The Supreme Leader Plays it Safe

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Iranians are scheduled to vote on June 14 in their country’s presidential election, the first since the contentious 2009 race which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reelected amid heavy protests. The new elections have naturally drawn the attention of regional and international observers. The last-minute candidacy of former president (and current expediency council chairman) Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani promised, according to most commentators, to make the race an unpredictable one. Rafsanjani’s candidacy, together with the presence of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei from Ahmadinejad’s camp, would have meant that candidates loyal to Supreme Leader Khamenei would need to come together and rally around one single candidate. Instead of facing such an uncertain race, the supreme leader excluded both Rafsanjani and Mashaei from running — restricting the ballot to eight approved and undoubtedly conservative candidates. It is now certain that the next president of Iran will be loyal to the supreme leader.

From the beginning of the registration process, it was clear that the religious establishment in Tehran was taking no chances. In an article for Asharq Alawsat, Amir Taheri pointed out that “By all accounts, the Tehran leadership is nervous about the whole exercise. On the eve of registration, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave a curtain-raising speech, urging the people to ‘create a historic epic.’… Iranian elections resemble the primaries of political parties in the United States. Though not organized as a party, the Khomeinist establishment is a single ideological bloc divided into different tendencies….This is not about electing a president in the normal sense of the term. It is about choosing a ‘yes-man’ for the supreme leader. Are the Iranians still interested in this? We shall know on polling day.”

Recent reports by various news agencies have made it clear that, for the regime, the candidates’ attitudes towards the United States and the related issue of sanctions are of primary importance: “The head of Iran’s powerful Council of Guardians said Friday the watchdog may disqualify candidates who seek full relations with the United States. Speaking during Friday prayers in Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati announced that some nominees may hope that international sanctions over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program will end if the country restores relations with the United States.”

With the violence in the aftermath of the 2009 elections still fresh in their minds, and in an attempt to delegitimize any efforts to contest the election outcome, government officials have also cautioned that “The MKO ringleaders who ordered the terrorist group’s members to create tumult and carry out sabotage acts in Iran during the 2009 presidential election are now trying to find new ways to repeat the same events during the June voting. In pursuit of the same goals, the MKO members have been ordered to make use of all means, including social networks, websites and weblogs, to incite conflicts in the Iranian society before the election and even kill people in Iran to blame the Iranian security forces for their deaths.”

Despite all the talk of outside interference, the greatest worry for the religious establishment remained the presidential field itself. No wonder, then, that the Council of Guardians decided to exclude both Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei from the list of candidates allowed to compete in the election. The return of the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani as a presidential candidate was seen by many as a challenge to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.  Khamenei’s move to exclude threatening candidates shows he much prefers several loyalist principlist candidates contesting the election among themselves.

Rafsanjani’s entry, together with that of another candidate handpicked by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei—initially changed that calculation and made the outcome more unpredictable: “If Hashemi Rafsanjani is elected, he would not be a yes-man to Khamenei at a time that the supreme leader is building a cult of personality as the leader of all Muslims throughout the world, a man whose every utterance is Fasl Al-Khitab, which means the final word on all issues of religion and politics. Mashaei is an even greater threat to Khamenei…. It is no secret that Khamenei would hate to see either Hashemi Rafsanjani or Mashaei as president.”

Prior to being banned from running for president, Rafsanjani’s bid had already garnered support from various political parties, with two more parties, according to  Tehran Times, expressing their support over the weekend: “Two pro-reform parties, namely Solidarity Party and Reforms Popular Front, issued separate statements on Sunday, announcing their support for the candidacy of Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani for the June 14 presidential election.”

But it was clear that Rafsanjani was going to get pushback from the religious establishment, as Arab News’ Ali Bluwi cautioned, which led many to question whether he would in the end qualify as a candidate: “Rafsanjani is fully committed to the principles of Iran. And yet, he is more aware than others of Iranian interests and the need to realize the formula of stability and security. This formula is something that clergymen fear most. Indeed, internal and external stability can contribute to a transformation that can lead to reorientation in foreign policy in such a way that would clip the wings of the clergymen.”

There were some, including Al Hayat’s Abdullah Iskandar, who wondered how significant a Rafsanjani presidency might have turned out: “In case Rafsanjani actually reaches the presidency, this would mean that great change has occurred at the level of the balance of powers within the regime, due to the consecutive crises linked to the major military programs supervised by the Guard, the political predicament in the country due to the stringency of the religious leaders, and the mounting economic crisis due to the mismanagement of the situation and the international sanctions.”

It is undeniable that Rafsanjani’s last minute entry held out the promise of shaking the presidential field, with several principlists immediately calling for the need for a common standard bearer. Tehran Times, for example, reports on one of the principlist (loyal to the supreme leader) candidates, Alireza Zakani, who called for more convergent policies among the principlists: “Alireza Zakani has said that his priority will be resolving the economic problems facing the country if he is elected president….He said that his plans had been designed based on Islamic principles and the guidelines set by the late Imam Khomeini, the Founder of the Islamic Republic, and the Supreme Leader. Elsewhere in his remarks, he stated that it would be in the principlists’ interests if they adopt more convergent policies ahead of the election.”

The question soon became who got to decide which of the principlist candidates stayed on and who dropped out in the case of a competitive race. According to a report by the Iranian news agency, Fars News, one of the top aides to Ayatollah Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, “who is also a presidential hopeful, said the principlist candidates who registered their name as candidates for the upcoming presidential election will soon show more convergence to boost their chance of winning the race….Velayati said upcoming polls will show who will be the proper candidate to represent the principlists in the election”

The truth is, with or without Rafsanjani and Mashaei in the list, many believe two main candidates will ultimately emerge from principlist camp. In his column on Al Monitor, Shahid Saless argues: “Ultimately, the principlists need to gather around a person who is not only in line with the leader but is also publicly popular to be able to compete…. There are two considerable choices before the principlists: Ghalibaf and Jalili. Most polls show that Ghalibaf is certainly the most popular figure among principlist candidates….On the other hand, Saeed Jalili is a person in whom Iran’s leader has previously put his full confidence. Jalili has been leading Iran’s nuclear negotiations with world powers, not only as the head of the negotiating team but also as the leader’s personal representative. Jalili’s problem is that he holds no considerable position in any polls; in other words, he has no popular support.”

In the end, none of these candidates need to worry about the need to come together. With one swift move, the religious establishment has made the Rafsanjani and Mashaei challenges moot.  Though Ahmadinejad has vowed to contest the disqualification of Mashaei, it is clear that much of the uncertainty has been taken out of an election that, at least for a few days, held out the promise of delivering a verdict that could have proven problematic for the supreme leader.

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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