A council controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will decide who can run for Iran’s presidency. (AP Photo/Hayat News Agency, Meisam Hosseini.)
This is the first in a series of posts about Iran’s crucial presidential election on June 14.
If Iran is a dictatorship, its politics is remarkably rough and tumble.
Not only does the coming presidential election look like it might well be wide open and contentious, but it could have a lot to do with whether or not talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers will be successful when they resume.
As I’ve been writing for more than a year now, the talks with Iran have been largely frozen because both the United States and Iran were engaged in crucial presidential votes. To be successful, both sides will have to make significant concessions to the other—and thus to pay a political price at home, where hardliners in both countries will oppose any deal that’s half-a-loaf. That’s still hard, but with both elections out of the way maybe the roadblocks can be bulldozed.
As the June 14 election draws closer, a vast array of would-be candidates has registered to run. In a few days, the Guardian Council—the body in Iran that vets candidates for, among other things, their commitment to Islamic piety and to the Islamic Republic itself—will decide which of those will be approved to run for president, giving the candidates just a few short weeks to make their case.
In one sense, of course, that’s hardly democratic, since the Guardian Council would instantly bar anyone who doesn’t fit its preconceived standards from running—and that almost certainly includes women, a number of whom have filed for candidacy, along with anyone who’d overtly challenge Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And, of course, Khamenei wields near-total power over the council, six of whose twelve members are appointed by Khamenei and the rest by Iran’s judicial authority, whose leader is also a Khamenei appointee.
Still, for a political system like Iran’s, the major candidates who’ve emerged so far represent a broad range of Iran’s establishment. One of them, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a top aide to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has carved out a position that leans more nationalist than Islamist, and he’s emerged as a favorite even for some of the Green Movement’s partisans because both he and Ahmadinejad have challenged the clergy’s power. Both Ahmadinejad and Mashaei appear to be seeking an independent political power base within Iran’s system, and there has been speculation that the two men might be trying to emulate Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev’s move in Russia, who repeatedly switched jobs as president. Ahmadinejad, who cannot run in 2013 for a third term, has fallen out of favor with Khamenei and the conservative clergy, including Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, who had been Ahmadinejad’s chief clerical backer and purported mentor in 2009.
It’s far from certain that Khamenei and the Guardian Council will allow Mashaei to run. Iranian conservatives frequently attack the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei group, several of whose allies have been either arrested or ousted from their government positions since 2009, as the “deviant current,” and they’ve been accused of witchcraft, sorcery and worse. One of the sins allegedly committed by Ahmadinejad and Mashaei has been to imply that they are in direct, spiritual communication with the Mahdi, a mystical descendant of the Prophet Mohammad who, many Shiites believe, went into “occultation” centuries ago. The political implications of Ahmadinejad’s link to the Mahdi is that he short-circuits the clergy itself, whose ayatollahs claim that mantle of mediator between their followers and the Mahdi. In any case, were Mashaei to be ruled ineligible to run, it could trigger a political crisis, especially if President Ahmadinejad sought in retaliation to postpone the election.