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Iran's Factions Gear Up for Elections - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A handout picture made available by Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's official website, shows Ayatollah Khamenei delivering his Persian New Year message to the nation in Tehran, Iran. (EPA)

A handout picture made available by Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s official website shows Ayatollah Khamenei delivering his Persian New Year message to the nation in Tehran, Iran. (EPA)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The power struggle in Iran is approaching its climax in the run-up to the presidential elections in June. Political factions vying for power have shifted considerably since the disputed election of 2009. Ahmadinejad and his faction are positioning themselves in a newly defined center ground that mixes conservatism with liberal stances on cultural and nationalist issues.

A combination of extreme international pressure on the Iranian establishment and bitter internal rivalries has apparently created a gap for a new wave of technocrats associated with Ahmadinejad and his close ally, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to stay in power independent of the clerical establishment and the powerful Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). It is common knowledge that Ahmadinejad is backing Mashaei to replace him as president. Some observers depict Ahmadinejad’s plans for Mashaei as an attempt to recreate the “Putin–Medvedev model” of circulation of office.

On the opposite side, the majority of clerical and lay conservatives are strengthening their criticism of the handling of both internal and foreign policy by Ahmadinejad’s administration, and thus distancing themselves from him. They show no hesitation in attributing the bulk of the dire economic situation to his government’s mismanagement and an inability to run the country in the challenging political and security environment that Iran is currently in.

Ahmadinejad, however, has conceded that foreign sanctions have had a substantial impact on the Iranian economy, while expressing a desire for the normalization of relations with the US. In other words, he blames sanctions for the sharp drop in the value of the national currency, excessive inflation and increasing unemployment that the Iranian economy is now struggling to deal with. Such a confession is seen as a signal and a justification for retreating from Iran’s firm stance on its nuclear program by his previous allies and today’s critics.

The key question in Iranian politics is still how Ayatollah Khamenei aims to manage the upcoming presidential election. He has been extremely supportive of Ahmadinejad’s government, even rescuing it during the disputed election in June 2009. For Iran’s leader, the total discrediting of Ahmadinejad will damage his reputation for foresight and superior vision that the most loyal supporters have been perpetuating for the last two decades.

But as the election fast approaches, the main candidates viewed as the most favored have still not explicitly confirmed their intention to run. Notably, there is Mashaei, the former chief of staff in Ahmadinejad’s office, now promoted to the secretary of the Non-Allied Movement, a position that gives him an international platform to travel abroad and meet with other heads of states, diplomats and policymakers.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Alex Vatanka, an Iran scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said: “It is less about the man Mashaei, but about the fortunes of the Ahmadinejad faction as a whole … They seem to be still calculating if Mashaei has any chance to be accepted. If not, they will not go with him but put someone else up. The key for Ahmadinejad–Mashaei is just to be able to hang on to the presidency and continue to have access to government power and money,” he added.

On the other hand, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf is seen as the most favorable candidate for moderate and traditional conservatives, also known as principalists, even though he was defeated in the first round in the 2005 elections. Ghalibaf, a former IRGC commander, has served as mayor of Tehran since 2005, despite Ahmadinejad’s dismay at his appointment to his old post.

There are two other possible conservative candidates who are close to Ayatollah Khamenei: Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign minister from 1981 to 1997, and Haddad A’del, a former parliamentary speaker. They have both declared they will decide when the “consensus is reached” within one of the sub-principalist coalitions, nicknamed the 2+1.

The reformist camp is still suffering from its suppression in the aftermath of the 2009 election and remains deeply divided. One can divide them into democratic reformists, who insist on specific preconditions and safeguards to ensure a fair election must be in place before taking part in the poll, and conformist reformists, who believe that any change will eventually occur through active participation in the existing process, despite its flaws.

The former faction argues that while two of its main leaders and candidates in 2009, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, remain under house arrest, speaking of elections is irrelevant. As a result, they believe accepting the current status quo and participating in the election will only give legitimacy to the ruling principalist faction that they say has excessively cracked down on reformists and has lost its internal and international credibility.

The possibility of former president Khatami standing for election has also been widely discussed within reformist papers and websites but seems to be fading away, as the chance that his candidacy will be approved by the Guardian Council is small.

However, some moderate conservatives and technocrats from previous governments of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyed Mohammad Khatami have supported the candidature of Hasan Rouhani, the former secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security and the top nuclear negotiator from 2002 to 2005.

He was sacked by Ahmadinejad once he took office, but remained a member of the Expediency Council on appointment by Ayatollah Khamenei. He is close to Rafsanjani and Khatami, while at the same time has managed to maintain his reputation within the core conservative clerical circles as a moderate and centrist politician. On Thursday, April 11, after three months of unofficial news, Hasan Rouhani confirmed his candidacy. He also ruled out the possibility of Khatami or Rafsanjani entering the competition and affirmed that he “will not pull out in favor of anyone.”

Interestingly, over the last couple of months Ahmadinejad has spoken of his determination to conduct a free and fair election in which the nation can duly exercise its right to choose whomever they wish. Hearing such rhetoric from Ahmadinejad leaves little doubt that he is determined to ensure that his confidant, Rahim Mashaei, gets past the Guardian Council and runs for office. On Friday, April 12, during his Semnan province visit, Mashaei was present, shoulder-to-shoulder with Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad’s gamble in pushing his favorite candidate is worthwhile from his perspective, as Mashaie’s semi-liberal policies are gradually spreading across the population. Unlike the previous two rounds of elections, in which Ahmadinejad relied on a combination of the religious and conservative urban population along with the rural and suburban working class, this time his team seems to be targeting a combination of liberal, urban middle class voters, and the same rural poor whose vote can be secured with small incentives such as the state benefit handouts that Ahmadinejad has introduced over the last two years.

The final configuration of the upcoming election will remain unclear until the Guardian Council selects the candidates. Yet it seems certain that in terms of factional rivalry there will be three main competing factions: principalists, conformist reformists, and the current administration, rather than a simple conservative–reformist split.