Over the past year, outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters have been threatening to react strongly if their candidate for the upcoming June 14 presidential elections is rejected by the Guardian Council. The candidate, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s senior adviser and close relative (he is father-in-law of Ahmadinejad’s son), along with former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, were declared unqualified by the Council. While many had anticipated Ahmadinejad’s forceful response, he has been remarkably calm.
At a festival for bloggers, Ahmadinejad said, “We are still here, and our work has only begun. The man of Spring is not here [in the race], but be patient.” In recent speeches, both Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have been invoking ”spring,” a reference to the Arab Spring, to motivate their supporters, claiming that Mashaei’s election will be tantamount to an Iranian Spring.
Criticizing security forces and the judiciary, Mashaei has said, “The era of shame [for their foes] has arrived. We will definitely be victorious.” He made the claim again on Sunday May 26, insisting, “We have the highest number of votes, and will win emphatically.” In response, former Minister of Intelligence Ali Fallahian declared, “Ahmadinejad and Mashaei do not have significant support and cannot do anything.”
While some have interpreted Ahmadinejad’s non-reaction as a sign that he is powerless to do anything and that his bluster was always a bluff, another possibility is emerging, one that has surprised many. It appears that Ahmadinejad and his supporters have begun expressing support for Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council.
Javan, an online mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps [IRGC], claims that Ahmadinejad will ultimately support the candidacy of Jalili, and that Ahmadinejad’s silence about Mashaei’s rejection by the Guardian Council implies that he indeed has his own candidate in the elections: none other than Jalili himself. Javan referred to Jalili as “another copy of the 2005 Ahmadinejad” [the article was removed after several hours].
Interestingly, after Alef, a website published by Majles [Iranian Parliament] deputy Ahmad Tavakkoli, criticized Jalili, Iran’s official news agency IRNA, which is managed by the Ahmadinejad administration, responded to Tavakkoli and referred to Jalili as a representative of the “Islamic Revolution discourse,” the same slogan Ahmadinejad’s supporters have been using ever since he came to power in 2005.
Subsequently, on Saturday May 25, Raayehe Zohoor, a pro-Ahmadinejad website, declared that Jalili has, in fact, been Ahmadinejad’s true candidate, praised Jalili lavishly, and claimed that, with Jalili’s election, Ahmadinejad’s influence will continue.Omidvar Rezaei, brother of Mohsen Rezaei (who is one of the eight approved presidential candidates, was the IRGC chief for 16 years, and is currently secretary-general of the Expediency Council), also said that Ahmadinejad supports Jalili and his government has planned extensively for his candidacy.
There is evidence that Rezaei is correct. For instance, Jalili’s first campaign rally was attended by several of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet members, including Sayyed Mohammad Hossein, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, as well as reactionary cleric Hamid Rasaei and Mehdi Koochakzadeh, both hardline Majles deputies and ardent Ahmadinejad supporters. Shabakeh Iran, a website consistently supportive of Ahmadinejad, also praised Jalili and attacked those who present him as “authoritarian and inflexible.”
Meanwhile, Abdolreza Davari, a former deputy director of IRNA, current managing editor of the new Red Crescent Society-funded newspaper Shahrvand, and well-known supporter of Mashaei, wrote in an editorial that Jalili is “a representative of the Hezbollah that consists of the Basij militia, the IRGC and religious groups.” Thus, Davari concluded, he could be a suitable replacement for Mashaei.
Even more evidence for a Ahmadinejad-Jalili coalition emerged when Mohammad Reza Aghamiri, an analyst for the Bultan [Bulletin] News, a website controlled by the security and intelligence forces, was appointed as head of Jalili’s campaign in the province of Tehran. An economist by training, Aghamiri previously worked in the Office of Inspection of the President in the Ahmadinejad administration and, thus, has close relations with his team. Writing in the reformist newspaper Bahar, Hadi Haghshenas noted that Jalili will continue “the economic discourse” of Ahmadinejad’s administration.
Although it would be surprising for Ahmadinejad himself to formally endorse Jalili, it has been known for years now that the two men are close. In fact, Jalili was Ahmadinejad’s first choice for Foreign Minister when he was elected in 2005, a choice Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blocked in favor of Manouchehr Mottaki. Two years later, in October 2007, Ahmadinejad abruptly dismissed then chief nuclear negotiator and secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Larijani and replaced him with Jalili. Larijani, currently the Majles Speaker, has always been very close to Khamenei and his firing surprised many. In August 2009, when Ahmadinejad was putting together the cabinet for his second administration, he tried to replace Mottaki with Jalili but was blocked again. Ahmadinejad eventually fired Mottaki in December 2010, again without telling Khamenei in advance.
Meanwhile, fissures have apparently emerged in the IRGC ranks about whom to support in the upcoming elections. A reliable and informed source in Tehran told this writer that 15,000 members of the Basij militia, a paramilitary branch of the IRGC, are working with Jalili on his campaign.
Jalili is also widely believed to be Khamenei’s and, thus, the IRGC’s choice for the presidency. However, two reports indicate that the high command of the IRGC is not unified behind Jalili.
Mohammad Reza Bahonar, Second Deputy Majles Speaker and an influential traditional conservative, said that some of the IRGC senior commanders prefer Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. Qalibaf, a retired IRGC Brigadier General and former commander of its air force, as well as former commander of the national police, was also a candidate in the 2005 presidential elections and was widely believed to be Khamenei’s choice in those elections. However, Khamenei eventually withdrew his support and threw it behind Ahmadinejad, who cruised to victory in a second round run-off against Rafsanjani. Two informed sources in Tehran told this writer that Khamenei withdrew his support when he was presented with evidence of highly illegal activities [whose nature this writer was asked not to reveal].
Bahonar also said he was surprised that Jalili was confirmed by the Guardian Council, while other more experienced candidates were rejected. He added that when Jalili entered the race at the last moment, some people thought that he must be the candidate of the “highest officials” of the state.
Mehr, a news agency owned by the Organization for Islamic Propaganda, reported that Ayatollah Sayyed Yahya Jafari, the Friday prayer Imam of the south-central Iranian city of Kerman and Khamenei’s representative in the region, met with Qalibaf and told him that Major General Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s elite Qods Force, had told him that he supports Qalibaf in the elections and will vote for him. This is highly significant, as Soleimani, one of the most formidable IRGC officers and part of its strategic brain trust, is believed to be highly popular within the force.
As such, even though the most important challengers to the hardliners, namely, former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Rafsanjani, are not present in the race, the Iranian elections – if one can call them as such, given their inherent limitations – still contain intrigue and behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Given the extremely complex and contentious nature of Iranian politics, the only thing one can always expect are plenty of surprises.
*Muhammad Sahimi, a Professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has been analyzing Iran’s political developments and its nuclear program for nearly two decades. His analyses have been published by both the mainstream media and various websites. He is co-founder and editor of the website Iran News & Middle East Reports.