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Iran: Candidacy of non-candidates for a non-election | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Although the next presidential election in Iran is due only in 2013, the campaign for it is already under way with two undeclared candidates in the ring.

There is, of course, the possibility, evoked by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, to scrap the election of the president altogether. That would enable Khamenei to name a Prime Minister with fewer powers than the president enjoys under the current arrangements.

On the surface, the two undeclared candidates should not be standing at all.

One is the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, legally barred from seeking a third consecutive term.

The other is Khamenei who served as President between 1981 and 1989. Legally, he could stand for a third non-consecutive time.

The question is: why should he, bearing in mind that under the Khomeinist Constitution he has unlimited powers and no responsibility?

And, yet, the two men’s current agitations show them to be in campaign mode. They are competing with one another by visiting the provinces, pressing flesh with “the masses” and making grandiloquent speeches.

Both are also distributing money: Khamenei from undisclosed resources and Ahmadinejad from the public treasury.

Both are also building up media support. Ahmadinejad’s friends control a dozen newspapers plus the two main news agencies. Khamenei has control of television and radio networks plus six daily newspapers.

Thanks to a network of mullahs in his pay, Khamenei also has a support base in mosques and Hussainiahs (places of mourning for the martyrs).

Ahmadinejad counters that with a network of cultural and political clubs controlled by his confidant Esfandiar Mashai.

More importantly, perhaps, both are wooing the military elite, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the ultimate protector of the regime.

Until recently, Ahmadinejad had an edge over Khamenei by projecting an international persona.

Khamenei is unable to leave Iran because he is subject of international arrest warrants for involvement in the murder of Iranian dissidents in Berlin in 1992.

Khamenei’s “imprisonment” in Iran, enables Ahmadinejad to tour the world, including annual trips to New York, projecting himself as leader of “the global revolution”. Over the past six years, Ahmadinejad has spent a total of 412 days out of Iran, visiting 32 countries across the globe. Projected back home, images of those trips portray him as a combative leader who is not afraid of entering the battlefield, including in the heart of the American “Great Satan.”

Leaving aside clichés about revolution, Islam and Khomeini’s legacy, the two men have developed different discourses.

Khamenei rants about “the imminent victory of Islam” and “the inevitable collapse of America”, peppering his speeches with calls for martyrdom.

For his part, Ahmadinejad claims that, under his leadership, the Islamic Republic has “ascended the highest summits of science and technology” while “rubbing the nose of the Americans in dust” over the issue of Iran’s nuclear project.

Khamenei promises paradise in the hereafter while Ahmadinejad claims that he is about to build it in this world.

In 2005 and 2009, the two men were allies in crushing their common rivals. Now, certain that no third faction is in the ring, they are back to reflecting the central contradiction of Iranian political life for the past 100 years: the dream of democracy combined with fear of jettisoning the traditional despotic system.

In its Khomeinist version, that contradiction is highlighted by the supposedly democratic election of a president who, once elected, is powerless in front of the self-styled “Imam.”

It is almost certain that neither Khamenei nor Ahmadinejad would end up as official candidates in 2013, provided the election does take place, the first because he dare not and the second because he cannot.

So, why are they behaving as would-be candidates?

The answer is that both want to occupy as much of the political space as possible to deny the other the opportunity to choose the next president.

It is no secret that Ahmadinejad dreams of copying Vladimir Putin. This would mean propelling Mashai into the presidency so that Ahmadinejad could stage a comeback in 2018.

Khamenei is determined to derail that scenario.

To survive, the “Supreme Guide” has always had to diminish, and when necessary, destroy the president.

Khomeini dismissed President Abol-Hassan Banisadr and, later, publicly humiliated Khamenei when the latter was president.

As “Supreme Guide”, Khamenei spent years building a power base to destroy two successive presidents, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami.

Initially, Ahmadinejad owed his presidency to Khamenei. Soon, however, he started fancying himself as an independent actor, thus, in Khamenei’s eyes, taking the path of treason.

(Within the Khomeinist system treason is a matter of dates.)

Ahmadinejad, however, is different from his predecessors. A pugilist by nature, he won’t be easily scalped. Unless he is assassinated, Ahmadinejad is unlikely to either run away like Banisadr or grinning and bearing it like Rafsanjani.

This is why, Khamenei’s suggestion to replace the directly elected president with an appointed one should not be dismissed as a casual remark.

In any case, since 2009, the system has morphed into an “Imamate” modelled on Yemen before the 1962 military coup. The term “Islamic Republic” no longer reflects Iran’s political reality.

To be sure, the future prime minister could be called President of the Council of Ministers as is the case in Spain. Thus, the title of “President” will be retained for appearances.

If the 2013 election does take place, it is possible that Khamenei has already chosen the man he would try to install as president.

One thing is certain: it won’t be Mashai.

The newly-minted “Imam” has started promoting former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati as a possible candidate, a move that, were it to succeed, would amount to a final annexation of the presidency by the office of the “Supreme Guide.”

In that case, there would be no point in direct presidential election, an exercise that, as 2009 showed, is fraught with risks for the despotic regime.