Friday, May 24, 2013

Will Iran’s Next President Be Elected or Selected?

Iranian Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot in Tehran in parliamentary elections in 2012.

On Tuesday May 21, Iran’s Guardian Council announced the names of eight candidates vetted and approved to run for president in the nation’s upcoming June 14 election. The names of the two most high-profile aspirants,former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and top Ahmadinejad aide Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, both of whom were last minute registrants and subject to endless voter and media speculation, were not on the list.

The approved candidates are Saeed Jalili, Gholamali Haddad Adel, Mohsen Rezaei, Hassan Rowhani, Mohammad Reza Aref, Seyed Mohammad Gharazi, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, and Ali Akbar Velayati.

Brief profiles of all the candidates have been posted by BBC News and the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA).

Addressing his campaign staff after his disqualification, Rafsanjani said, “I know that I shouldn’t have run. I know them better than anyone else.” He added, with regard to the constant threats facing Iran from the United States and Israel, “In my opinion, with these scenarios and paths to destruction, they [the Iranian leadership] couldn’t possibly have managed the country worse. I don’t want to get involved in their types of attacks, but their ignorance is troubling. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Nevertheless, Rafsanjani told his supporters, “Don’t despair. Under no condition should anyone be discouraged.”

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), did not heed these words. Parsi is disheartened by the vetted field of candidates and namely by the rejection of Rafsanjani, which he views as a sign that the remaining democratic institutions and aspects of the Islamic Republic are rapidly contracting, signaling a political move by Khamenei “in the direction of complete dictatorship.”

“The differences between the approved candidates (with the exception of Hassan Rowhani and Mohammad-Reza Aref) are insignificant,” he writes, “and [] this is not so much an election by the people as it is a selection by Ayatollah Khamenei.”

Despite his own misgivings, New York Times best-selling author Hooman Majd has a slightly less pessimistic view. In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, Majd pushes back against “commentators [who, due to the disqualifications of Rafsanjani and Mashaei] have assumed that the Iranian public will approach the election with apathy, maybe even hostility.”

“[J]ust because the vote is not entirely free and fair,” he writes, “does not mean that Iranians will treat it as unimportant.” Contrary to Parsi’s determination, Majd notes that “it might be a mistake to lump the remaining candidates together,” noting that their economic and diplomatic portfolios present the Iranian electorate with at least some options.

He elaborates on a few of the front-runners:
Saeed Jalili, the current secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and top nuclear negotiator, is generally considered a staunch conservative and a loyal technocrat; if he were to win, he would likely follow the supreme leader’s advice and orders to the letter. That means it is unlikely Iran would offer a new tone in nuclear talks — indeed, in economic terms, it appears that his view on sanctions is that in the long run they help Iran by making the country more self-sufficient. (That view may not sit well with voters who are currently suffering the effects of those sanctions.)
Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the charismatic and highly regarded mayor of Tehran, is known as a pragmatic conservative; although many reformists and regime opponents inside Iran resent his past as a Revolutionary Guard commander and police chief, others recognize that he is less of an ideologue when it comes to social issues in Iran. As mayor, he has earned a reputation as an efficient manger, and as president, he would likely emphasize improving Iran’s international economic ties.
Hassan Rowhani, for his part, is a substantially different candidate than both Jalili and Qalibaf. As a a close associate of Rafsanjani and one-time nuclear negotiator under former President Muhammad Khatami, he could certainly change the tone, if not the substance, of nuclear diplomacy, and thus improve Iran’s relations with the outside world. Furthermore, although he is a cleric, he is not known for hard-line social views. If Rowhani earns the backing of Rafsanjani and Khatami, as some suggest he might, he is likely to introduce familiar faces from earlier reformist administrations into his own cabinet to help determine social and economic policy.
As for the presumed disinterest on the Iranian street, Majd suggests a bit of skepticism and humility. ”[N]o one can predict when one of the candidates will figure out how to energize Iranians this time around — whether Rowhani, for example, can ignite the race by appealing to reformists and what is left of the opposition, or whether Qalibaf can leverage his charisma and popularity as mayor of Iran’s largest city,” he explains, concluding, “In short, it would be presumptuous to think of the election as simply a rubber stamp for the authority of the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards.”

For what it’s worth, an online (and admittedly non-scientific) poll on the Iranian news site Asr-e Iran currently shows Rowhani leading the pack with nearly 35% of the vote, while the low-profile reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref has almost 21% and Qalibaf just under 20%. Conservative candidates, those most closely aligned with Khamenei himself, trail far behind. The presumed favorite Jalili has barely 9%; Velayati only 6%.

Whether this accurately reflects the preferences of Iran’s voters obviously remains to be seen.


Originally posted at Muftah.


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