London- Some analysts dismiss it as little more than a smoke-and-mirror show while others hope it might lead to significant change in Iran’s behavior.
One fact, however, is certain: the Islamic Republic’s presidential elections, held every four years, are of interest for at least two reasons.
First, they could be regarded as an Iranian version of the “primaries” held in the US by the Republican and Democrat parties. Though divided into at least four rival factions, the Iranian ruling establishment is, in fact, a single political bloc. Thus the presidential election is a means of determining which faction is allowed to hold the reins of power at any given time.
Secondly, the presidential election enables the Iranians, or at least those who wish to vote, to indicate which of the rival factions they like more or dislike less.
This year’s election is of interest for yet another reason.
Whoever is elected may play a key role in determining who would be the next “Supreme Guide.”
“It is quite possible that Supreme Guide Khamenei will be out of the picture within the next four years or so,” says Tehran analyst Hadi Keshtmand. “In fact, speculation about his succession has already started.”
The next president may himself jump further up the ladder to become “Supreme Guide”. And if he does not, he would have a strong voice in deciding who will rise to the top of the system.
Another interesting feature of this year’s election is the strong possibility that the incumbent Hassan Rouhani might become the first president of the Islamic Republic to fail to secure a second term. Although it is too early to write Rouhani off, there are signs that powerful circles within the establishment think that he has outlived his usefulness as the smiling face of the regime capable of performing the “dialogue” charade with former US President Barack Obama.
“Obama and (Secretary of State) John Kerry are gone and can no longer do anything for Iran,” says Hushang Amir-Ahmadi, an Irano-American university professor. “There is no point for the regime to keep Rouhani.”
Worse still, Rouhani has come under bitter attack from powerful figures such as Tehran Mayor Muhamad-Baqer Qalibaf who has accused the president of having led the Islamic Republic into a “deep crisis.”
Qalibaf, who had himself stood for the presidency on two previous occasions, says he will not enter the face this time but will do “everything in my power” to help a “truly radical candidate” against Rouhani.
One “truly radical candidate” that might please Qalibaf is Ayatollah Ibrahim Rais al-Sadat, who has changed his name to Raisi, and is currently in charge of the Imam Reza “Holy” Shrine Foundation, Iran’s second largest economic conglomerate after the National Oil Company.
Raisi belongs to the younger generation of Khomeinist revolutionaries who are coming up the ladder. He was in his teens when the mullahs seized power in 1979 and, when aged only 19, became Islamic Prosecutor in Karaj, west of Tehran, where he gained a reputation for obtaining death sentences against regime critics.
A couple of years later he was Islamic Prosecutor in Tehran and one of five man who had received a permit from the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini to pass death sentences without going through traditional legal channels. In 1988 he was part of a committee that organized the execution for over 4,000 political prisoners in a weekend.
Raisi has other assets. He is a native of Mah’shad, the birthplace of the current “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. He is also the son-in-law of Ayatollah Alam Al-Hoda, the current cheer-leader for the most radical clerics within the regime.
More importantly, perhaps, he wears a black turban, indicating he is of Ahl al-beit a descendant of Imam Ali. Some clerics claim that only those with such a lineage would be truly committed to the Khomeinist system. Both Rouhani and late President Hashemi Rafsanjani were white-turbaned issued from “the common folk.” Radical clerics claim that both were only half-heartedly omitted to the system because they were “outsiders” from Ahl al-beit.
However, Raisi isn’t the only candidate radicals may field against Rouhani, provided he gets the approval of the Council of Guardians to stand again.
The non-clerical radicals, linked to sections of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, have two leading potential candidates. One is former National Security Adviser Saeed Jalili who has been in campaign mode for the past four years. Jalili, also a native of Mash’had, is close to Khamenei, sharing his strong anti-Americanism and the vision of a strategic alliance with Russia.
This week Jalili refused to join the newly created Radical Coalition and was consequently excluded from a list of 10 “potential candidates” published for consideration at a later date.
The Radical Coalition’s list includes the names of several personalities, including Qalibaf and Rezai who have said they will not stand for election this time.
Another potential radical candidate is former Islamic Majlis member Mehrdad Bazrpash. A powerful orator, Bazrpash heightened his profile as the loudest opponent to the so-called nuclear deal between Rouhani and Obama. In the last parliamentary election he lost his Majlis seat from Tehran because, at the time, many Iranians hoped that the “nuclear deal” will bring Iran out of the isolation and re-start the economy. Neither of those thigs have happened and Bazrpash is now able to play the “I-told-you-so” tune to angry audiences.
Bazrpash has already obtained the backing of the daily Kayhan, believed to reflect Khamenei’s views.
Interestingly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard seems to have decided not to field a candidate from its own ranks. Like Qalibaf, an IRGC general, former IRGC Commander Gen. Mohsen Rezai has ruled himself. And rumors about another former IRGC chief Rahim Safawi entering the race have so far led nowhere.
Another brand of radicalism, as some call it “populism,” also has its own candidate. He is Hamid Baqai who served as special adviser to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his presidency.
Ahmadinejad had hoped to enter the race himself but was publicly “ordered” by Khamenei to stay out. Thus, Baqai is a substitute candidate with little chance of winning or even making it to a second round of voting. His candidacy is an act of presence by the Ahmadinejad faction which is trying to create a cocktail of Islam and Persian nationalism as a new version of radical Islamism.
The “guru” of this faction is a mysterious mullah named Hasan Yaaqubi who is said to have written 40 books but who never appears in public. In his last year as president, Ahmadinejad publicly quarreled with Khamenei and last month lashed out against the “Supreme Guide” for alleged dictatorial methods.
The faction known as “Rafsanjani’s orphans” still hopes that Rouhani will be allowed to stand for a second term.
But as contingency planning in case he is not, the faction is promoting several others as potential candidates. They include former Health Minister Massud Pezeshkian, former Energy Minister Parviz Fattah and former Islamic Majlis member Mostafa Kawakebian. Fattah has the distinction of featuring on the list of Radical Coalition’s potential candidates as well.
“Rafsanjani’s orphans” have strong constituencies in Tehran and several other major cities but might find it hard to secure a straight majority. In the last election, Rouhani won by just over 50 per cent of the votes, the smallest margin in the history of presidential elections in Iran.
However, the faction has the big advantage of controlling the Ministry of the Interior which it did not four years ago. The ministry is in charge of all aspects of the elections from the polling day until the announcement of results and could, and has done in the past, “manage” the outcome to suit a pre-determined scheme.
As things stand now it seems likely that the most radical faction, linked to Khamenei, wants to regain control of the presidency, jettisoning Rouhani though he has a long history of service in security agencies and, with Obama gone, has adopted Khamenei’s “looking East” foreign policy.
Nevertheless, it would also be imprudent to write Rouhani off if only because, if deprived of a chance to stand, he could split the establishment at a particularly risky time.