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In the running
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 06 - 2005

Iran is embroiled in presidential campaigning and constitutional debate, writes Mustafa El-Labbad from Tehran
Iranian voters head to the polls tomorrow to elect the next president of the Islamic Republic. The campaigns, punctuated by bombings in Tehran and Khorastan, in southwestern Iran and which has a majority ethnically Arab population, were as heated as the country's gruelling summer. The campaign slogans, some shrill, others with a touch of humour, blared, from the "pragmatism and national coalition" of frontrunner Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to the "we want a vice-president for human rights" slogan of reformist Mustafa Moin. From other corners one heard "a guarantee of $550 for every Iranian citizen!" and "cut off the hands of corrupters!" Then there was the candidate, the head of the Iranian Youth and Sports Organisation, who took advantage of the football match between Iran and Bahrain, which put Iran into the World Cup of 2006, to proclaim this victory as one of his personal achievements.
Seven candidates representing a variety of political platforms are vying for the presidency. Three are running on reformist tickets: former minister of higher education Mustafa Moin, former speaker of parliament Mehdi Karrubi, and President of the Organisation for Youth and Sports Mohsen Mehralizadeh. The conservative camp is represented by five candidates: former president and current chairman of the Expediency Council Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Director of the National Radio and Television Organisation Ali Larijani, former Tehran police commissioner Mohamed Baqir Qalibaf and Governor of Tehran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
These eight candidates were the only ones approved from a list of more than 1,000 presidential aspirants, which had been "purged" not just of "infiltrators" and criminal offenders but also of suspected secularists and others who failed to pass the Guardian Council's scrutiny of their ideological credentials. Of all the candidates, Rafsanjani appears to be the front- runner. However, the significance of the candidates' list resides not so much in the prospects of the individual contenders as in its heavy tilt towards the conservative camp.
The 12-member Guardian Council consists of six senior Shia clergymen appointed by the head of the judiciary who, in turn, is appointed by the Supreme Guide, and six legal practitioners elected by parliament. The council is empowered to screen candidates on the basis of their political affiliations and commitment to the doctrine of velayat al-faqih, (rule by clergy). Given this balance and the conservative character of the council in general, it is not surprising that it refused to approve the candidatures of representatives of the liberal secularist trend as well as several women (the Iranian Constitution stipulates "male" as a qualification for the presidency). The council had initially ruled out the candidacies of reformists Mustafa Moin and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, however, Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, the highest constitutional authority in the country, intervened on their behalf, compelling the council to reverse its decision.
Experts on Iranian affairs suggest three reasons for Khamenei's intervention. He wanted the elections to retain a democratic character, he did not want the pragmatic Rafsanjani to garner the reformist vote, and he wanted to prevent a sharp drop in voter turnout. A high voter turnout, as was the case in the presidential elections that brought Khatami to power twice, is the way the Iranian regime can project itself as presiding over a popular and democratically legitimate system of government. That the supreme leader's intervention was aimed at Rafsanjani seems obvious in light of the intense competition between two rival trends within the conservative camp: the traditionalists led by Khamenei and the pragmatists led by Rafsanjani.
The Khamenei-Rafsanjani-Khatami troika that had prevailed throughout the latter's presidency is on its way out. Instead of a threesome, Iran is reverting to a duumvirate such as that which prevailed following the death of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Imam Khomeini in 1989. Indeed the protagonists will be the same now as then: Khamenei and Rafsanjani. After eight years of the rise and fall of the reformist tide, epitomised by Khatami, Iran has come full circle.
Even if reformist candidate Moin wins the presidency, a remote possibility, Khamenei, whose constitutional authority as supreme guide gives him virtually unrestricted power, will remain the key figure in the regime while Rafsanjani will continue to hold a strong grip on power through his associates in government and through his strong connections with the Iranian business community. The significance of a Rafsanjani win would not only be that power is being rotated among a small set of individuals but also that the Iranian regime is showing itself incapable of bringing a third generation into the presidency so as to guarantee the sustainability and rejuvenation of the revolution.
It is important to note that, contrary to the impression the intense campaign rivalry might give, all the candidates are very much part of the Iranian establishment. All of them have served in various official capacities and their allegiance to the state and loyalty to the revolution are beyond question. Therefore, regardless of what the next president might aspire to achieve, his objectives can be expected to remain consistent with the fundamental policies and strategies of the Islamic Republic.
In all events, the Iranian president's margin of manoeuvrability is relatively restricted. Under the Iranian constitution, the president's powers are similar to those accorded a prime minister in parliamentary democracies. Real power rests in the hands of the supreme guide, who has the authority to declare war, appoint the commanders of the armed forces and the revolutionary guard, appoint the heads of the judicial authority and the state-owned radio and television organisation, and even to dismiss the president in accordance with Article 110 of the constitution.
On the other hand, the president does enjoy greater leeway in the conduct of foreign policy. It is here, rather than in domestic policy that it is possible to expect change, although the nature of this change remains contingent upon regional developments and the level of foreign pressure. None of the candidates presented a comprehensive platform for dealing with Iran's many pressing problems: unemployment, poverty, corruption, environmental pollution, and political liberties and social rights. Instead, each candidate focussed on a specific issue or two, in order to rally the support of certain segments of society.
There is no doubt that foreign pressure over Iran's nuclear capacities will be a prime determinant of the way Iranian voters will turn in this election. In this regard, Rafsanjani stands out as the only candidate who has a demonstrable aptitude for handling the intricacies of international politics and diplomacy. In his various official capacities, he has personally had a hand in engineering many international "deals" favourable to Iran and it is widely believed that he has the ability to keep the Iranian nuclear issue from being handed over to the United Nations Security Council. Rafsanjani deftly exploited these cards in his electoral campaign, testimony to which are the latest opinion polls which place him well ahead of the other presidential contenders.
Evidence of how crucial the external factor is in this campaign can be seen in Rafsanjani's popularity today compared with five years ago. In the Iranian parliamentary elections that year, he came in 30th place in the numbers of votes received by candidates fielding themselves in Tehran. In contrast, "reform" as a determinant of the electoral outcome has been largely diffused. Despite this, even the conservative presidential candidates have, to varying extents, climbed aboard the reformist bandwagon, beneath such banners as democracy, women's rights, the welfare of youth, minority rights and economic deregulation. The change in conservative rhetoric reflects the profound socio-political changes Iranian society has undergone over the period of the Khatami tenure from 1997 to the present.
Today's elections intersect with the emergence of a broad array of political forces unleashed by Khatami's reformist policies, increasingly frustrated by what they perceive to be the regime's inability to change because of constitutionally entrenched imbalances of power. The conservatives had no choice but to appeal to this public mood. At the same time, the three reformist candidates lack the charisma of Khatami, who, in turn, raised the level of popular frustration by failing to deliver on his electoral promises to institute substantial reform.
"Reform" is no longer the electoral dividing line it had once been. Rather, it is an overwhelming popular demand that must inevitably top the domestic agenda of the next president, regardless of his political and ideological convictions. Nevertheless, in view of the grip the conservatives have on power, both in terms of their hold on government positions and the constitutional authorities vested in them, one is left with the question: how can Iran continue to reform without reformists?


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