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An 'Epic' Mess in Iran

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei wants an 'epic' election. He may get one, but not the kind he expected.

Getty/Behrouz Mehri

Here they go again: Every four years, theocratic Iran holds presidential elections. If that sounds like a contradiction, if not an oxymoron, that's because it is. On the one hand, virtually all power ostensibly rests with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who claims to represent God’s ultimate sovereignty on earth. On the other, the elected president (also ostensibly) represents the republican principle of popular sovereignty. This time around, about 700 people have registered to run, though no more than seven of them can be considered serious candidates. Once the list of “vetted” candidates is announced—scheduled for Tuesday—the world will know how Khamenei and his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps will attempt to tackle the challenges facing the country: a faltering economy, tightened sanctions, nuclear negotiations, and the future of Syria. 

In recent years, as the IRGC and Khamenei have concentrated their power,1 they've seen the executive branch as the final hurdle to controlling all branches of the government. Outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005—when he defeated former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), who claimed the election was rigged—was considered the final piece in this effort to monopolize power, but things have not gone as planned since he was re-elected in 2009. Millions protested what they believed was a rigged result, and second-term Ahmadinejad grew increasingly unwilling to take orders from Khamenei and his IRGC supporters. He has also seemed unwilling lately to give up power, as he and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, his chief of staff, have claimed more than once to be in direct communication with the Mahdi, the Shiite messiah. In doing so, Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have undermined the conservative Muslim clerics whose authority and power rely partly on claims that they represent the Mahdi in his absence. Khamenei and his allies had believed that with enough threats and virulent attacks, accusing Ahmadinejad and Mashaei of all manner of perfidy—from financial corruption to complicity with Israel and the US, even dabbling in demonology—Mashaei would not run in this year's election. Yet Mashaei did throw his hat in the ring, registering as a candidate only moments before the deadline and accompanied by Ahmadinejad, who later claimed to have taken the day off as president to accompany his compatriot to the registration ceremony.

But that's not the only reason this election is shaping up to be a singular one in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In reality, Khamenei and his praetorian allies in the IRGC share irreconcilable goals for the election. They need what Khamenei has called a "political epic": massive participation in the election as a proof of legitimacy and as a sign that the brutalities after the last contested election have been forgotten, if not forgiven. But the fact that Mir Hussein Moussavi, believed by millions to have actually won that election, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi, a presidential candidate in 2009, have been under house arrest for more than 700 days, with no indictment or charges ever filed against them, has made forgetting or forgiving easier wished than done. And this "political epic" was made more difficult when some of Khamenei's allies talked about the IRGC's duty to "engineer" elections. Why would people vote in "epic" numbers if the results were already engineered?

Moreover, it has become clear that none of Khamenei's preferred candidates—former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, former Parliament chairman Golam Ali Haddad Adel (who is also the father-in-law to one of Khamenei's sons), and Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator—has enough gravitas to inspire massive turnout. Velayati has no experience in managing the economy and his long years of experience as foreign minister can in no way compensate for his dour personality and his docility to the whims of Khamenei. Ghalibaf, whose management style has won him support among Tehran's middle class, lost some of his appeal when a tape of his talk with a group of student zealots revealed that—contrary to his new public posture of moderation—he privately reveled in his role in suppressing the democratic movement (he even claimed that when he was the commander of the police, he beat demonstrators with a stick while riding a motorcycle—a job usually left to thugs hired by the regime). Jalili has no managerial experience other than representing Khamenei in nuclear negotiations, and no one has ever accused Hadad Adel of being anything other than a mere acolyte. 

Khamenei and his allies knew that anything resembling a competitive election required a moderate candidate on the ballot, but they could not afford a serious reformist candidate like former President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), who, if allowed to run, stood a good chance of winning. When Khatami toyed with the idea, he was threatened in no uncertain terms. The regime also knew, meanwhile, that a reformist candidate with little name recognition or popular base—like ministers from the Khatami cabinet who registered to run—would not get them the "epic" they need. The problem with Mashaei is altogether different. In the likely case that the Guardian Council—the twelve-person body of men whose job it is to vet candidates—rejects Mashaei's candidacy, Khamenei and his allies have only to worry about what Ahmadinejad might do in response. Papers and websites close to Khamenei, as well as public officials, have indicated that there are contingency plans in the event that Ahmadinejad refuses to hold the election in retaliation for Mashaei's candidacy being rejected.

But these plans hit a snag when, minutes before the deadline, Rafsanjani announced he would run. While Khamenei mouthpieces, like the Keyhan daily paper, and websites close to Ahmadinejad, had for four years accused Rafsanjani of corruption, failure to support Khamenei, and even masterminding the U.S. and Israel's alleged plans for a “democratic revolution” in Iran, there was a sudden surge of support for the former president. Reformists who had once vilified Rafsanjani as the “godfather” of the regime are now actively supporting his candidacy. Prominent political prisoners, many of whom worked in Khatami's administration, and reformist groups openly endorsed Rafsanjani—as did Khatami himself. Some of his supporters even claim that many in the conservative camp discreetly support Rafsanjani because they believe he is the only one who can stand up to Khamenei and the IRGC, help stabilize the shipwrecked economy, and moderate Iran's quixotic foreign policy.  

Some in the opposition who are keen on regime change dismiss the Rafsanjani candidacy as nothing more than an attempt to save the regime. Others enamored of conspiracy theories see Rafsanjani’s belated entry into the race as nothing more than political theater, a ruse concocted by the regime to rouse interest for the “political epic” it desperately needs. Still others see the election as the last battle in the shadow war that has been going on between Khamenei and Rafsanjani for at least the last eight years—a battle not just for the soul of the regime they helped create, but arguably for its survival. Radical supporters of the regime have appealed to the Guardian Council to reject Rafsanjani, at first by focusing on Rafsanjani's political “sins.” But then they realized the absurdity of arguing that one of main architects of the regime—a man who has held the highest offices in Iran for 34 years2—was somehow politically unfit. So anti-Rafsanjani forces changed course, insisting that his age (78) renders him unfit for office—even though some of the very clerics making this claim are at least that old themselves.

In a sense, the Rafsanjani candidacy has put Khamenei and his IRGC allies in a lose-lose situation. If they allow him to run, they have, in effect, accepted defeat in their eight-year project of eliminating him and his moderate allies in favor of Ahmadinejad's harebrained economic ideas and foreign policy adventurism. If they block his candidacy, though, they won’t have the “epic” election they so desperately need. With no economic rebound in sight, a controversial election will only worsen Iran's politically explosive climate. Some IRGC commanders are warning of post-election riots not just in Tehran but around the country; they predict a “Russian style” riot that, according to IRGC’s political commissar, might be significantly worse and more widespread than the 2009 demonstrations, which were concentrated in Tehran. These anxieties indicate that a long hot summer is ahead in Iran. But how hot? That will depend, partly, on the Guardian Council's decision on who will be allowed to run for president.

  1. They control at least 70 percent of the entire economy, either through IRGC front companies, or through bonyads (foundations) controlled by Khamenei and invariably led by former IRGC commanders.

  2. As late as three years ago, he was reappointed by Khamenei to head the Expediency Council—a body that constitutionally is only second to Khamenei in terms of its political and theological importance.