‘Democracy’ in Iran: Many Will Register As Presidential Candidates, But Few Will Compete

By Patrick Goodenough | May 9, 2013 | 4:59 AM EDT

In this file photo taken in Nov. 2003, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni leads in prayer leading figures including former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani (kneeling, second from right) and Mohammad Khatami (standing, third from right). (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – For five days this week, Iranians aspiring to become their country’s next president in upcoming elections are registering their candidacies. Then a 12-member body appointed by the supreme leader will decide who can actually run.

If previous elections are anything to go by, the Guardian Council will disqualify the vast majority of hundreds of hopefuls, leaving just a handful to compete in the race to succeed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (The largest number of candidates ever allowed since the 1979 Islamic revolution was ten – out of 814 applicants – in 2001.)

Given Iran’s fraught relationship with the West over its suspect nuclear activities, exacerbated by eight years of confrontational policies under Ahmadinejad, the outcome of the June 14 election will have ramifications far beyond its borders.

According to the Interior Ministry in Tehran, 75 presidential aspirants lodged applications on the first day of the registration on Tuesday, and another 65 registered on Wednesday.

Iran’s constitution requires presidential candidates to have a political and religious background, to believe in the principles of the Islamic Republic, to have managerial skills, no criminal record, and be trustworthy and pious.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last March defended the election system, calling it one of the most open in the world.

“Some try to portray [Guardian Council] vetting in the election as a malfunction in the Islamic Republic,” he said. “But this is an amateur and non-technical statement, because assessment of candidates and examining their merit is relevant in democracies around the world,” he said in a meeting with members of the Assembly of Experts.

Iran’s hardline Keyhan daily quoted a Guardian Council spokesman as saying this week that “candidates must in their hearts have a belief in the Islamic Republic system and its constitution.”

“If the council doesn’t see that, it will not approve them. Perhaps some errors have been committed in the past.”

In 2009, the council gave the nod to two “reformists” out of four approved candidates (a total of 476 people had applied to run), and after “Green Movement” protests erupted over Ahmadinejad’s hotly-disputed victory, both former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi ended up under house arrest.

For many Iranians, and outside observers, the biggest question this time around is whether after that episode Khamenei will permit the tightly-vetted group of 2013 candidates to include reformists again.

This year reform-minded Iranians are looking to two former presidents and establishment figures, Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), although as of Thursday – halfway through the five-day registration period – neither had thrown their hat into the ring.

Rafsanjani has been quoted in local media as being ambivalent, although sources close to his family have indicated that he will likely register. Rafsanjani ran against Ahmadinejad in 2005, narrowly winning a six-way first round but losing to him in a runoff.

Khatami told reporters on Tuesday that the time was not ripe for another shot at the presidency, but expressed hope that Rafsanjani would run, the Tehran Times reported.

Khatami sounded despondent, however, about the chances of reformists being allowed to make their mark.

“I can name dozens of people who are young, wise, and educated and are qualified to assume responsibilities in high positions, but they have been deprived of the opportunity to be introduced and known to the society,” he said.

Wanted terror suspects

Although Khatami is viewed as a reformist in the Iranian political context, his term in office was not marked by significant improvement in Iran’s human rights record, its stance towards the West, or its support for anti-Israel terrorist groups.

His tenure also saw the development of a covert nuclear program, although after it was exposed by dissidents in late 2002 his government did agree to limited compromise with the international community.

Rafsanjani, meanwhile, is one of eight senior Iranians accused by Argentine authorities of involvement in the worst terrorist attack in that country’s history – a 1994 suicide truck bombing at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in which 85 people died.

(At Argentina’s request, Interpol in 2007 issued “red notices” – its equivalent of a most-wanted list – for five of the eight suspects, but on legal advice did not include the former president among them.)

Among the 2013 presidential hopefuls who have registered so far this week, better-known figures include Hassan Rohani, a former nuclear negotiator who served on the supreme national security council during both the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations, describes himself as a “moderate,” and has pledged to pursue “constructive interaction with the world” if elected. Iran’s economy has been hard-hit as a result of international sanctions, imposed in response to its nuclear activities.

Others to have registered include Hassan Sobhani, an economics professor and former lawmaker; Mohammad Saeedikia, a former housing and urban development minister; and Mostafa Kavakebian, a reformist former lawmaker.

Among those not yet registered but widely expected to do so are Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former police chief who succeeded Ahmadinejad as mayor of Tehran in 2005; Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and a top advisor to the supreme leader; Ali Fallahijan, a former intelligence chief; and Mohsen Rezai, former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Velayati, Fallahijan and Rezai are all among the suspects wanted by Argentina in connection with the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing.

After registration closes on Saturday the Guardian Council will announce a preliminary list of those it deems eligible to run. Disqualified candidates may appeal, before a final roster is issued on May 23.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow