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Iran’s Guardians Versus The ‘Grey Eminence’

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has found his field of dreams, with Tuesday’s announcement of the list of eight candidates who secured approval to run in Iran’s upcoming presidential election. The most remarkable aspect about the list was the two names that were missing: those of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a two-term former president and one of the founders of the revolutionary state, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, whose infamy within Iran almost eclipses that of his primary patron, current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The decision probably paves the way for an anodyne campaign that displays— with one key exception— mindless deference to the ideological strictures of Khamenei’s rule.

The announcement came near nightfall in Tehran, where rainy weather as well as the preemptive deployment of riot police and an internet slowdown helped ensure that the news was digested quietly. While it is improbable that the candidate list itself could spark street riots, today’s Islamic Republic takes no chances. The security measures reflected the overabundance of caution that has characterized Iran’s political environment since the post-election unrest of 2009, when an unexpectedly exuberant reaction to a regime stalwart persuaded the Supreme Leader to effectively dispense with the pretense of a credible vote-count and declare victory for his then-favored son, Ahmadinejad.

Ever the pragmatist, Rafsanjani navigated that crisis warily, and only ever advocated a truce with the opposition Green Movement that emerged briefly in its wake. Still, the prospective candidacy of a politician whom a dissident once dubbed the ‘Grey Eminence’ for his Machiavellian tendencies buoyed the hopes of the vestiges of the Green Movement and of the reformists who had preceded them. That development surely helped seal his fate for this ballot. Rafsanjani’s rejection provoked some surprise and plenty of cynicism, as the figment of the regime’s adherence to procedural correctness was abandoned for a wholesale embrace of the primacy of absolute obedience.

However absurd the Islamic Republic’s vetting process has been in the past – and more than two dozen elections over the course of 34 years have provided plenty of fodder – the suggestion that a man who has been at the apex of power in the Islamic Republic since its inception no longer meets its constitutional standards for the presidency carries the farce to a new level. Rafsanjani sits on the Assembly of Experts, which appoints Iran’s supreme leader, and leads its Expediency Council, which adjudicates challenges to proposed legislation. The determination that he is unfit for the presidency inevitably calls into question the credibility of these other institutions. The other rationale on offer— the aspersions on Rafsanjani’s advanced age (78) that were invoked by a number of conservative power brokers— is similarly insupportable. The Islamic Republic is, after all, a clerical gerontocracy. Rafsanjani may be closing in on 80, but he cuts a relatively spry figure among the Iranian political establishment, including by comparison with its late founder who seized power as a septuagenarian.

Rafsanjani’s rejection suggests that the Supreme Leader— along with his key constituencies in the traditional clergy and the Revolutionary Guard— saw Rafsanjani’s electoral exclusion as a lesser threat than his inclusion. Apparently they calculated that his prospects for animate a challenge to the system as a candidate outweighed the possibility that his rejection would alienate the establishment or provoke popular unrest. For a regime that is increasingly incapable of tolerating mass political engagement, it was probably a judicious call.

Iranians are watching Rafsanjani’s next step closely. The Iranian press and social media are abuzz with reports: one of his sons asserts that he would not challenge disqualification, while his daughter notes that he rejected pressure to withdraw his candidacy quietly. The former president has apparently retreated to Qom, a move that may invoke powerful symbolism from Iranian history, when protestors against an unjust monarch took sanctuary in Qom. However, it remains unclear whether Rafsanjani’s retreat is intended to bolster his case with support from the country’s powerful seminaries, or intended to lick his wounds and spare his dignity.

The Rafsanjani saga is spellbinding, but it is possible to make too much of his rejection. Over the past 10 days, I’ve been somewhat skeptical of the emerging Rafsanjani-as-Iranian-savior meme for a couple of reasons. First, it’s simply impossible to know what if any popular mandate Rafsanjani could command. After all, his last successful bid for elective office took place 20 years ago, a time that it is at most a hazy memory for the majority of Iran’s disproportionately young population. Since that time, he lost two subsequent attempts at the ballot box, a 2000 parliamentary campaign and the 2005 run against Ahmadinejad for the presidency.

His losses reflected his profoundly mixed reputation among ordinary Iranians, if my own anecdotal experience is any guide. The image of the former president as an infallible architect of economic reform is in fact greatly exaggerated. He did spearhead the post-war reconstruction program against considerable domestic opposition, but his policies also instigated a destabilizing debt crisis and spiraling inflation. Rafsanjani’s reputation for personal enrichment, the ascendance of his sons and daughters and nephew, and the culture of crony capitalism that emerged during his tenure left deep resentments among ordinary Iranians whose share of the post-war spoils typically did not expand.

And for all the outrage over his exclusion, it’s worth recalling that Rafsanjani knows a thing or two about rigging elections. In his first election to the presidency in 1989, he ran virtually uncontested; the Council of Guardians rejected all but one of the other 80 prospective candidates who applied. His opponent, a former agriculture minister and parliamentarian, was perceived at the time as merely “a name to fill out the ballot sheet,” who chivalrously articulated no opposing views in helping Rafsanjani cruise to a margin of 94 percent of the vote. His 1993 reelection was only mildly more competitive with three rivals approved out of 128 aspirants. In the interim, Rafsanjani helped engineer the culling of leftist candidates from the 1992 parliamentary elections on the grounds that they opposed his economic reforms.

In Iran, what goes around tends to come around, and the curtains probably closed on Rafsanjani’s opportunity to lead the Islamic Republic out of its ideological wilderness years or even decades ago. He will remain a force to be reckoned with in the arena, most notably through his longstanding ally Hassan Rouhani, whose bid to run managed to pass the Guardians’ Council scrutiny. Rouhani has nowhere near the name recognition of Rafsanjani, but he is a political figure of some stature and reputed intellect, who was one of the earliest and most vocal establishment critics of Ahmadinejad. He negotiated Iran’s short-lived suspension of uranium enrichment with the Europeans in 2004, and even in his incipient presidential campaign he has had the audacity to highlight the plight of Iran’s political prisoners. A Rouhani win seems beyond improbable at this stage, but his approval offers a silver lining for Iran’s dispirited reformists mourning the loss of Hashemi Rafsanjani.

While the Rafsanjani furor is likely to deflate over the course of the campaign, the rejection of Ahmadinejad’s protégé, Mashaei, may well escalate before it is over. The news of Mashaei’s rejection seemed entirely foreordained; no one other than President Ahmadinejad himself anticipated that the Guardians’ Council would allow the man dubbed the leader of a ‘deviant current,’ intent on subverting the revolutionary system and prone to blasphemy, to run for the country’s second highest office. Ahmadinejad’s other allies had already withdrawn from the campaign, ostensibly to augment Mashaei’s chances, and now the mercurial president has literally no horse in the race and arguably no stake in keeping faith with the political establishment intent on eliminating him.

The president and his protégé are not without recourse; they have a claim on some residual popular base and a burgeoning political machinery. And most importantly, Ahmadinejad has already proven he is unencumbered by a sense of fidelity to the established rules of the Islamic Republic; among his other leverage, he has already threatened to reveal damaging information about the scope of his contested victory in 2009 in order to undermine the system. As a result, the most compelling dimension of Iran’s 2013 presidential elections may not be which candidate wins the office, but rather how the incumbent leaves the office.

Over the course of upcoming days, check back with Iran @ Saban for more on Mashaei, Rafsanjani and the ongoing fallout from the latest news. We’ll weigh in on the candidates who were approved, most notably nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili who has emerged as the analytical community’s pick for early front-runner. And we want to encourage you to join the conversation; email your thoughts on the candidate list and all the other Iran news of the day to IranAtSaban@brookings.edu, and we’ll post comments, questions and comebacks as they trickle in.

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