Khameini controls presidential race

Khameini controls presidential race

The two key figures who might have made Iran's presidential race a serious contest were eliminated as candidates this week by the unelected Guardian Council almost certainly acting on the orders of the appointed-for-life supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, regarded as the candidate of the reformists, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's former chief-of-staff and chosen successor, were removed because they challenge Khamenei and the radical conservatives. While Rafsanjani was almost certainly eliminated because he is critical of the regime and aligned himself with the reform movement, Mashaei was blacklisted due to the bitter, disruptive  rift between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad which has frozen policy-making in Tehran over the past two years.

 The eight remaining candidates from the impossible list of 686 will not inspire enthusiasm among voters who are expected to stay away from the polls on June 14th.  Of the eight, six - including nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, Tehran mayor Muhammad-Bagher Qalibaf, and former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati - are close associates of Khamenei, and two, Hassan Rowhani and Mohamad Reza Aref, are pragmatic reformers but have no popular following. 

Legitimacy diminished

By eliminating Rafsanjani and Mashaei, the Guardian Council not only stripped the election of credibility but also diminished the legitimacy of the regime, which uses periodic popular consultations to renew its "mandate of heaven," to apply a term from Chinese history to contemporary Iran where clerics claim to being carrying out the work of the Almighty. An angry Ahmadinejad is threatening to appeal to Khamenei for the reinstatement of his protege Mashaei but this is unlikely. 

An appeal was also made for reconsideration of Rafsanjani's candidacy by Zara Mostafavi Khomeini, daughter of the greatly revered founder of Iran's Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.  In her letter, she revealed that Rafsanjani as well as Khamenei had been approved for the post of supreme guide by her father.  Instead of encouraging a change of mind, this could anger Khamenei and make him cling to the ban all the more firmly. This race was Rafsanjani's last chance to try to change the course Khamenei and his conservative camp have laid down for Iran. A close associate Khomeini, Rafsanjani,79, a pragmatist rather than an ideologue, is seen as a middle-of-the road contender, a figure who can "fix" the broken economy.

His elimination is certain to alienate the powerful bazaar merchants, who were early supporters of Khomeini's Islamic revolution, the urban elite, the middle class and reformers. Having stripped the contest of its key rival contestants, the regime is likely to manipulate the campaign, the voting, the count and claim that a solid majority participated, as it has on previous occasions, to give the exercise the illusion of legitimacy.

The clerics are determined to avoid a reprise of the 2009 presidential election when former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi stood as the reform candidate, turn-out reached 85 per cent, and tens of thousands protested in the streets after Ahmadinejad, then Khamenei's man, won a second term by a margin so huge as to be unbelievable.

It is all too clear that the two-tier system of governance designed by Khomenei, vilayet-e faqih, rule by the jurisprudent, has broken down. This system imposed on an elected president and parliament a clerical superstructure consisting of the office of supreme guide, the ultimate arbitrator of policy; the Assembly of Experts which choses the supreme guide; and the Guardian Council, in charge of vetting candidates for office and legislation.  

Khamenei and his conservative coterie have systematically stripped the elected president and parliament of authority and independent personalities with the aim of maintaining a tight, exclusive grip on power. In the run-up to the presidential campaign, the government detained journalists, shut down newspapers, and slowed down the internet to prevent activists from communicating and using social media tools to support reformist candidates.  Since televised debates stirred controversy in 2009, there will be none this year. Analysts predict apathy among voters.  Their new man, Jalili, a true believer in the ideology and practices of the regime, could be the main beneficiary of the elimination of Rafsanjani and Mashaei.  As nuclear negotiator Jalili - known as "Mr. Monologue" when supposedly engaged in dialogue - never stepped outside the brief handed him by Khamenei.

Whoever wins will have to contend with hard line clerics in the valayet-e faqih and hard line international interlocutors demanding suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment to 20 per cent and pressing for other curbs on its nuclear programme in exchange for easing sanctions that have undermined Iran's already faltering economy.

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