As the Islamic Republic of Iran’s eleventh presidential election draws near, numerous individuals, parties, and groups are entering into the electoral fray. With less than five weeks until the June 14th vote, however, no specific candidates or factions stand out as clear and viable contenders for the presidency.
This is not particularly unusual within the framework of Iran’s political system. Compared to many other countries, Iran has a relatively short official presidential campaign cycle. This year, for example, the official registration period for presidential hopefuls began on May 7th.
After registration, prospective candidates will still have to await the results of a vetting process to receive formal approval of their presidential run. This vetting procedure, which may take up to 10 days, is conducted by a branch of the Iranian government known as the Guardian Council of the Constitution.
The Guardian Council consists of six theologians appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. Once vetting is complete, the list of approved candidates is publically announced by the Interior Ministry, which marks the official commencement of the presidential campaign cycle.
All in all, contenders have only a few weeks, from the time of this announcement until 24 hours before the day of voting, to officially campaign for votes.
This system places inherent restrictions on elections in Iran. During the vetting process, otherwise qualified candidates who are deemed insufficiently credentialed or loyal to the Islamic Republic are disqualified from running. As such, approved candidates must essentially fall under the umbrella of the “Islamic” Republic.
Since the 2009 presidential election, this umbrella has grown even smaller, excluding many reformist politicians with a long history of service to the establishment. Needless to say, those who adhere to political philosophies or parties contrary to the Islamic Republic’s ideology are also prohibited from seeking political office.
The aforementioned rules may seem to give prospective candidates a very narrow window of time to make their case to Iran’s electorate of nearly 50 million eligible voters. In reality, however, unofficial campaigning by various individuals and coalitions begins months before the election. Indeed, a number of different groups and individuals have already publicly announced their intention to stand for the presidential post. The most prominent thus far are as follows:
The term “principlist” refers to a loose coalition of individuals and groups inside Iran. The core beliefs distinguishing principlists from more moderate and reformist groups include their more conservative interpretation of Islam, more stringent adherence to the concept of “velayat-e faqih” (rule of clerical jurisprudence), and emphasis on social justice and battling corruption (as compared to the reformist emphasis on less social restrictions and more freedom of expression). Another defining characteristic has been the principlist’s comparatively uncompromising foreign policy.
With most other political parties and currents in Iran have been side-lined in recent years, the principlists are currently at the forefront of domestic politics.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad originally hailed from the principlist camps, receiving broad based support from the group in the 2005 presidential election against former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad also received principlist support during the 2009 election against reformist front-runner Mir Hossein Mousavi.
At present, however, Ahmadinejad is far from the unifying principlist figure he used to be. The seminal schism occurred in April 2011, when the President dismissed Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi. The move put Ahmadinejad directly at odds with Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Khamenei, who weeks earlier had publicly praised Moslehi, made the rare decision to overrule Ahmadinejad and reinstate the minister. In apparent protest, Ahmadinejad took the unprecedented move of abandoning his presidential duties for 11 days, an act that garnered widespread condemnation from clerics, parliamentarians, and military commanders.
Ahmadinejad has since engaged in frequent disputes with other branches of the Iranian government, particularly with the parliament. In March 2012, Iran’s legislative body summoned the country’s President for questioning, a first in the Islamic Republic’s history. During his appearance before parliament, Ahmadinejad spent an hour defending his economic policies, cabinet appointments, and 11 day abandonment of his post.
More recently, Ahmadinejad appeared before parliament to defend one of his ministers against impeachment proceedings. During this address, Ahmadinejad played an audio clip ostensibly implicating the brother of Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani in illicit dealings and corruption. In response, the President received criticism from across the Iranian political spectrum for his actions.
Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has been another source of contention between the President and his former principlist allies. Mashaei, who is thought by many to be Ahmadinejad’s groomed successor, has frequently made statements that not only contradict traditional principlist beliefs, but also in some instances challenge some of the Islamic Republic’s guiding principles.
For many within the Iranian establishment, the most egregious of these statements have been Mashaei’s comments that “the truth of Islam” is only in Iran, that Iran is “friends with the Israeli people,” and that the world must be presented with “the school of Iran.”
These nationalistic sentiments have been met with anger from senior Ayatollahs and religious hardliners, who view Mashaei’s promotion of a “superior” Iranian Islam (in contrast to Islam as practiced elsewhere) as conflicting with the Islamic Republic’s pan-Islamic ideology.
The following are the most prominent principlist groups and individuals to have announced ambitions for the presidency. It is important to note that, at this point, all principlist factions listed below are divorced from Ahmadinejad and whoever his chosen successor may be. The general consensus is that these groups all maintain relatively close ties to Khamenei.
The 2+1 Coalition
In mid-December 2012, Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, a member of parliament (MP) and close advisor to the Supreme Leader, announced the formation of a principlist coalition of candidates for the upcoming elections. This coalition was named “2+1,” and consists of Adel, former Foreign Minister and advisor to the Supreme Leader on international affairs Ali Akbar Velayati, and current Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.
The coalition’s stated aim is for each of its prospective presidential candidates to gauge the amount of support he could receive, and to then step aside in favor of the individual capable of garnering the most support.
In terms of policy positions, Velayati has focused mostly on the nation’s economic woes. He has stated that Iranians need to “see stability in prices” and that “tackling unemployment and inflation would top his agenda” as president. He has pledged to reform both the country’s foreign policies and fix its economy in three years. Velayati has also stated that he would pursue “détente” with neighboring countries, saying that “amicable ties with neighbors serves the interests of the country and guarantees national security.”
Qalibaf has gained significant popularity in Tehran due to his effective urban planning. Viewed as a pragmatic and sober statesman both on domestic issues and on foreign policy, he has recently criticized Ahmadinejad’s comments on the Holocaust, saying that “denying the Holocaust is not part of our foreign policy” and that Iran has suffered “a lot of damages in the area of foreign policy” due to such proclamations. Regarding negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Qalibaf has stated, “our legal position can only be realized through an intelligent and rational diplomacy.”
Haddad Adel, who has advanced degrees in physics and philosophy and has written many of Iran’s middle and high school textbooks on religion and social studies, has not had much executive or managerial experience. Some have said he lacks the skills necessary to manage a country like Iran.
Five-man “Followers of Imam’s Line and Leadership Front” Coalition
This coalition was formed in early April 2013 by several high profile principlist politicians. Thought by some to be a reaction to the 2+1 coalition’s failure to agree upon a unity candidate, it includes former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Deputy Speakers of Parliament Mohammad Hassan Aboutorabi-Fard and Mohammad Reza Bahonar, former Minister of the Interior Mostafa Pourmohammadi, and the head of the Tehran Chamber of Commerce, Yahya al Eshaq.
While the coalition’s goal is to unite the priniciplists, it remains to be seen if they will join the heavy weight 2+1 coalition. Aboutorabi-Fard has recently stated that the “conservative camp” will “reach a consensus” regarding the election in the coming days.
Manouchehr Mottaki was the former foreign minister of Iran for five years until he was
With regards to his policy positions, Mottaki has stated, “”I will propose a plan in line with Supreme Leader’s beliefs and the people’s demands so that in a government with the name of the Islamic Republic, the president would be more than a sympathizer for the people and give something more than a future promise.”
Bahonar is also an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad and ally of Larijani. He has pledged to increase cash subsidies, pay more attention to the provinces, and to follow parliament’s directive to revive the dormant Plan and Budget Organization.
Pourmohammadi is a mid-ranking cleric who is said to have more experience in intelligence and security affairs. He is the current head of an organization that supervises the use of government funds, and has criticized Ahmadinejad’s subsidy removal plan.
“Jebheye Paydari” (Perseverance Front)
The Perseverance Front was established in 2011 by a number of principlists, including former members of the Ahmadinejad administration and a group of MPs. They are supported by conservative cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. Bahonar has recently stated that the Five-men group might form a coalition with the Perseverance Front.
The Perseverance Front shares in the general principlist animosity toward the Ahmadinejad camp, as well as former President Rafsanjani. While primarily stemming from the 2009 election, this animosity also harkens back to the 2005 presidential election when Ahmadinejad (and his united principlist backers) defeated Rafsanjani in a run-off vote.
During the 2009 elections, Ahmadinejad targeted Rafsanjani, who had long been the center of many conspiracy theories regarding his supposed vast wealth and power. Ahmadinejad sought to portray Rafsanjani as the center of a corrupt “mafia” and to paint his main reformist rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, as Rafsanjani’s puppet.
While the Perseverance Front has been vocal in its criticism of Rafsanjani, its members also recently distanced themselves from the Ahmadinejad government.
The group has chosen Kamran Baqeri Lankarani as its nominee for the elections. Lankarani, a former health minister, has stated that “spreading the word of Islam, ensuring justice for all, and keeping campaign pledges will be high on his agenda.” Somewhat ironically, Lankarani first gained widespread public recognition in 2009 when Ahmadinejad declared “he is my peach.”
Front of the Epic Makers of the Islamic Revolution
This nascent camp of principlists consists primarily of veterans of the Iran-Iraq War. The group has announced MP Alireza Zakani as its presidential candidate.
Zakani has stated that he will focus on stabilizing the prices of goods, creating a fairer distribution of wealth, extirpating corruption, and sustaining a “more inclusive social welfare program.” He has said that “making empty promises without any effort to fulfill them was the major weakness of the Ahmadinejad’s administration.”
“Hamiane Doulat” (The Supporters of the Government)
The Hamiane Doulat is President Ahmadinejad’s main camp. Originally part in parcel with the main principlist current, the group now rivals the aforementioned principlist groups as well as the reformist and independent groups.
Many believe Ahmadinejad will put his support behind Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Given his past remarks and actions, it is highly unlikely, however, that Mashaei will receive the Guardian Council’s approval. To continue his legacy, Ahmadinejad will most likely have to settle for another, less contentious, candidate.
Since the disputed 2009 elections, the reformists have been greatly weakened and ostracized from the political system. The two main reformist candidates from 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest.
Currently, the reformists are divided on whether or not they should even participate in the elections. They are, in any event, unlikely to have a high-profile candidate, as former President Mohammad Khatami has decided not to run.
In refusing calls to seek yet another presidential term, Khatami’s main concern was that he would not receive approval from the Guardian Council, which he worries might lead to the reemergence of unrest and instability in the country.
Recently, Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi accused Khatami and Rafsanjani of “fostering” the protests that followed the 2009 election, adding, “[I]f the State has not arrested them like the leaders of the sedition, it is because of the patience that the State ha[s] towards these people.” Such statements have been interpreted as warnings to Khatami and Rafsanjani not to contemplate running for the presidency.
On the Reformist ticket now are the former head of the Mardomsalari Party (the People’s Party), Mostafa Kavakebian, the former Minister of Commerce Mohammad Shariatmadari, and former Vice-President Mohammad-Reza Aref.
Regarding foreign policy, Kavakebian has stated that “while I was in the Parliament, I presented a six-month plan which would improve Iran’s relationship with the United States, and I still insist on this plan.” He has also pledged to adopt policies that will end sanctions on Iran.
Mohammad-Reza Aref has said that his administration will seek to “interact” with all countries except Israel. He has further stated that “certain world powers” have politicized Iran’s nuclear energy case and have “created unnecessary sensitivity about it.” Aref’s main stated foreign policy objective is to seek a “win-win” compromise on nuclear negotiations.
Several individuals close to Rafsanjani have also announced their candidacy for the presidential elections. Among these are former Revolutionary Guards commander, Mohsen Rezaee, and current Secretary of the Expediency Council and former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rohani. Rohani, who also served as chief nuclear negotiator during the Khatami administration, is close to both Rafsanjani and Khamenei.
There have also been conflicting reports that Rafsanjani himself will run again for the presidency. Recently, Tehran University professor and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam has said that, “in the following days, Rafsanjani will register his name as a candidate for the presidency and Khatami and the main body of Reformists will announce their support for him.”
However, Rohani, in a bid to dismiss speculation that he would step aside in favor of Rafsanjani or Khatami, has recently said that both men have told him they will not enter the presidential race. In defending his decision to not step aside he said that changes in society are motivated only by “religion, freedom, and the people’s movement towards democracy.”
Rohani has pledged to form a cabinet with young members, to rely more on academics and technocrats, and to increase domestic production and industry. He has also stated that he will not cross any “red lines” (with respect to Supreme Leader Khamenei).
Rezaie, on the other hand, has vowed to “support domestic producers, to increase public income, to eliminate unemployment and inflation, and to strengthen the country’s agriculture sector by paying farmers green subsidies.” He has also ambiguously stated Iran must “revamp” its foreign policy to enable it to confront sanctions more effectively.
At this point, it is fair to say that it is still very unclear as to what coalition or individual would stand the best chance of winning the presidency. What is clear is that this election will be centered largely on the economy. Iran’s beleaguered economy has been on a downward spiral since sanctions substantially reduced oil exports and greatly devalued the Iranian rial.
It is also evident that, given events following the 2009 elections, Khamenei and the rest of Iran’s senior establishment are focused on ensuring that this election comes and goes without fanfare. While the final list of candidates will be revealed in a few weeks by the Guardian Council, it is evident from the current lineup that only the most pro-establishment figures will stand a chance of competing.
In contrast to earlier reports, live television debates (which took place for the first time in the 2009 election and generated much public enthusiasm) will indeed be held again during this election cycle. These debates will occur once the final list of candidates has been made public by the Interior Ministry, and will undoubtedly shed more light on the policy positions and differences between the candidates.
Arguably, the biggest wildcard in this election will be Ahmadinejad himself. Questions remain as to what Ahmadinejad would do if his preferred candidate, whether Mashaei or someone else, is barred from running. The President is currently the target of round the clock attacks in Iranian newspapers and media outlets, a clear effort to delegitimize him and his would-be representative. Ahmadinejad has hit back with his favorite tactic: threatening to expose the corrupt acts of his political adversaries.
In the end, Iran’s upcoming presidential election will serve as a critical event, testing the Islamic Republic’s ability to ensure a smooth transition of power in the face of unparalleled international sanctions and domestic political strife.
*Sina Toossi holds BA degrees in Economics and Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently a graduate student in Comparative and Regional Studies at American University’s School of International Service, with a regional concentration in the Middle East. He recently completed an internship at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
**UPDATE May 11, 2013 – former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei have formally registered as presidential candidates.