Iran’s June 14 presidential election, only about a month and a half away, will get ample attention — and more than a dose of speculation — from everyone interested in the big picture items: whether there will be an actual choice of candidates, whether the result will have an impact on the way the nuclear file will be approached, whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will go out quietly, and so on. But smaller, parallel events are fascinating because they reveal the kind of dilemmas the country’s political class faces as it tries to manage the strange institutional hybrid that it oversees.
Let’s take the case of the Guardian Council, which is in charge of vetting candidates for the presidency. This body of six clerics appointed by Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and 6 lay jurists suggested by the Judiciary head (himself appointed by the Leader) and approved by the Majles, effectively has complete leeway in deciding who can run and considers its task to be a closed affair. It doesn’t explain the reasoning behind why a particular candidate is disqualified because it doesn’t have to. As such, it’s justifiably accused of disqualifying candidates with points of view that differ from those held by its current conservative members.
This year, however, the Council may face a dilemma in vetting candidates simply because of the large number of conservative candidates who will likely apply. I would love to be a fly on the wall and listen to the reasoning behind choosing one candidate over another when they are essentially clones of each other. This was less of a problem in previous elections because there weren’t that many candidates with some sort of name recognition.
To be sure, a large number of candidates registering and even running is not new. In the Islamic Republic’s first election — when there was no vetting mechanism — 96 candidates ran. Frontrunner Abolhassan Bani Sadr won in the first round before he was booted out of office and the country in a year and a half.
In the 2005 election, the last time there was no sitting president running for reelection, the number of registered candidates topped one thousand! The Guardian Council disqualified all but 6, presumably because the overwhelming majority of them did not meet the constitutional requirement of being among the “political and religious elite” endowed with “managerial capability and prudence”; “a good past-record”; “trustworthiness and piety”; and a “convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic.” Later, upon the Leader’s prodding, the Council re-qualified two Reformist candidates it had rejected. One candidate eventually dropped out and the contest among the seven candidates went to a second round among the top two candidates — a first in the Islamic Republic. In the 2001 election, ten candidates were qualified out of over 800 registrants, but a popular president, Mohammad Khatami, was re-elected overwhelmingly in the first round.
The large number of past government officials announcing their intent to run makes this election a bit different. The competition is promising as many as 20 conservative or centrist registrants with some sort of ministerial or parliamentary background, hence qualifying them as among the elite or prominent personalities, and few political reasons for disqualifications. The parliament did try to bring some order to this unwieldy process by introducing age limits and educational requirements to the eligibility criteria. But the Guardian Council, in wanting to maintain full control over the qualification process, declared the parliamentary legislation unconstitutional.
Despite this, the Council does seem concerned. Its spokesperson Abbasali Kadkhodai said it’s in the process of developing internal guidelines regarding qualifications. Another council member, Hosseinali Amiri, said the Council is trying to clarify the exact meaning of “political elite” in terms of past experience. For instance, can a minister who has been impeached by the parliament be qualified? What level of government service is representative of sufficient managerial experience (minister? deputy minister? lower?) It’s not yet clear if any of these clarifications will be made public to set precedent for future elections.
Kadkhodai also said the Council is mulling the idea of interviewing potential candidates for their plan of action or presidency program. This is totally new and if it happens, one could call it a direct result of the “Ahmadinejad effect.” The question of whether the Council members are themselves qualified or astute enough to assess through interviews a candidate’s preparedness for running the country — it took the Iranian political class about 8 years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency to reach a consensus about his lack of competence — was not addressed by Kadkhodai.
Less new is the Council’s decision of requiring more than mere acceptance of Iran’s constitution for assessing a candidate’s commitment to the Islamic Republic. According to Kadkhodai, it’s not sufficient for a president to say that he will implement the constitution because it is the law of the land. He must also be “attached” to it and “deeply believe” in it. Kadkhodai did not elaborate on how hard it may be to figure out someone’s true beliefs and feelings in a country where pretending to be a deeply pious believer is a requirement of all government jobs. Based on this criterion, everyone is suspect.
Of course, the Guardian Council can continue to maintain the tradition of only disqualifying candidates with politics it does not approve of and qualifying everyone else with the hope that the majority will drop out in favor of candidates who are more likely to be successful. Or it can decide to live with the risk of another second run election. But as of now, it appears to be scratching its head while trying to figure out new ways to disqualify even committed believers of the Islamic Republic.
As usual, improvisation remains the name of the game in trying to manage the conflicting impulses of a system that seeks to be both Islamic and a Republic, at least in appearance.
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