While a few dozen of the lesser-known contenders seized the opportunity for a free photo-op by turning up to register at the Interior Ministry in Tehran, the most high-profile individuals thought to be seeking the post have so far stayed away.
In the meantime, every action and word uttered by veteran politician and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani has been scrutinized for indications that he intends to put his name forward.
After months of ambiguous and contradictory comments, Rafsanjani hinted that he may run in a recent meeting with a group of university students.
“I will apply if I find my candidacy helpful for the people and the country, but if my presence proves to be divisive and a cause for disunity, then I will not,” he was reported as saying by the Entekhab news website yesterday.
Former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami registering as candidates would be a nightmare scenario for hardline conservatives, who are loyal only to Ayatollah Khamenei.
Kayhan, a conservative Tehran daily newspaper under the direct supervision of Khamenei, fiercely attacked both Rafsanjani and Khatami on Wednesday, accusing them of “playing in anti-revolutionary ground.”
On Tuesday, Hossein Shariatmadari, the supreme leader’s representative at Kayhan, described Khatami as a “traitor and spy to foreign intelligent services,” stating that he is “to be delisted by the Guardian Council if he decides to nominate.”
Hardliners are increasingly concerned about the popularity of Hashemi and Khatami among Iranians, and are determined to push them back by any means. Shariatmadari, however, predicted that Rafsanjani will be approved by the Guardian Council if he chooses to run, but warned him on Wednesday “not to run: he will lose the election, and that means he is finished in politics.”
At the end of his presidency in 1997, Rafsanjani vowed to guard the integrity of the electoral process in the last Friday prayer sermon before that year’s presidential election.
Back then, it was a common knowledge that the supreme leader tended towards Ali Akbar Nategh-Nuri, the then speaker of parliament. When Khatami’s landslide victory in the poll was announced, it was clear that Rafsanjani had stood by his promise.
Sixteen years on, he still stands at the crossroads with his old friend and rival, the supreme leader, with the power to shape Iranian politics. In his camp are Mohammad Khatami, Hassan Rouhani, and majority of ministers, MPs and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps veterans who served in the Iraq–Iran War and held official posts up to 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office.
Rafsanjani has been the symbol of Iran’s moderate conservatives for quite a while, and he is now an ally of moderate reformists, too. On the other side, Ayatollah Khamenei leads an new political faction called “principalists,” which is comprised of fundamentalists and hardline conservatives.
The falling out between Ahmadinejad’s side and the principalist camp has created a difficult dilemma for Khamenei, who has to fight on two fronts. On one hand, he has to deal with the painful economic and legitimacy crises of the Iranian state. On the other, he seeks to overcome a wide range of international and regional stalemates Iran is entangled with.
Rafsanjani is seen as an experienced and prudent figure; and he enjoys this reputation even as the country is suffering its worst political and economic crises after 8 years of rule by the Khamenei–Ahmadinejad alliance.
None of the candidates from among Iran’s hardliners have such credentials—and even worse, they lack popular appeal.
Reza Ali-Jani, a veteran Iranian political commentator based in Paris, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the “principalists cannot reach agreement since they are made of various groups with different—and even opposing—interests. “
“The unity principalists enjoyed prior to the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005 was also due to the need to deter and suppress Hashemi Rafsanjani, in favor of bolstering Khamenei,” he added.
But according to E’temad newspaper, Hojjat Al-Islam Morteza Agha Tehrani, a cleric close to both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei and also general secretary of the hardline conservative Islamic Revolution Resistance Front led by Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, said on May 8 that “if there was no jurisprudential leadership [velayat-e faqih] in Iran, then all politicians would tear each other apart.”
He added: “Some politicians may still support [Rafsanjani], but his implicit support of the 2009 mutiny proves his true political stance is not in line with what the supreme leader envisages.”
On Tuesday, Mohammad Khatami published a statement on his website expressing delight on learning that Rafsanjani will submit his application for candidacy. “Why should the supreme leader be opposed to Hashemi’s candidacy, when he had praised Hashemi as a unique and superior companion?” he asked.
Khatami and Rafsanjani are leading in the unofficial polls taken by some anonymous organizations inside Iran that have been leaked to media, with no subsequent denials.
Hojjat Al-Islam Asgarpur, the spokesman of the Expediency Council chaired by Rafsanjani, also said yesterday that “Hashemi might nominate himself in the 90th minute,” a reference to the last minute of a soccer match.
The deadline for registration is Saturday, May 11.
Sadegh Ziba Kalam, a lecturer at the University of Tehran and an outspoken political commentator, said in an interview with the Ilna news agency on Wednesday that “[Rafsanjani’s] entry into the election will unite all reformists behind him, including Khatami.”
“If this happens, it means the whole conservative faction will gear up to crush him,” he added.
The ambiguity around Rafsanjani’s candidacy is not the only controversial issue in the upcoming election. The fate of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close associate of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is also yet to be revealed.
Khamenei and his supporters are beset on both sides by their potential foes, Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad—two rivals who are closing in on the supreme leader’s ivory tower inch by inch, from different directions.