This week, the Iranian press reacted to the news released by the Guardian Council last week that eight candidates had been approved to run in the June 14th presidential election – and that notable candidates like former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei had been disqualified. Mashaei’s disqualification sparked less coverage, as it had been widely expected, but after he had created a political buzz throughout Iran last week with his entry into the race, Rafsanjani’s elimination set off a heated debate on the Guardian Council’s actions.
Pro-Rafsanjani commentators, often in reformist or moderate conservative outlets, were perplexed that a man who had guided the country through the post-Iran-Iraq War reconstruction and who had been a longtime ally of Khomeini himself could be considered unable to serve. Some, like two writers in the reformist Bahar, pointed to the supposed justification that Rafsanjani’s advanced age ruled him out. Javid Ghorban-Oghli argued that this made no sense, as the Guardian Council itself had struck down an law approved by the Majlis last year that sought to limit the presidency to those under 75 years of age – and besides, “Imam [Khomeini], at age 79, brought the revolution to victory, and ran the country in the turbulent years of the [Islamic Republic’s] first decade.” Legislator Mohammad Bagheri Bonabi agreed, and added that given the lack of transparency in the Council’s decision, it appeared to be a political one, perpetrated by “those who caused the condition of the last eight years for the people.” Without speaking of Rafsanjani himself, Fatemeh Zolfagharian wrote in the moderate Mardom-Salari that the disqualifications would have a negative effect on the political system as a whole, arguing that all the candidates with a strong party identity had been disqualified. “If parties are not active in society,” she wrote, “politics will be unresponsive and lack transparency and the government will move towards corruption.”
Outside of the reformist camp, there was also noticeable criticism of the decision. The Alef news site tied to maverick Principlist MP Ahmad Tavakkoli ran an editorial, often sarcastic in tone, arguing that there would be popular discontent emanating from this decision, albeit discontent unlikely to be manifested in the streets. It also failed to understand the Guardian Council’s decision: “We make this compassionate and sympathetic suggestion to the esteemed members of the Guardian Council that this time, please get used to the idiocy and answer the questions of public opinion. Questions like: 1) What was the primary reason for the disqualification of Ayatollah Hashemi? 2) How does the Guardian Council’s assessment of his qualifications relate to the supreme leader’s assessment just one year ago to choose him as the leader of the Expediency Council? 3) What is the criterion for qualifying such candidates as Saeed Jalili?” However, shortly thereafter, the piece received intense criticism from many conservatives and later was no longer available on the Alef site; now, the front of the site features an interview with Tavakkoli in which he stresses the importance of respecting the Guardian Council.
The anti-Rafsanjani wing of the Principlists, however, was quick to tell its side of the story as well and praise the Guardian Council’s actions. Writing in the conservative Khorasan, Mohammad Saeed Ahadian argued that Rafsanjani was correctly ruled out, as many of his main supporters were not moderates as he had claimed but rather his old party members and reformists, and that if he had been defeated in the election, his supporters would have claimed electoral fraud and caused riots like in 2009. He also argued that the ex-president had made troubling statements: “…In the week before he registered, he commented that the nation in its current situation is comparable to pre-revolutionary times, and that it is in a state of decline.” In the influential hardline daily Kayhan, Mohammad Imani wrote that the Guardian Council saw the threat that Rafsanjani’s candidacy would inspire a foreign-supported sedition movement, much as he saw as the case in 2009. “Can it be acceptable for the seditionists who openly shouted slogans in the street in 2009 of ‘The elections are just an excuse – the root of the regime is our target’ and spilled out all their hostility at once toward the system of vilayat-e faghih and the Islamic Republic and Imam Khomeini (may God have mercy on him) to now claim that they have come only for the election, and to support Mr. Hashemi in a democratic competition within the framework of the political system?”
APPENDIX: Translated Summaries of Selected Opinion Pieces (Newest to Oldest)
Writing in the hardline Kayhan, Imani argues that the Guardian Council performed its sacred Constitutional duties admirably and prevented the attempts by external enemies to use the election as a vehicle for creating sedition in Iran. In particular, he says that – although Rafsanjani may not have even believed it himself – the same “seditionist” forces that took part in the uprisings of 2009 – were planning to manipulate his candidacy as an excuse to mount a challenge to the system of the Islamic Republic. “Can it be acceptable that the seditionists who openly shouted slogans in the street in 2009 of “The elections are just an excuse – the root of the regime is our target” and spilled out all their hostility at once toward the system of vilayat-e faghih and the Islamic Republic and Imam Khomeini (may God have mercy on him) to now claim that they have come for the election, and to support Mr. Hashemi in a democratic competition within the framework of the political system?” Saying that these individuals saw a new opportunity for their failed plans – and thus something had to be done by the body entrusted with protecting the electoral system, the Guardian Council.
Two pieces in the reformist daily Bahar react with incredulity to the news that Rafsanjani has not been accepted as a candidate. Ghorban-Oghli writes that there seems to have been no other excuse given for the ex-president’s disqualification than his age: “…If we want to decode the adventure of Hashemi Rafsanjani’s disqualification, we can only take a look at the words of [Abbas Ali] Kadkhodaei, the spokesman for the Council, who in a special press conference about the approval process for presidential candidates, had said, ‘Age was taken into consideration when determining the qualifications of the candidate and age is a factor in managerial ability.’” He muses that this logic flies in the face of the Guardian Council’s own rejection – on grounds of unconstitutionality – of hard age limits approved by the Majlis last year that would have only allowed candidates between the ages of 45 and 75 to run for president. He notes that at the time, many thought the Majlis was specifically seeking to eliminate Rafsanjani with the law, but that the Guardian Council had foiled their plans. Of course, now, the Guardian Council has gone against its own ruling for no apparent reason, he argues. He then notes that many great leaders have accomplished legendary political feats at or around Rafsanjani’s age – Gandhi was 78 when he realized his goal of an independent India, Winston Churchill became prime minister for a second time at age 77, Nelson Mandela became the first black leader of South Africa at 76, and most notably in the local context, “Imam [Khomeini], at age 79, brought the revolution to victory, and ran the country in the turbulent years of the [Islamic Republic’s] first decade.”
Meanwhile, MP Bagheri Bonabi writes harshly that the Guardian Council has acted with no clear characteristics, transparency, or guidelines. He writes that their disqualification of Rafsanjani was a political, not a legally based, act, and one perpetrated on behalf of “those who caused the condition of the last eight years for the people.” He asks for the body to explain its actions before the nation, and regarding the age standards they considered, wonders, “…If the age criterion of candidates is important, why did they not announce this beforehand?”
In the reformist Arman, which had devoted much positive coverage to Rafsanjani, Imani tries to examine the political maneuvering that will follow his disqualification, concluding that the reformists will not support any candidate, so as to avoid an electoral embarrassment. “The nation’s political scene was dealt a shock by the disqualification of Ayatollah Hashemi and the plans of the reformists were destroyed, and it is now unlikely that this political front will want to seriously support any candidate, as this would mean putting all their efforts behind candidates who don’t have much chance of attracting many votes, and who will hasten their own decline.” He also argues that there are positive and negative factors working for Saeed Jalili – on the one hand, the pro-Ahmadinejad camp may be too angry to participate in the election after the disqualification of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, but on the other, if they come into the election in force, they would appear to have the closest ties to Jalili of all the remaining candidates. However, he warns, the Principlists were burned once before by allying with a relative unknown politician in Ahmadinejad, and they may be wary of giving their support to another in the form of Jalili.
An unsigned editorial – later taken offline, but still available as quoted on other sites – on the Alef news site run by conservative MP Ahmad Tavakkoli argues that the disqualification of Rafsanjani brings up the question of how he and his many supporters will react, whether it will lead to protests, and why the Guardian Council seems to have made inexplicable decisions in its vetting. “Contrary to public expectation, Hashemi was not approved,” the article reads, going on to muse about other outcomes from the Guardian Council’s decision before focusing on the man it says Iran is watching most closely. “Everyone is waiting for the Ayatollah [Hashemi]’s reaction. Some think it possible that Hashemi’s disqualification will lead to a new sedition…Others who observe things more logically and know how strong or weak the counterrevolutionaries are and who know the Ayatollah’s nature think it’s possible that in the coming days we won’t see outward manifestations of tensions but will see a strong and perhaps hasty reaction against the election and the Guardian Council by the Ayatollah. The reaction to the decision of the Guardian Council need not be visible only in the form of street protests and conflict.” The paper writes that another way the anger of people can be seen is in an inability to understand the Council’s decision – which, although not legally obliged to do, the Council should remedy by answering the questions of dissenters, which it sarcastically describes as idiots for failing to understand the Council’s decisions. “We make this compassionate and sympathetic suggestion to the esteemed members of the Guardian Council that this time, please get used to the idiocy and answer the questions of public opinion. Questions like: 1) What was the primary reason for the disqualification of Ayatollah Hashemi? 2) How does the Guardian Council’s assessment of his qualifications relate to the supreme leader’s assessment just one year ago to choose him as the leader of the Expediency Council? 3) What is the criterion for qualifying such candidates as Saeed Jalili?” The piece then muses on whether the supreme leader will, as he did eight years ago, intervene to qualify candidates such as Rafsanjani or Mashaei.
The lead editorial from Qods is a stern warning to all political candidates that the Guardian Council has sacred duties entrusted to it in the Islamic Republic’s Constitution, and that any disobedience of the Guardian Council is tantamount to opposition to the supreme leader and his goal of creating a “political epic” in the presidential election. Shakibaei cites articles 90 through 99 of the Constitution as basis for the unassailable position of the Council, and reminds the reader that the body has power of approval for all electoral matters. He continues that the Council and its role in candidate review is not an Iranian anomaly, adding, “This process is, without a doubt, not only limited to the Islamic Republic of Iran, but rather, similar bodies to this council exist in many developed, democratic countries,” before going onto cite constitutional bodies in countries including Turkey, Russia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, mentioning the U.S. Supreme Court as an equivalent as well. Given these universal and local legal precedents, “The law places the duty of approving electoral candidates on the Guardian Council, and thus for the well-being of the nation and of the people, they must obey the decisions of the Guardian Council.” He continues to say that any candidate who, after being disqualified by the Council, refuses to accept the ruling will be seen as “trying to incite unrest in public society,” “trying to inspire public cynicism by making a public display of law-breaking by a political figure,” and “trying to damage the election process.”