Iran Surprises Again!

by Farideh Farhi

Okay, it is time to admit that the only thing predictable about Iranian politics these days is its unpredictability!

There are people who know Iran well and as early as a few months ago thought that the next president of the country was already decided by the powers that be. There are also others who will say that they predicted all this. I am not one of these.

I am stunned. As of late yesterday (Friday), I did not think that former president and current Expediency Council chair Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would run for the presidency. All the talk about his entry – and the previous talk and hope about former president Mohammad Khatami’s entry – was mostly tactical, I thought. The loud calls – and pleas – for either Khatami or Hashemi Rafsanjani to run were to show the depth of their support among various sectors of Iranian society, from a good number of the urban middle classes to the business community. I thought it was sort of a flexing of social power muscle. But, given the hysterical reaction both former presidents elicit from the hardliners, I thought they would ultimately be reluctant to run, in the end preferring to throw their support to another candidate who would try to carefully pull the country to the middle.

Khatami had said that if he thought his candidacy would cause further turbulence and polarization, he would not run and made clear in the past week that his candidacy was not forthcoming. Hashemi Rafsanjani had explicitly stated that he would only run with the consent of the Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. I thought he would act the same way as Khatami.

Well, I was wrong big time! The 78-year-old Hashemi Rafsanjani decided to run and with him came a whole slew of candidates signing up at Minute 90 (what else but a soccer reference). Former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati also walked into the Interior Ministry at the last minute. So did Saeed Jalili, Iran’s current nuclear negotiator, who had previously said he would not run; and so did Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, Ahmadinejad’s beloved who has been talked about as Medvedev to his Putin. Against all tradition (and perhaps even the law), Mashaie, in presenting his candidacy was flanked by Ahmadinejad himself and several other cabinet ministers, raising eyebrows about whether his interior ministry can run an impartial election when the president is so openly supporting one candidate.

So here we are. There are now more than 35 relatively well known candidates and over 600 unknown candidates, including 30 women – one of whom named Eshrat Kazemi insists on being called Elizabeth! The Guardian Council will have five days to go through these applications and disqualify almost all of them. Given the high number of well-known candidates, the Council may eventually extend its examination period for another five days in order to figure out what to do. But that’s all the law allows. Campaigning in full force among the very few who get past the Guardian Council for the June 14 election will begin no later than ten days from now.

So what does it all mean and how will it all work out? In this rather competitive political environment, it is very hard to say. It is like trying to guess the next move in a three-dimensional chess game. Folks who have called upon Rafsanjani to run -– including Khatami, as well as the conservative MP Ali Mottahari who visited Rafsanjani just a couple of hours before he made his decision to run — have done so based on the argument that second-tier centrist or reformist candidates will not be strong or popular enough to issue a significant challenge and change the direction of the country from its trajectory of the last four years which, from their point of view, has underwritte both its domestic economic troubles and international woes.

No matter what the reason, both Hashemi Rafsanjani’s and Mashaie’s candidacy pose a couple of challenges for the political system as well as for the conservative political players.

First, there is the question of their qualification by the Guardian Council. It is hard to imagine how the this body can disqualify the current chair of the Expediency Council. Hardliners – including the current Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi – have accused Rafsanjani of being the “source of sedition,” a reference to the former president’s statement that he had foreseen the post-2009 election turmoil and had a tape of his warnings to prove it. So the Guardian Council could conceivably disqualify him on these grounds. But then this move will shine the spotlight on Khamenei who re-appointed Rafsanjani to chair the Expediency Council after the 2009 protests.

Mashaie’s disqualification may be less of a challenge. After all, there is already a public letter written by Khamenei to Ahmadinejad asking for the Mashaie’s removal as first vice-president. So, conceivably disqualifying him for president given the fact that he was not seen as suitable for vice-president should not be that hard. Nonetheless, some may argue that now that Rafsanjani is running, the Council will more likely approve Mashaie’s candidacy to block Rafsanjani. In this view, the two would then split the anti-systemic vote and allow a conservative to rise. This to me is not a convincing argument. Mashaie’s candidacy arguably poses more of a challenge to conservatives due the likelihood that it would draw votes away from whichever candidate they eventually develop a consensus around, if, in fact such a consensus is in the cards. I cannot fathom the Guardian Council risking the election going to a second round – a real possibility with multiple candidates – with Rafsanjani and Mashaie as the two top candidates running against each other. But all bets are off at this point. In this messy political environment, I have a hard time believing that a backroom deal has been made to qualify both Rafsanjani and Mashaie, but I will no longer be surprised if the latter is qualified.

Which brings me to the second challenge Hashemi Rafsanjani’s candidacy poses. This one is to the conservatives – or the Principlists as they are called in Iran – who have been acting more like a herd of cats than a solid political front. Unlike 2005, when Rafsanjani was challenged by both conservatives and reformists, this time he will be coming in with solid support from the reformists. It is true that the reformists are also a herd of cats, but few doubt Khatami’s ability to convince the herd to rally behind Rafsanjani. In fact, most reformist and centrist candidates have already said that they will withdraw if Rafsanjani runs. The exception may be former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, but, without support from Rafsanjani or Khatami, he will not be a significant candidate anyway. In effect, if Rafsanjani is qualified by the Guardian Council and if he chooses not to back off in favor of another candidate, the conservatives will be facing a centrist/reformist consensus candidate who may even peel away some of their own, particularly the ones in the commercial sector and many in the clerical community in Qom and elsewhere.

The conservatives meanwhile have not been able to reach consensus on a candidate of their own. The hard-line conservatives now have at least three candidates – former health minister Kamran Bagheri Lankarani, MP Alireza Zakani, and Saeed Jalili. They now have to decide whether to field one of the three – both Lankarani and Zakani have said that they will withdraw if Jalili runs – or join others in finding yet another candidate behind whom they can all mobilize. But they are not the only ones facing the need for readjustment with Rafsanjani’s entry into the race.

The most important conservative alliance – involving former foreign minister Velayati, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and former Parliament speaker Gholamali Haddad Adel – has also not been able to decide which one of them should run. All three have now registered, and there is a real possibility that both Qalibaf and Velayati will run. Finally, there are the old-style traditional conservatives. Deputy speaker of the Parliament Mohammad Hassan Abutorabifard has registered on their behalf but so has former foreign minister Manuchehr Mottaki who chose to ignore the choice of traditional conservatives and enter the race himself.

Rafsanjani’s entry into the fray with solid support from Khatami and his followers will force the conservatives not only to scramble for a consensus candidate, but also search for one who is relatively popular or at least better known. The opinion polls reportedly suggest that the most popular conservative candidate is Qalibaf because of his widely hailed management of the city of Tehran. He also has quite a following in his home province of Khorasan Razavi and where he won in the first round of the 2005 presidential election (Khorasan Razavi is one of the most important provinces in electoral calculations given its population of over 5.6 million, second only to Tehran as the country’s most populous province).

Qalibaf, however, has a problem with the most committed base of the Islamic Republic. In fact, in the 2005 election, it was that base that shifted its allegiance from him to Ahmadinejad, reportedly due to its anger over the flamboyant and western-style campaign he ran. This time around, Qalibaf is not making the same mistake. In his interviews and public speaking he is emphasizing that he is NOT a “technocrat,” a term used to refer to Rafsanjani supporters and worldview. He keeps talking about jihadi economic management and jihadi foreign policy –which presumably combines revolutionary ideals and strivings with competence and prudence – to distinguish himself from the technocratic brand that the die-hard conservative base considers a liability. He may do a Romney and move to the center if he emerges as the consensus conservative choice, either through negotiation prior to the June 14 election or by process of elimination if he manages to get to the second round. But his path to becoming the consensus conservative candidate is not smooth.

Meanwhile, the hardliners who really don’t like Qalibaf will be scrambling to push for another consensus conservative candidate. Whether that candidate will be Jalili – who doesn’t have any executive experience and as such raises the specter of another Ahmadinejad in terms of his management capabilities at a time when competence and prudence are central campaign issues – or Velayati “because he is really the candidate Leader Khamenei wants,” or somebody else is yet to be determined.

Also yet to be determined is the extent to which this election will end up being relatively tamper free among the candidates who are cleared by the Guardian Council. Lack of clarity regarding who is really the “system’s favorite candidate” should work in favor a competitive election; that is, within the ideological confines of the Islamic Republic, of course. But with Rafsanjani’s entry, a rather intense battle over the direction of the country has been unleashed with many players having to reassess their previous stances based not only on who they would like to see win but also who they think might win.

Starting with his famous July 17, 2009 post-election speech, Hashemi Rafsanjani has repeatedly made clear that he does not think the highly securitized turn the country has taken has been the right approach. He has also harshly criticized Ahmadinejad’s economic policies and erratic management style and has expressed serious concern about the direction of Iran’s foreign policy. Finally, he has also made the case that, in the face of the external threats the country faces, domestic reconciliation among all significant forces should be the framework for the next government which he says must include representatives from across the political spectrum.

In the coming month, the Iranian electorate will listen to what he and others have to say and will have to decide whether their own participation will also make a difference in the country’s direction. After the traumatic 2009 election experience, the decision to participate on the part of a good number of voters cannot be considered a given. But my bet is that Rafsanjani’s candidacy has just made the Iranian election a bit more interesting even to them.

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.