Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013

Who will be Iran’s next president?

IRAN will elect its 17th president on June 14, 2013. The president is the highest directly elected official of Iran and the second most important person after the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not elected but selected by the assembly of experts.

If a candidate fails to poll 50% vote in the first round, then the runoff will be held on June 21. Citizens attaining 18 years are eligible to vote — Iran has 44 million voters.

The 1979 Constitution allows only two consecutive four-year terms for a president. Incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is, therefore, not in the race and the west is heaving a sigh of relief that they will not have to deal with him, any more.

Interestingly, a whopping 686 candidates registered to run for the presidency this year. But the powerful 12-member “Guardian Council of the Constitution” (6 Islamic law experts, chosen by Khamenei and 6 jurists, selected by the Majlish) approved only eight candidates. All 30 female candidates were removed from the contest.

It’s weird that unelected clerics have invested themselves with the mandate to scrutinise and select election candidates and place them before Iranian voters. The elected representatives have no authority over the string of unelected cleric bodies in Shia Iran.

Those rejected include former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (79) because of old age; former Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Chief of Staff of outgoing President Ahmedinejad.

Rafsanjani’s exclusion may unite the moderate and reformists against the clerics.

Out of the 8 nominees 6 have close links and family relations with Ali Khamenei. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (52, Progression Alliance Party), Mayor of Tehran is a former Air Force Commander, former Chief of Iranian Police and served in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He is conservative but not a cleric.

Ali-Akbar Velayati (68, Progression Alliance) medical doctor, former foreign minister and senior advisor to the supreme leader, is a conservative.

Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel (68, Progression Alliance) is a conservative and former speaker of the Parliament. His daughter is married to supreme leader’s son.

Saeed Jalili (48, Front of Islamic Revolution Stability) is a conservative and head of Iran’s National Security Council. He is also Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and enjoys support of the revolutionary guard.

Mohsen Rezaei (59, Moderation and Development Party) is also a conservative nominee and former revolutionary guard commander. He currently holds the post of secretary of the Expediency Council, which mediates between the Majlish (Parliament) and the non-elected Guardian Council.

Mohammad-Gharazi (72, independent) is not a cleric but has strong conservative views. He served previously as minister in Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s cabinet.

The two moderates are — Mohammad-Reza Aref (62, Islamic Iran Participation Front) a reformist, is former vice president, former minister and teacher of Tehran University. Hassan Rouhani (65, Association of Combatant Clerics) is a senior cleric, member of the Expediency Council and also of the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for appointing the Supreme Leader. A moderate, he served as Secretary of the National Security Council and Chief Nuclear Negotiator during presidency of Khatami.

As part of election campaign all the candidates went through three-stage-managed TV shows together. They answered questions regarding the nuclear policy, economy and domestic issues. The candidates could say very little on how to resolve the nuclear issue with P5+1. None, however, disavowed Iran’s nuclear programme.

None of the nominees provided any clear idea about foreign policy issues as it is the prerogative of Ayatollah Khamenei. All the candidates were, however, solidly behind Syria — Iran’s most important ally in the region.

Party affiliations of the candidates do not seem to be an important issue. Who will win the election is difficult to predict at this stage. Opinion polls do not give any conclusive results on who is actually leading. According to some reports Saeed Jalili may have some lead over the others. He has the support of the powerful Revolutionary Guards and if he gets the blessing of Ayatollah he may emerge winner.

But this time around, Khamenei may not support any nominee. In 2009 his support for Ahmedinejad led to serious violence and gave birth to the ‘Green Movement,’ which was brutally snuffed out after many deaths and incarceration of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former Speaker Mehdi Karroubi.

Khamenei knows that people want drastic reforms. He has therefore ensured that voting would go through in an orderly manner without the simmering Green Movement coming back to the streets.

Strict restrictions have been imposed on the press and social media.

The turn out this time may not be high as in 2009 because of disenchantment and the general belief that the vote will be rigged by the Revolutionary Guards. Yet the process has to go on to give legitimacy to the new president.

The political architecture of Iran is a complex system, which combines theocracy with democracy. The 1979 constitution provides for the Supreme Leader to control the Republican Guards, foreign policy, the nuclear issue, the media and the Baseej (pro-government militia). The president is democratically elected and is head of the executive branch of power but he is not a policy maker. In practice his powers are circumscribed by conservative clerics and the Supreme Leader.

This duality in the establishment makes the government unpredictable. Clashes have occurred between the Supreme Leader and the President. The first term of Ahmedinejad was to an extent quite, but the second term was marked by repeated wrangling with Khamenei. While the Majlish struggles continuously against the conservative clerics, the Ayatollah tries to undermine the Presidency. Ayatollah Khamenei is in fact the new “Shah” of Iran.

The world is watching with keen interest who will officially lead Iran for the next four years. Whoever wins will have an unenviable job. He will have to end Iran’s international isolation; stimulate the economy, battered by crushing UN sanctions; deal with the West over the nuclear program and handle the Syrian war.

The writer is a former Ambassador and Secretary.