Within the next few days Iran”s ruling mullahs will decide whom to allow to stand in next month”s presidential election. Observers in Tehran believe that of the 400 or so hopefuls who registered to become candidates last week only half a dozen may get official approval.
The official candidates” list is established by the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution, a 12-man clerical body appointed by the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi. Along the line, the "Supreme Guide" could cross out any name or veto the entire list.
But even if a candidate is allowed to stand and wins the election there is no guarantee that he would assume the presidency. Elections results must be "authenticated" by the Council and approved by the "Supreme Guide". The elected president assumes his functions only after the "Supreme Guide" issues an edict appointing him to the post. Even then the president is far from the chief executive that his lofty title suggests. The Cabinet he picks must be approved by the "Supreme Guide" who could also veto any of his decisions. Also, the "Supreme Guide", who is in office for life, can dismiss the president with an edict.
With all that in mind one might wonder about the point of the exercise.
The Iranian election is, nevertheless, important for at least two reasons.
The first is that it offers the people an opportunity to give some indication of their feelings. One obvious way is boycotting the exercise. And this is what most opposition groups are aiming at. But boycotting the election is not the only way that the people can indicate their feelings. They could also do so by voting against the candidates most closely associated with the system.
The second reason why the exercise is important is that it allows the public a glimpse of the power struggle among factions within the regime. The fact that rival factions have been able to slug it out through political means, including elections, has enabled the regime to avoid a violence which might lead to armed confrontation or even civil war.
The real interest of the coming election is whether or not Khamenehi will be able to consolidate his recent gains by securing the presidency for one of his acolytes.
Last year Khamenehi scored a major victory when his entourage won control of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, the unicameral parliament that acts as the regime”s primary legislative organ. The assembly is now headed by Khamenehi”s son-in-law Ghulam-Ali Haddad Adel.
One question that Khamenehi faces is whether the next president should be another mullah or one of his non-clerical advisors.
The "turban or the hat" dilemma is not fanciful.
The turban represents the Shiite clergy. The hat is the symbol of non-clerical elites.
During the 1978-79 revolution the people of the hat, known as the “mukalla” cooperated with the people of the turban, known as the “muam’am”, to drive out the Shah and grab power for themselves.
The arrangement worked for a while as the people of the turban allowed the people of the hat to fill major positions of power, including the presidency of the Islamic Republic. The people of the turban stayed in the shadows or, at most, secured middling positions in government. Gradually, they realised that running a government was no big deal. Famously, Khomeini declared that even a donkey could be a minister or president, provided its loyalty to the revolution was not in doubt.
Within a year the people of the turban, who had tasted power and liked it, decided to reverse the arrangement and have all the big jobs for themselves.
Since then the people of the turban have held key positions such as president of the republic, chief justice, minister of security and intelligence, minister of the interior, speaker of the Parliament, minister of justice, and minister of culture and guidance.
At the same time the “muam’am” head other key institutions such as the Council of the Guardians of the Revolution, The Discernment Council, the Assembly of Experts, the High Council of National Defense, and many others.
Turbaned heads are also present in every government department at national and provincial levels.
But, why is the turban-or-hat debate revived at this point?
There are three reasons.
The first is that the ruling mullahs hate being called “mullahs”, a term that reminds the world of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran’s ruling mullahs prefer to be seen as Third World revolutionaries, fighting imperialism, and, one day hopefully, wiping Israel off the map, rather than forcing women into burqa or measuring the length of men’s beards as did the Taliban.
Some within the establishment believe that it is time to allow a hat-wearer to become president, thus helping change the image of the theocracy.
The second reason for the debate to come up at this time is that many Shiite clerics are concerned about the negative impact of clerical rule on Iranians’ view of Shiism, indeed of Islam itself. A hat-wearing president could act as a kind of human shield, taking the flak for the government’s failure.
The third reason is that a large segment of the revolutionary establishment consists of hat-wearers who feel frustrated at the prospect of never getting any of the big jobs.
These are people who joined the revolution in their teens, took the American diplomats hostage, manned the firing squads against dissidents, and fought in the Iran-Iraq war. Some have improved their credentials by marrying into clerical families. And, yet, because they are not mullahs, they have no hope of reaching the highest rungs of the ladder.
The party of the turban is likely to have two leading candidates.
One is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mullah-cum-businessman who served as president for two terms between 1989 and 1997.
Many regard Rafsanjani, aged 71, as the regime’s “strongman”.
Rafsanjani, however, has two problems.
The first is that he is, perhaps, the most unpopular figure within the establishment. His unpopularity was such that he failed to secure a seat in the last but one parliamentary election.
Rafsanjani’s second problem is bigger: Khamenehi may well be opposed to his return to the presidency. The two men have been friends and business partners for 30 years, and it is quite possible that Khamenei owes his position to Rafsanjani’s maneuvering on his behalf in 1989 in the wake of Khomeini’s death. What is certain is that if Rafsanjani returns as president, his personal network could diminish the dominant position that Khamenei has won over the years.
The second turban in the ring belongs to Mahdi Karrubi, the former Speaker of the parliament who is backed by the remnants of the pro-reform movement created around Khatami in 1997. But Karrubi, who lacks a personal power base, has never been close to Khamenehi.
According to the buzz in Tehran, Khamenehi may be tilting toward the hat solution.
Khamenehi has several "hats" from which to choose.
One is 47-year old Ali Larijani, the outgoing head of the state-owned radio and television and son of an ayatollah.
A radical Khomeinist, Larijani could reassure the hard-line base of the regime at a time that it may be heading for a clash with the United States over the future shape of the new Middle East.
Another "hat" that Khamenehi may pick is Ali-Akbar Velayati who served as foreign minister for almost 17 years.
Velayati, aged 65, has one problem: He is the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by a Berlin Criminal Court on charges of involvement in murdering four Iranian Kurdish dissidents there in 1992.
Khamenehi may well have a third option: the military cap.
This is represented by Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a 44-year old general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and former police chief. Polls show that Qalibaf is currently the most popular of candidates among radical would-be voters.
Hat or turban or military cap, one thing is certain: Whoever wins the presidency next month will be in the camp of the hard-liners. The Islamic Republic has decided that this is not the time to risk any political reform.