Security Tightens, Field Shrinks Ahead of Iran’s Presidential Election

By Patrick Goodenough | June 12, 2013 | 4:15 AM EDT

Iranian women with a picture of Saeed Jalili, one of six remaining presidential candidates in the June 14 election. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

( – Three days before Iran’s presidential election, the field of candidates approved by the top religious hierarchy has been whittled down from eight to six, leaving the race – and its likely implications for relations with the West – still murky.

Friday’s election of a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be held under tight security, as the regime seeks to prevent a recurrence of the massive protests that followed Ahmadinejad’s disputed election in 2009.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned in a speech last week that unnamed foreign enemies “want to create sedition after the election, as they did in 2009.”

The commander of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) division in Tehran said it would deploy forces including “an aerial surveillance unit against seditionists and monitor every act of counter-revolutionaries,” while Iran’s police chief warned that uniformed police and plain-clothes militia were prepared for intervention.

Late last month the Guardian Council, a small body appointed by Khamenei, named eight candidates – out of almost 700 applicants – who would be allowed to run.  Six fell broadly into the “conservative” (fundamentalist/hardline) camp, and two into the “reformist” (moderate/liberal) one.

The biggest news of the final week of campaigning was the announcement Tuesday that Mohammad Reza Aref, one of the two purported reformists, was withdrawing. In one of his last campaign statements, in a weekend radio broadcast, he had pledged to give women an greater role in the administration.

Aref said he had taken the decision to exit the contest after talks with former president Mohammed Khatami, who holds sway in the reformist movement and is backing the remaining moderate flag-bearer, Hassan Rohani.

Aref and Rohani both served in Khatami’s 1997-2005 administration, as vice-president and nuclear negotiator respectively.

They emerged as reformist hopefuls this year in the absence of the reformist candidates from the 2009 election, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom ended up under house arrest after the post-election unrest and crackdown.

Aref’s withdrawal came a day after another of the Guardian Council-approved candidates, former parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, left the race.

If Rohani hopes to consolidate the reform-minded vote on Friday and succeed in making it into a second round runoff on June 21, the rest of the field is being hotly contested by five “conservative” campaigns:  Tehran mayor and former police chief Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; former petroleum minister Mohammad Gharazi; nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili; foreign policy advisor to the supreme leader Ali Akbar Velayati; and former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai.

Partisan media outlets are carrying reports suggesting that one or more of those competing factions withdraw in favor of others, each giving reasons why doing so would be most beneficial for Iran. But as of early Wednesday all five remain in the race.

Whatever other differences they have, all five have been seeking to present themselves as Khamenei’s favorite. Ghalibaf and Velayati in particular are seen as closely aligned to the supreme leader.

According to Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of the Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs and a columnist for Al-Monitor, “it is conventional wisdom in Tehran that whoever succeeds in portraying himself as the leader’s candidate has the votes of 12 million committed followers.”

With some 50.5 million Iranians eligible to vote, that would provide any candidate with a substantial chunk of assured supporters.

A private research company that carries out a telephone tracking poll, iPOS, said in its most recent report early this week – before the two candidate withdrawals – that Ghalibaf retains a sizeable lead over his rivals (27.1 percent), followed by Jalili (16.5), Rezai (16) and Rohani (14.4).

Even before the short campaign season began, Khamenei succeeded through the Guardian Council vetting process to remove the aspiring candidate most likely to have challenged him, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

RAND Corporation scholar Alireza Nader, a senior international policy analyst specializing in Iran, said in a new report that Khamenei’s main goal is for a stable election that produces a president who is loyal to him. (Ahmadinejad had a serious rift with the supreme leader.)

Nader said one of the candidates close to Khamenei – Ghalibaf, Jalili or Velayati – may have the best chance of winning, while the reformist camp “will not have a major role in the elections for the first time since the 1979 revolution.”

He said while the election could theoretically lead to a limited reduction of tensions with the international community – especially if the election is an orderly and undisputed affair – “Khamenei’s monopolization of power will likely decrease Iran’s flexibility on the nuclear program.”

Ultimately, Nader argued that the election will in itself have little impact on the direction in which Iran is traveling.

“No matter who is elected president, the Islamic Republic is likely to continue its evolution into an authoritarian political system dominated by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards.”

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow