Iran’s Guardian Council startled that country when it announced that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president (1989-1997) who was among the founders of the Islamic Republic, would not be allowed to run for president in the June election. Less surprising, it struck down the candidacy of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, a confidant of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Their exclusion is a further step toward authoritarianism and perhaps totalitarianism in Iran. For all its flaws and illiberal tendencies, the Islamic Republic did have, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a democratic side to it. Even though the presidential candidates and those running for parliament were vetted, and many excluded, a spectrum of candidates did run and elections did produce surprises. Now, the ideological litmus test for office is becoming more and more narrow, and the regime seems determined to prevent surprises even if it means ballot-stuffing.
A major challenge for the remaining 8 presidential candidates will to get anyone to care about an election conducted on a vary narrow basis, which might well be fixed anyway.
The two excluded candidates had something in common. They had caused headaches for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Rafsanjani had argued in summer of 2009 during the Green Movement that Ruhollah Khomeini’s vision of the Islamic Republic had had a strong popular and democratic dimension, and acknowledged a limited form of popular sovereignty. Rafsanjani is no democrat, and is a billionaire elitist, but he did not approve of the election being stolen that year, and he clearly did not approve of Khamenei’s authoritarian interpretation of the meaning of the Islamic Republic. I wrote at that time, in 2009, of a major sermon by Rafsanjani:
“Another piece of evidence for the popular character of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani says, is Khomeini’s own haste to establish lay, elected institutions and to implement a republican constitution. He maintains that Khomeini actually strengthened some of the popular institutions when he made suggestions for revision of the draft constitution. Even having a constitution is a bow to popular sovereignty, he implies, and he contrasts the haste with which revolutionary Iran established a rule of law and popular input into government with the slowness of these processes in countries such as Algeria.
Then Rafsanjani says:
“As you are aware, according to the constitution, everything in the country is determined by people’s vote. People elect the members of the Assembly of Expert[s] and then they elect leader, that is, the leader is (indirectly) elected by people’s vote. Presidents, MPs, members of the councils are elected by direct votes of the people. Other officials are also appointed (indirectly) through people’s vote. Everything depends on people. This is the religious system. The title of Islamic Republic is not used as a formality. It includes both the republican and Islamic nature.”
He points out that the parliament, president and members of municipal councils are drectly elected. But the Supreme Leader is indirectly elected, since he is chosen by the Assembly of Experts. But they in turn are directly elected by the people (i.e. the Experts are a sort of electoral college in American terms).
Opinion polling shows that Iranians mostly want the Supreme Leader to be directly elected. But Rafsanjani’s point is that even the Supreme Leader, whom some see as a theocratic dictator, derives his position from the operation of popular sovereignty.”
Rafsanjani was roundly condemned for the thrust of this sermon, which leant nuanced support to the Green Movement (who supported Mirhossein Mousavi, the candidate the regime said had lost).
Still, the exclusion of one of the founders of the Islamic Republic, and a former president, from running for this office, shocked many Iranians (see at end).
As for Rahim Mashaie, he was widely seen as a way that Ahmadinejad sought to extend his influence into the future. Ahmadinejad is a right wing populist, often having campaigned against the wealthy ayatollahs and businessmen of Khamenei’s Establishment. He also tried to maintain at least some autonomy from the Supreme Leader, insisting on making his own cabinet appointments, and was slapped down for it.
The exclusion of these two is a sign that Khamenei does not want an independent-minded president who might appeal to the people in any contest of will with the Supreme Leader.
Some observers believe that Khamenei intends to abolish the presidency and go to a parliamentary system, with a prime minister. The Supreme Leader would have more unchallenged power in such an arrangement, and would in a sense combine the powers of Theocrat and president. In this reading, Khamenei only wants a yes man as president, since this election is a way station toward ending the office.
Aljazeera English interviews Trita Parsi on the development:
The USG Open Source Center translates an article from Persian on the exclusion of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from running for president of Iran again, which I though had some humorous lines:
Iranian MP Says Vetting Body’s Move ‘Politically Driven’
Mehr News Agency
Wednesday, May 22, 2013 …
Document Type: OSC Summary …
Tehran Mehr News Agency in Persian at 0918 GMT on 22 May reported that Iranian conservative MP Ali Motahhari has said that the Guardian Council’s move to bar former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani from running in the June polls was “politically-driven.”
Motahhari said that it was “wrong” for the vetting body to disqualify Hashemi-Rafsanjani and approve the candidacy of nuclear negotiator Sa’id Jalili.
“This showed that the Guardian Council’s approach is political rather than legal or ideological,” the MP told Mehr.
“They have provided two reasons for the disqualification of Mr Hashemi, both of which are unsubstantiated. The first one is the lack of physical fitness, and the second one is that he played a role in the 88 sedition (unrest after the 2009 elections).”
“In order to measure the physical fitness of Mr Hashemi, I propose a 100-metre running competition between him and Mr Jalili, and a wrestling match between Mr Hashemi and Mr Haddad,” Mehr further quoted the MP as saying.
Sa’id Jalili, an approved presidential candidate who is currently the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, lost his right leg in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
“Regarding the 88 sedition too, there were slanders against Mr Hashemi and his family in the live televised presidential debates then. He asked the state broadcaster to give him air time to defend himself and they did not,” Motahhari added.
“Also, how did Mr Jalili’s candidacy get approved, given his lack of experience? Can a few meetings and negotiations with Catherine Ashton (EU’s foreign policy chief) qualify anyone to become the president?”
“I think the only solution is that the Supreme Leader approves Mr Hashemi’s eligibility to run in the election with an official decree. This is not far from imagination: After he registered his candidacy, Mr Hashemi told him (the Supreme Leader) that he would withdraw if the Leader was against it, and the Leader had said that he was not against it.”
(Description of Source: Tehran Mehr News Agency in Persian — Conservative news agency, run by the Islamic Propagation Office, and affiliated with the conservative Qom seminary; in October 2010, prominent long-time journalist Reza Moqaddasi, previously an executive director of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, was appointed to a four-year term as managing director; URL: www.mehrnews.com)