Polling day in Iran’s presidential election may be five months away but the election campaign is already in full swing.
Although no one has announced his candidacy so far, it is clear that a record number of the regime’s heavyweights are preparing to throw their hats, caps, or turbans, into the ring.
According to tradition, next June’s election should be a routine affair. Since 1982, all presidents of the Islamic Republic have been allowed to win a second and final four-year term, without much serious opposition.
This time, however, things are different.
The incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has provoked intense opposition from within the Khomeinist establishment. Powerful factions of the regime see a second term for the radical president as a threat not only to their privileges but also to the regime’s long-term prospects.
Ahmadinejad’s foes within the establishment come in three groups.
The first consists of mullahs who have made fortunes since the revolution and fear that Ahmadinejad’s may end up by targeting them.
The best known of these mullahs is Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and still a powerful player within the regime. Last year, however, Ahmadinejad engineered an amendment to the electoral law under which no one aged 70 or above could stand for the presidency. The amendment was clearly designed to exclude Rafsanjani, who has just turned 72.
As things stand, this group does not appear to have a potential standard-bearer. One guess is that Rafsanjani and his faction will wait and see which of the potential candidates is most likely to beat Ahmadinejad before placing their chips.
The second group determined to deny Ahmadinejad a second term consists of a medley of mullahs, bureaucrats and businesspersons who believe that the Khomeinist revolution has run its course and that Iran should now begin behaving like a nation-state not a revolutionary cause.
This group has three potential candidates.
The best known is Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah who preceded Ahmadinejad as president.
During his tenure, Khatami liked the attention bestowed on him by some circles in the West that hoped he would help Iran close the revolutionary chapter and start normalization.
The problem is that Khatami has little support within the Khomeinist establishment where many regard him as a weak and confused egomaniac in search of accolades from the West. The only way that Khatami could win is by persuading the mass of Iranians who no longer support Khomeinism to vote for him as the lesser of two evils compared to Ahmadinejad. And that requires a more open break with the system- something that Khatami may not have the courage to attempt.
A second possible candidate is Mehdi Karrubi, also a mid-ranking mullah and a former Speaker of the Islamic Majlis (parliament). However, Karrubi has virtually no support within Iranian society while his support-base in the establishment is not strong enough to propel him to victory.
The third potential candidate is Mir-Hussein Mussavi Khamenehi, a former prime minister. Once the darling of the left in and around the establishment, Mussavi remains an enigma. He has been silent since 1989 when he had to step down after his enemies, led by Rafsanjani, amended the constitution to abolish the post of prime minister. Last month, Mussavi broke his “verbal fast” with a stinging attack on Ahmadinejad, warning that the president’s policies have led the country to the brink. His problem is that most Iranians do not even remember him after almost a quarter of a century of living on the sidelines.
The third group opposed to Ahmadinejad consists of people who share his ideological radicalism but believe he is too impulsive to lead the Khomeinist republic through the rough waters ahead. Until last week, the strongest potential standard-bearer for this group was Tehran’s Mayor Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf. A former general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Qalibaf also stood in the last presidential election when he came fifth and lost to Ahmadinejad.
Since Ahmadinejad is casting himself as the candidate of the IRGC, a new challenge by Qalibaf may weaken his position in next June’s election.
However, Ahmadinejad may face an even bigger challenge within his IRGC constituency. The challenge may come from General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a former Commander-in-Chief of the IRGC and military advisor to the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi.
A sure sign that Safavi may be thinking of throwing his cap into the ring came last month when he launched his website at the start of a series of provincial tours to organise political action groups.
Safavi uses the title “sayyed” to underline his claimed descent from Hussein Ibn Ali, the third Imam of Shi’ism. He also uses the title Doctor to highlight his academic stature and counter charges that he is nothing but “a dumb soldier.” (He has a Ph. D in Geography from the IRGC University.)
If Safavi enters the race, he is certain to attract widespread support within the establishment. He is connected with a network of business interests that control large chunks of the Iranian economy.
Safavi is the only one among the potential candidates to have welcomed US President Barack Obama’s call for change in public, indicating willingness to open a meaningful dialogue with Washington. Through his brothers and other relatives who are businessmen in Western Europe, Safavi is also in contact with a number of European Union governments working to foster a working relationship with Tehran.
Through Safavi, the IRGC may make its final move in a chess-game designed to put it directly in power in Tehran. Four years ago, Ahmadinejad was the IRGC’s candidate and won. However, Ahmadinejad has never been a staff member of the RGC. Next June, the IRGC may want to go a step further and put one of its own in the presidential office. Right now, Safavi seems the likely piece in this amazing game.