellow at the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“What characterizes this list is the names absent from it,” Zimmt told The Times of Israel.  “It is a very gray list, which shows the regime’s decision not to take any unnecessary risks.”

But the brazen removal of a popular politician like Rafsanjani is not only a sign of fear, but also of self-confidence on the part of the regime, Zimmt argued. The regime would not have made such a move had it expected a public reaction similar to the Green Movement which swept Iran in 2009 following the falsification of elections and the placement of reformist leaders Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi under house arrest.

“The Iranian regime always claimed that, unlike the autocratic Arab regimes in the region, Iran combines the authority of the people and the authority of God — through the Supreme Leader,” Zimmt said.

‘We know that revolutions can devour their sons, but the Islamic revolution is now devouring its fathers’

That democratic spirit began to erode, however, with the election of reformist president Mohammed Khatami in 1997, as the regime became increasingly fearful that revolutionary values were starting to dissipate.

“The conservatives went through a process of soul-searching and began fearing for the future of the revolution,” Zimmt said. “In recent years, especially since 2009, the regime has been alienating anyone who thinks differently.”

Can the next president alter Iran’s decision to pursue the development of nuclear weapons? Unlikely, said Zimmt. Decisions regarding security and foreign policy are largely within the domain of Supreme Leader Khamenei.

But the dramatically parochial list of candidates will harm the legitimacy of the regime in the eyes of its own people, he added.

“In the middle and long term, this is dangerous for the regime. For now it can rely on the [oppressive force] of the Revolutionary Guard, but the narrower the political elite becomes, the less maneuverability the regime will eventually enjoy.”

This sentiment was expressed on Wednesday by Iranian journalist Ahmad Rafat. Referring to the disqualification of Rafsanjani — as veteran revolutionary leaders Karroubi and Mousavi continue to languish in house arrest — Rafat wrote that “we know that revolutions can devour their sons, but the Islamic revolution is now devouring its fathers.”


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