Rafsanjani’s Exclusion from Iran’s Presidential Race a Sign of Creeping Totalitarianism

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)

18 Responses

  1. “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.”

    Actually, it was evident long before this incident that Khamenei did not want an independent-minded president. Many in the West criticized Ahmadinejad for everything from Iran’s nuclear stance to the 2009 elections, not realizing that it was really Khamenei who made (and continues to make) the final decision on important issues such as these. I would argue that Iran under Khamenei has been more or less authoritarian all along, and that the exclusion of presidential candidates is simply open recognition of that reality.

  2. “For all its flaws and illiberal tendencies, the Islamic Republic did have, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a democratic side to it. ”

    “Representative” is a more accurate term, Juan..

    “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.”

    Please provide actual evidence of “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.”

    How ’bout we wager Iran’s voter turnout for the 2013 election is higher than the last U.S. presidential election. You game, Juan? And again, please provide actual evidence of “fixing”.

    Where in 1940 Britain found itself under threat from a regional hegemonic power, Germany, and determined the need to suspend national elections, the Islamic Republic finds itself under threat by a global hegemonic power yet remains determined to maintain its representative character, however narrower deemed necessary within the current national security context, with the next election taking place June 14.

    • Iran in 2013 is like Great Britain when it had hundreds of thousands of troops engaged in combat operations in France, North Africa, and – oh yeah – during the aerial bombardment implemented to prepare the way for Operation Sealion?

      There are those who would call that a bit of a stretch.

  3. The Guardian Council sounds like the Republican Party: Litmus tests, a penchant for theocratic and absolute control, a damning of past statements taken out of context, an intolerance for diversity of opinion. It strikes me that members of the American Taliban, ranging from Michelle Bachmann to Sen. James Inhofe, and from the American Family Council to ALEC and Grover Norquist, among others, would feel right at home in the corridors of Iranian power.

    The issues may be different but the underlying philosophy is identical.

    That there should be so many similarities between power and politics in Persia and one of America’s two main political parties is deeply disturbing, troubling almost beyond words.

  4. I think the Iranians, like the Chinese, have long had an in-built disdain for ‘cults of personality’ and prefer to operate in a more collegial environment.

    Now both Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad and his protege have raised hackles there. What makes it ironic is that Rafsanjani was certainly once a member of this inner circle — but obviously no longer.

    To contrast such systems with more nominally ‘democratic’ ones can be useful.

    Which tend to be more aggressive, militaristic or ‘imperial’ in their behavior — the more autocratic and ‘closed’ ones — or the nominally ‘democratic’ ones with powerful militaries?

    The United States and Israel here might be good examples to contrast with Iran and China.

    ‘Democracy’ may not be all it’s cracked-up to be.

    • I wasn’t aware the nation ruled by Mao Zedong a few short decades ago has long had an in-built disdain for ‘cults of personality.’

      • It was precisely the influence of Mao and the Cultural Revolution that turned many of his inner circle against him.

        The public ‘reverence’ continued even after his death, but many of his key associates (the Gang of Four) which included his wife, were subsequently prosecuted.

        link to en.wikipedia.org

        And see the paragraph regarding China here:

        link to en.wikipedia.org

        “The cult of personality continued for a short time after Mao’s death. His successor, Hua Guofeng also practised the cult of personality and was referred as “the brilliant leader Chairman Hua” (英明领袖华主席). Reforms in 1981 led to a deconstruction of his cult status and the Chinese Communist Party was averse to a cult of personality style rule lest it recreates the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.”

  5. Islamic revolution was the biggest mistake of Iranian people and we have to pay the price now. We have changed a secular dictatorship with a religious one and now it is going to transform to the worst of all a religious-militaristic dictatorship.

  6. So are you saying that Iran is ruled by billionaire elites wearing religion like a cape who are assembling a titular government while pushing Iran into totalitarianism? Then there’s no problem at all. Iran is simply becoming more like us. If we simply leave things alone we will end up exactly alike. People always try to make things more complicated than they are.

  7. Thank you for this excellent and illuminating post. You are right to point out that with the latest developments the Islamic Republic is moving towards totalitarianism. In fact, ever since the 2005 presidential election, which resulted in the victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad over Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Iran’s limited democracy has been going downhill. There was massive rigging in the 2009 election when with undue haste Ayatollah Khamenei put his full weight behind Ahmadinejad. Later on, he came to regret that decision, because none of the previous presidents had posed such a challenge to the Islamic system as was done by Ahmadinejad. He openly confronted both Khamenei and the clerical establishment as a whole and began to propagate his vision of an “Iranian Islam” and the imminent return of the Mahdi, which would have undercut the authority of the clerics. The main point is that both Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashai pose a challenge to Ayatollah Khamenei’s authority and this is something that he cannot tolerate.

    However, I think the election will not pass on as quietly as Khamenei hopes. It will either be a flop with very low turnout or, more likely, there will be protests and demonstrations similar to those that took place following the 2009 election directed against Khamenei himself. In any case, the regime has lost a great deal of its legitimacy both in the eyes of the reformers, as well as in the eyes of many conservatives who had supported Ahmadinejad. Given the scale of domestic and foreign challenges that the Iranian government is facing this does not bode well for the future of the regime.

  8. Where is Khamenei’s power base? It seems to me he doesn’t have one.

    Rafsenjani has a power base — he’s been personally bankrolling the university education of the majority of the country’s young people. Ahmedinijad has a power base — the rural, religious “old ways are best” conservatives. The Green Movement has a power base. Heck,the Communists have a power base.

    Where is Khamenei’s power base? I don’t see it. The “clerical establishment”, perhaps? But he has alienated a lot of them by opposing the very principles of Shi’a governnance, in favor of making himself a new Caliph. As such, I wonder how long it will be before he is overthrown.

    • Fwiw Iran’s ayatollahs are elected by that body called the “Assembly of Experts”.

      Ironically perhaps, at the time of Khamenei’s election the chairman of that assembly was none other than Rafsanjani himself. So if one really wants to understand “power bases” here, it might be the ‘politics’ and relationships of that body itself that would appear most important.

      On a side note, while Rafsanjani’s exclusion from the current election has caused a flood of reporting — his subsequent statement that he never really wanted to run, was “pressured” by others to do so, and was “relieved” at no longer being a candidate has seen only a trickle.

      • Iran’s ayatollahs are not elected by anybody; some do serve on councils but they are appointed either by parliament or the Supreme Leader.

    • My question regarding where Khamenei’s raw power base is — hasn’t been answered. Perhaps nobody here knows.

      A further question is, who can count the regular Iranian military as their power base? They have carefully stayed out of internal politics for decades, but as the country sinks into an unpopular dictatorship, that won’t stick. 10, 20 years from now what sort of situation will we be looking at?

  9. Thanks for that clarification Juan, I should have referred just to the Supreme Leader, which was the reference for my remark.

    By the way, my comment about Rafsanjani’s statement may or may not be credible — this link is extremely hard to corroborate:

    link to washingtonpost.com

  10. Ironic:

    Rafsanjani is the current Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, that resolves legislative issues between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians.

    Expediency Discernment Council

    link to en.wikipedia.org

Comments are closed.