It is easy to dismiss the presidential election in Iran as a charade. The exercise is flawed from the start because of the pre-selection of candidates. It is further undermined by the fact that the process is conducted from start to the finish by the government rather than an independent commission, as is the case in countries where genuine elections take place. More importantly, perhaps, the man elected could not be regarded as a president as is the case in France or Indonesia, to cite just two examples. He is not the head of state and commander-in-chief; nor does he have the final say in foreign and security policies.
In the Islamic Republic today, the president is like the prime minister in the defunct Soviet Union during the Leonid Brezhnev era.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to dismiss the election as irrelevant.
To start with, the president controls a good part, though not all, of the government machinery. This is important because the Islamic Republic is a highly centralized state. In 1979 and 1980, the Khomeinists carried out a massive nationalization program that increased the share of the public sector from 40% to more than 60%, taking into account the “foundations” controlled by the supreme leader.
The oil sector, accounting for around 12% of GDP, is entirely owned by government. The government is also the biggest owner in the banking and insurance sectors, gas and electricity, transport, mining and petrochemicals. Directly or indirectly, the government employs some five million people, including members of the military and security forces and people working in public enterprises. Against that backdrop, Iran could be regarded as being structurally more “Communist” than Communist-era Poland.
As the man in control of a substantial portion of the public sector, the president wields immense power in terms of distributing or denying favor. In Tehran, people cite the names of scores of individuals who became immensely rich because of their closeness to successive presidents, from Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
A strong personality could use the presidency to build a constituency of his own and, in time, to impose at least some of his policies. Rafsanjani was a strong president and managed to reshape much of the Iranian economy in the way that he wanted. He also succeeded in using the machinery of repression to crush his opponents, at least while he was in power. Ahmadinejad also proved to have a strong personality. He has imposed economic reforms, including ending government subsidies, which his predecessors dared not tackle. In contrast, Muhammad Khatami was a weak, Hamlet-like character who spent his eight years as president trying to build his image as a philosopher.
The current presidential election is of interest because both Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad are present in the race.
Hashemi Rafsanjani is a candidate, while Ahmadinejad, who constitutionally cannot stand for a third consecutive term, is present through his alter ego, Esfandiar Mashaei.
Provided Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mashaei manage to gain the approval of the Council of Guardians—which is controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—the exercise could assume greater significance.
It is no secret that Khamenei would hate to see either Hashemi Rafsanjani or Mashaei as president.
Khamenei’s dislike of Hashemi Rafsanjani is partly personal.
In 1989, it was Hashemi Rafsanjani who propelled Khamenei into the position of supreme leader, at a time when everyone assumed that, with Khomeini’s demise, the position would become mainly ceremonial. It is a quirk of human nature to resent those to whom one owes a favor. Khamenei has not been spared that quirk. He has spent the past 24 years trying to prove that he reached the top thanks to his own merits and not because Hashemi Rafsanjani promoted him. Khamenei has missed few opportunities to humiliate Hashemi Rafsanjani, clipping his wings, taking away his key post, and subjecting his family to prosecutions on charges ranging from corruption to anti-Islamic activities. Hashemi Rafsanjani’s daughter, his favorite son, and his son-in-law have been sent to prison. At one point, even Hashemi Rafsanjani’s wife was arrested for a few hours on the charge of “causing trouble in the streets.”
If Hashemi Rafsanjani is elected, he would not be a yes-man to Khamenei at a time that the supreme leader is building a cult of personality as the leader of all Muslims throughout the world, a man whose every utterance is Fasl Al-Khitab, which means the final word on all issues of religion and politics.
Mashaei is an even greater threat to Khamenei. Hashemi Rafsanjani at least shares part of Khamenei’s biography. For years, the two were bosom buddies before becoming side-kicks to Khomeini. In 1979, they even did their Hajj pilgrimage together. More importantly, the two share the Khomeinist ideology, though in slightly different versions. Mashaei, however, has freed himself of Khomeinism by becoming a prisoner of another ideological straitjacket woven by the mysterious mullah Hassan Yaaqubi. Like Ahmadinejad, Mashaei pretends to be in communication with the Hidden Imam, who is supposed to be the true ruler of Iran, not to say the whole world. Blessed by the Hidden Imam, Mashaei has no need of a pipsqueak like Khamenei.
The question Khamenei faces is whether to veto Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mashaei from the start or to take them on in the election and crush them on polling day.
We shall have the answer when the list of approved candidates is published.