This Iranian presidential election cycle differs from those of the past in that the scene is characterized by ambiguity. There is a conflict of a different form and content, and a lack of enthusiasm concerning participation among the public. Reformists are still hesitant to offer up an official candidate, given that they are not optimistic that their candidate would be accepted by the Council of Guardians or about the potential for fair elections. The conservative current — which had previously gathered around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — has witnessed a large split that has divided its supporters among four rivals. They are completely removed from Ahmadinejad, who remains alone among his enemies, the reformists, and his former friends, the conservatives.
The conservative current
It was expected that Ahmadinejad would use all of his strength to nominate his close, controversial friend [Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei], despite all the explicit criticism from within the conservative current and from Ayatollah Khamenei personally. The president began campaigning for Mashaei via official visits to the country’s provinces, and held an official ceremony for him in Azadi Stadium in Tehran.
Competition between coalitions and division has escalated in light of an absence of indicators about the supreme leader’s opinion. He was content with merely providing a general vision in his last speech given to those officials charged with setting up elections. Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, Ali Akbar Velayati and Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel have announced a coalition and they are expected to agree on a single candidate, despite the emergence of some signs of conflict in recent days. This increases the likelihood that the coalition will break up ahead of the elections.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a conservative cleric who previously supported Ahmadinejad— yet is now his current rival — announced that his official candidate is Kamran Bagheri Lankarani, the former minister of health under Ahmadinejad.
This is in addition to two other fronts within the conservative current, one that includes two candidates and one that includes three. They are known as the 2+3 Group and include a number of figures, most notably Manouchehr Mottaki, the former minister of foreign affairs, who was suddenly dismissed by Ahmadinejad, and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the former interior minister. There are no serious expectations about which candidate will win. At the same time, the announcement of the nomination of Mohsen Rezaee, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, did not receive notable interest.
In the context of the electoral campaigns — which began on an informal basis — there are mounting accusations being made by the conservative currents regarding the involvement of the candidates in corrupt financial deals and mismanagement, which has come to characterize the current period.
The reformist current
Within the reformist movement, there is almost a consensus to convince Mohammad Khatami first, or Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani second, to run in the elections. This is despite their objection to such a move, given that they doubt that their nomination would be accepted or that fair elections could be held. Ahmad Jannati, a senior member of the Guardian Council that is charged with accessing the validity of candidates, announced that those sowing sedition — referring to the reformists — should not even think about running in the coming elections.
Following a meeting with Khamenei, Rafsanjani officially announced that he had lost trust in the supreme leader. Meanwhile, Khatami announced that there were no signs indicating that he could participate in the elections, and that he needed many years of work to restore the country to what it once was, in light of the total deterioration.
Despite all that, there is hope among the reformists that they can rely on Khatami, particularly if the Guardian Council acquiesced to pressure and accepted the nomination of Mashaei, for Khatami would be the better of two evils for them.
In the same context, a number of those affiliated with the reformist movement have announced their nomination, most notably Sheikh Hassan Rouhani, the former head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. Rouhani has taken a diplomatic approach in criticizing both the reformist and conservative currents, to ensure that he is accepted by the Guardian Council, yet at the same time maintains popularity among the reformists. Next comes Mohammad-Reza Aref, who was the first vice president of Iran under Khatami. Finally, there is the nomination of Mostafa Kavakebian, who, although affiliated with the reformist current, has not achieved notable popularity among this group, and will ultimately not receive the support or vote of conservatives, but could be acceptable to Khamenei and the Guardian Council for reasons I will explain.
The supreme leader’s vision
All of these choices are linked to the supreme leader’s decisions, and to his aspirations for the coming period. The main premise here is that the leader is not ready in any way to yield to the reformists and allow them to return with their known ideas and approaches. Figures close to the supreme leader — most recently Sayyed Mohammad Khamenei, the leader’s older brother — have expressed that there is no possibility for the nomination of those who sow discord, referring to the heads of the reformist movement, particularly Khatami and Rafsanjani. These reports were confirmed by Khatami himself, when he announced that he didn’t think [his nomination] would be accepted by the authorities. The main reason for this is that it would undermine Khamenei’s authority and equate to an official announcement of his failure, making things worse than they were even before Ahmadinejad.
Nevertheless, the supreme leader is still counting on the possibility that the reformists will announce their regret regarding the events of sedition. There is a growing demand among those closest to Khamenei calling on reformist leaders to apologize, so that they can enjoy a chance to earn the forgiveness of the Islamic regime (a term usually used to refer to the supreme leader). Psychologically, such rhetoric is considered a type of enticement aimed at encouraging [reformists] to participate, yet under the cloak of Khamenei, not like they had participated previously. The flexibility and warmth of Khatami’s rhetoric indicates that he has received the message and is reciprocating. The latter announced for the first time explicitly that reform would only come with the consent of the supreme leader, and that the reformist candidate must come from within that context. However, it seems that this concession is not enough to satisfy Khamenei, who expects an explicit declaration of repentance.
In the event that Khatami does not acquiesce to the supreme leader’s wishes, and doesn’t totally submit to him, this will lead to the creation of a parallel, fake reformist front. This will come at the hands of those with reformist backgrounds who agree with Khamenei’s general trajectory, such as Kavakebian. They will bring the desired competition to change the features of the country and pump new energy into the regime. Thus, it has become very difficult for Khamenei to preserve the status quo. Everyone, including Khamenei, agrees on the need for change and the transition to a post-Ahmadinejad period.
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