No options for Iranian presidency

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 11 Jun 2024

As feared, the list of presidential candidates in Iran lacked prominent reformist figures, minorities, or women, reports Manal Lotfy

No options for Iranian presidency
Six candidates approved by Khomeini for the election race


If the final list of candidates for the Iranian presidential elections to take place on 28 June reveals anything, it is that the establishment is recycling familiar, divisive political figures for the most important positions in the country. The list, which includes candidates to succeed president Ebrahim Raisi — who died along with his companions in a plane crash in northwestern Iran on May 19 — raises significant doubts about the candidates’ ability to inspire enthusiasm among Iranians or encourage voter turnout.

Iran’s Guardian Council, responsible for electoral oversight, has greenlit six candidates: three hardliners, two pragmatic conservatives, and one reformist. Among the hardliners are former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, sometimes dubbed “Ebrahim Raisi II,” current Tehran mayor Ali Reza Zakani, whose candidacy is puzzling even within conservative circles due to his extreme views, and Amir Hossein Qazizadeh Hashemi, head of the influential Martyrs Foundation.

The pragmatic conservatives include Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, current speaker of parliament, and former Tehran mayor, and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a seasoned politician with a history in the Ministry of Intelligence, known for his approval of the execution of political opponents. The sole reformist candidate is Masoud Pezeshkian, the parliamentary representative of East Azerbaijan Province.

The most prominent contender is Qalibaf, renowned for his close ties to the Revolutionary Guards and his rapport with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, Qalibaf’s controversial past as a Revolutionary Guard general involved in the violent suppression of university students in 1999, and the reported use of live bullets against students in 2003 during his tenure as police chief, remains a subject of contention.

Jalili, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, is also a formidable candidate due to his tenure in Khamenei’s office and backing from Iran’s fundamentalist Baydari Front. While some view his approach as closest to Raisi’s, both Zakani and Hashemi claim they will follow in Raisi’s footsteps.

Reformist hopes rest on Masoud Pezeshkian, a cardiac surgeon and politician active since the 1990s, when he served as minister of health under former reformist president Mohammad Khatami. His inclusion in the final candidate list surprised many, as he is not the most prominent reformist figure. Nevertheless, the reformist camp has rallied behind him.

The inclusion of a reformist candidate appears to be a calculated move by the Supreme Leader. Excluding reformists could have led to low voter turnout, akin to the 2021 elections, which saw the lowest participation since the revolution.

Pezeshkian possesses qualifications beyond tokenism. Hailing from East Azerbaijan, he represents the approximately 25 per cent of Iranians who have Turkic roots. As a longstanding member of parliament, he enjoys significant popularity among Iranian-Azeris.

Pezeshkian advocates strongly for minority rights and their political involvement. He is outspoken in his criticism of conservatives, condemning the harsh treatment of protesters after the disputed 2009 presidential elections and criticising the handling of protests following Mahsa Amini’s death in 2022. Like his reformist peers, Pezeshkian supports easing social restrictions and improving relations with neighbouring regions and the West.

Shortly after the Guardian Council announced the final candidate list, Pezeshkian met with prominent reformist politician Mohammad Reza Arif, who pledged his support. A spokesperson for the Iranian Reforms Front, an umbrella organisation for pro-reform parties, announced a meeting to coordinate support for Pezeshkian.

Pezeshkian’s campaign will focus on addressing the economic situation, reforming public services, and promoting personal freedoms, particularly for women. As the sole reformist candidate, his chances may improve if the conservative vote splits among two or three candidates.

However, his ideological stance may not align with the Supreme Leader’s preferences. Even if elected, Pezeshkian would face significant challenges from conservative-dominated institutions, potentially leading to an isolated administration similar to former reformist president Hassan Rouhani’s second term.

The final candidate list brought several surprises, notably the rejection of veteran politician Ali Larijani, who served as speaker of parliament from 2008 to 2020 and led nuclear negotiations as Secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council. Larijani’s strained relations with the Supreme Leader and conservatives, stemming from his defence of former president Rouhani and support for the 2015 nuclear agreement with the West, may have played a role in his exclusion. The lack of transparency in the selection process makes it challenging to understand why Larijani’s nomination was rejected.

However, reformists believe Larijani’s exclusion reflects the conservative movement’s fear of his broad support among reformists, pragmatists, and some conservatives. They view him as the only candidate capable of defeating any conservative contender. Larijani also enjoys considerable support among clerics in Qom, with his brother Sadiq Larijani being a prominent cleric and jurist, and a potential candidate for the position of Supreme Leader after Khamenei. Some suspect that Ali Larijani’s potential presidency could bolster his brother Sadiq’s chances, contributing to his rejection.

Despite calls from some ayatollahs in Qom to reconsider Larijani’s exclusion, the final candidate list effectively ended these efforts. In a letter on Monday, Larijani thanked the Grand Ayatollahs in Qom and criticised the Guardian Council for rejecting his candidacy again.

Once again, the final list of candidates failed to reflect the political-ideological and ethnic diversity that Iran enjoys, as it was devoid of the names of major reformist candidates, as well as candidates from Arab or Kurdish minorities or women.

While Ghalibaf and Jalili may be Khamenei’s preferred candidates, he cannot ignore the will of the Iranian people completely. The reformists understand this and recognise that their path to the presidency entails convincing Khamenei that they are a safe choice.

To achieve this, they must demonstrate their ability to reduce tensions with the West, lift economic sanctions, strengthen regional relations, attract international investments, improve the economic situation, and protect Iran’s national security. Above all, they must uphold the principles of the 1979 Revolution as Khamenei envisions them.

Therefore, the reformists need to navigate carefully, balancing seemingly conflicting objectives. They must work to improve relations with the West and lift sanctions without compromising Iran’s sovereignty or its right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme. They must also implement necessary internal reforms without destabilising the state.

Khamenei instinctively distrusts the reformists, considering them “too naive” for repeatedly having faith in the West, especially the US. He fears that their push for internal reforms could undermine the entire regime, akin to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Given his advanced age, Khamenei probably prefers a conservative candidate who aligns ideologically with him and is supported by the country’s conservative institutions. Thus, the nomination of a reformist figure might merely serve to embellish the electoral scene and persuade Iranians to vote, avoiding a repeat of the 2021 election boycott.

It is highly probable that no candidate will win outright in the first round, leading to a runoff on July 5. The potential presence of a reformist versus a conservative candidate could ignite much-needed enthusiasm among Iranian voters. Declining voter turnout poses a significant problem for the regime as it signals the erosion of the 1979 revolutionary state’s legitimacy. Khamenei’s deep fear of the alarming and steady decline in popular participation in the elections may force him to reconsider his calculations.

Supporters of the reformist movement also face tough decisions in the next few days, particularly whether to vote or not to vote, especially knowing that the political process in recent years was designed to exclude them. Participating and uniting behind the sole reformist candidate, some argue, could pressure Khamenei into allowing fair elections. Alternatively, boycotting the elections would expose the regime and delegitimise the current elections, which may be in the interest of the reformists in the long term. These are two difficult choices, and the reformists have not yet made up their minds.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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