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Iran's Election: The Men Who May Be Also-Rans

In the span of the past week, the field of candidates for Iran’s presidential election has winnowed from 686 to 8, thanks to the theocratic system's heavy-handed vetting process, and now media speculation is converging even more narrowly around a single apparent front-runner— nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. And yet as I pointed out in a previous post, the drumbeat of inevitability surrounding Jalili may well be overstated, at least for the moment. Much can happen over the course of the next 15 days, and recent Iranian history suggests that it’s worth the effort to learn a bit about the longshots. In the Islamic Republic, today’s unknown may be tomorrow’s upset winner of the presidency.

In addition to Jalili, the field includes 7 other political figures intended to satisfy various constituencies and present a veneer of competition and diversity to a deeply cynical and depoliticized public. There are at least two serious contenders who stand a credible prospect of gaining momentum in this race; two additional candidates who, despite limited public traction, could credibly fill out the office of the presidency while ensuring its absolute impotence; two candidates whose inclusion reflects a grudging nod toward assuaging relevant political constituencies; and finally, an independent candidate who is a political entrepreneur.  

The Contenders

Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf has sought to establish himself as the hardliner with a modern touch and a problem-solver above the fray of Iran’s mostly ineffective politicians. Since his precocious heroism as a young Revolutionary Guard commander in the Iran-Iraq war, Qalibaf has fashioned a forward-leaning international profile, with appearances at Davos and recurrent unsubtle efforts to reach out to Washington. After the war, Qalibaf went on to leading positions in the Basij and the IRGC engineering wing, and as a commander of the IRGC Air Force despite an admitted unfamiliarity with aircraft. In 1999, he was one of 25 Revolutionary Guard commanders who signed an unprecedented letter demanding then-President Khatami prevent any recurrence of the July 1999 student protests, an early ominous sign of the Guard’s new political muscle and an episode that helped catapult Qalibaf to head of the national police. He resigned to run for the presidency in 2005, but despite apparent early momentum in that race finished a disappointing fourth in the first round. He regrouped by securing the Tehran mayoralty, succeeding his former rival and emerging as a perennial favorite among the foreign press and punditry. The interest is not unjustified. Qalibaf boasts an impressive resume, a powerful base of support thanks to his enterprising oversight of the country's largest city, and a much more fluid and compelling media presence than his rivals. However, the very balancing act he seeks to achieve— managerial competence and impeccable ideological credentials— may be inherently unsustainable and/or self-negating. Reports of Qalibaf’s boasts about his role in the 1999 crackdown have strengthened misgivings among moderates, while his public self-promotion unnerves traditionalists. Still, the Qalibaf camp is pushing recent poll data that suggests he has a clear lead among his own constituents.

Hassan Rouhani is the only cleric in the race and yet, as a close confidante of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, he offers the most pointed challenge to the current order. By that same token, of course, he is presumably the least viable prospect of prevailing in a system that is utterly determined to neutralize potential threats. Rouhani was one of the earliest and most vociferous public critics of Ahmadinejad's economic and foreign policies within the Iranian political establishment. He is also the only candidate among the approved slate who has called for the release of imprisoned reformist leaders Mir Hussain Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, including in comments made since his registration for the election. Rouhani appears to be waging a hard-hitting battle for his own redemption, trading thinly-veiled accusations with Jalili over nuclear negotiations and offering a pugnacious defense of his own record. The most peculiar aspect of his candidacy is his relationship to the Supreme Leader, which has apparently survived Khamenei's own disparagement of Rouhani's approach to the nuclear issue sufficiently to facilitate his approval by the Guardians' Council. Rouhani's clerical garb and limited electoral experience may constrain his traction with the general public, but prospective endorsements from his allies Rafsanjani and Khatami could ignite more interest in a candidate who has demonstrated a willingness to confront the Islamic Republic's red lines.

The Stand-Bys

Former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati offers the ultimate fallback candidate for the Supreme Leader, which would extend a pattern of Khamenei’s patronage that began more than three decades ago. In 1981, then-President Khamenei sought to nominate Velayati for the more influential post of prime minister, but was rebuffed by a parliament who saw the former pediatrician and health ministry official as having insufficiently revolutionary credentials. The nod instead went to Mir Hussain Moussavi, whose tenure was marked by frictions with Khamenei and who would later return to run himself in 2009. Velayati went on to serve as foreign minister for 16 years, representing Iran in the diplomacy of war as well as peace, and eventually helping to lead Iran’s post-war outreach to the region and beyond, including China. He was replaced after the election of President Khatami, but maintained his role as a trusted interlocutor for Khamenei with key external audiences, particularly in the Gulf. He has some appeal to Iranian centrists and others who see him a stabilizing force, capable of rebuilding Iran’s reputation abroad and even engaging with the West. His disadvantages are his age and his reputation as an errand-boy rather than an agenda-setter.

Gholamali Haddad Adel, the former speaker of the parliament, is a somewhat unlikely politician. He is philosopher who only squeaked into the parliament in the fiercely contested 2000 election thanks to a recount. His most powerful credential is one that reflects the many layers of interconnection among the Iranian elites: his daughter is married to Khamenei’s reputedly powerful son Mojtaba. Haddad Adel is reliably conservative, but tends to elicit less public controversy or drama than some of his peers. He lost the speakership in 2008, after Ahmadinejad encouraged his faction to support the nuclear negotiator whom he had just forced out, Ali Larijani, in what was seen as an attempt to sideline both Haddad Adel and Larijani in the run-up to the 2009 race. Haddad Adel’s tenure as speaker is not viewed as a particularly successful one in terms of institutional leadership, and he seems better suited to his perennial chairmanship of the parliament’s Cultural Committee. Like Velayati, Haddad Adel owes his ascendance to Khamenei, and probably stands as a younger-generation back-up candidate in case the Jalili experiment crashes and burns. Still, it would be a mistake to discount him entirely. His familial ties to Khamenei clearly carry weight, and his academic credentials— early university degrees in physics, supplanted by a doctorate in philosophy— hint at an intellectual capacity that is almost surely deeper than, for example, Jalili.

The Placeholders

Mohammad Reza Aref, who served as vice president under reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami, seems to epitomize the fading fortunes of Iran's reform movement. A  technocrat with advanced engineering degrees from Stanford University, Aref has sought to emphasize his managerial credentials and empathy with the economic problems of ordinary Iranians. He has a serious pedigree, including stints heading Tehran University and the Manpower and Plan Organization, which until its recent gutting by Ahmadinejad had served as the centerpiece of economic policy-making in Iran since the 1960s. However, Aref lacks the rhetorical flair or the personal charisma of Khatami, who has been mentoring him. Most of the coverage of Aref since the final candidates' list was released has focused on whether and when Aref might quit the race and throw his support behind Rouhani.

Mohammad Gharazi, who held ministerial posts in the 1980s and 1990s, is something of a dark horse in the race. His early statements suggest that even he was shocked to have made the final cut, as he has no staff, headquarters or website for that matter. Gharazi helped found the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and served as deputy governor of Khuzestan, where he won plaudits for uncovering and viciously repressing an alleged plot by local military forces. Then-President Khamenei briefly tapped him in 1981 as a possible prime minister after his first choice, Velayati, was rejected by the parliament. Gharazi’s nomination was also quashed, and instead he served as oil minister during the early years of the war. He brought to that post an industry background, impeccable revolutionary credentials (including prison and exile stints under the Shah), and an aggressive attitude toward OPEC and Iran's fellow oil producers that was consistent with Iranian foreign policy at the time. During his tenure as head of Rafsanjani's telecommunications ministry, Gharazi facilitated Iran's adoption of information technology, including active efforts to lure foreign investment and equipment. However, he has also been the subject of international legal scrutiny over apparent connections to the assassins who killed former Iranian prime minister Shahpour Baktiar in his Parisian exile in 1991. For the past 16 years, Gharazi has kept a relatively low profile, and his selection was probably intended to assuage traditionalists and the merchant community that their interests, and their fellow travelers, will not be disregarded in this election and its aftermath.

The Entrepreneur

Mohsen Rezaei is the rare repeat candidate in Iran’s presidential elections whose political significance may have transcended his intended goal. Rezaei commanded the Revolutionary Guards until 1997, when he was given a largely ceremonial post as secretary of the Expediency Council. He also fit in time to earn a Ph.D in economics from Tehran University, which he has touted to distinguish himself from the pack. However, in two previous bids for the presidency, Rezaei has managed to generate only a minimum of public interest, withdrawing in the final days of the 2005 contest and securing a mere 1.7 percent of the vote in 2009. And yet while his electoral ambitions seem perennially ill-fated, Rezaei has proven himself a political force to be reckoned with through his association with two path-breaking websites, Baztab and Tabnak. The sites display a fascinating array of objectives – part news reporting and aggregation, part rumor-mongering, and a healthy dose of personal and institutional vanity project. Still, along the way they have drawn Iran’s factional competition into a new and more public dimension, as demonstrated by the recent arrest of a Baztab journalist who wrote about a taped threat by Ahmadinejad to disclose dirty laundry that would demonstrate the orchestration of the 2009 election.