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IRAN: Presidential Candidates

Author: Lionel Beehner
June 15, 2005

Who is running for Iran's presidency?

Seven candidates are vying to succeed Mohammed Khatami as president of Iran, including frontrunner and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, reformist candidate Mustafa Moin, and former chief of police Mohammed Baqur Qalibaf. To win votes from the Islamic Republic's large number of young voters, many candidates--even those considered conservative--are projecting themselves as pragmatic reformers. In slogans and in speeches, the leading candidates are promising greater openness, an improved economy, and better relations with the West.

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Who selected the candidates?

On May 22, six presidential candidates, all members of Iran's ruling elite, were handpicked from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants by the Council of Guardians, an appointed body of 12 conservative jurists which vets candidates in Iran. (The Council can also block or amend legislation passed by Iran's parliament.) The next day, Moin and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, both reformists, were added as candidates at the insistence of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful political force. Conservative candidate Mohsen Rezai dropped out of the race June 15, heeding the request of religious leaders who wanted to avoid splintering the conservative vote. None of the candidates are women, who are forbidden in Iran from running for president.

How much power does the president hold?

Not much, experts say. "He is head of logistics and is allowed to administer things, but there's not a lot he can really do," says Bill Samii, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's regional analysis coordinator for Southwest Asia. The president appoints cabinet members and heads the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which sets foreign policy, but, as Samii points out, the Supreme Leader, who is unelected and chosen for life, has final say over SNSC decisions. "The president has effectively shown himself, relative to unelected institutions, to be powerless," he says. The Supreme Leader is also commander-in-chief of the armed and police forces; the head the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the state ministry in control of television and radio; and in charge of the country's judiciary. For this reason, on issues of national security and defense--including nuclear negotiations between Iran and Europe--most experts predict the election will have limited impact.

What do the latest election polls show?

Rafsanjani emerged in May as the frontrunner, but Qalibaf and Moin have closed in on his lead considerably in recent weeks. According to a June 14 poll commissioned by Fars News Agency, Rafsanjani is projected to receive just under a quarter of the vote, with Qalibaf winning 20 percent and Moin around 10 percent. If no candidate wins a majority of the votes on June 17, as many experts predict, the highest two vote-getters enter second-round runoff elections June 24. Experts caution that Iranian voter behavior is hard to predict, given that many Iranians may be unwilling to speak openly to pollsters.

What kind of voter turnout is expected?

Polls show that just under half of Iran's 42 million eligible voters will turn out to vote, a significant drop from previous presidential elections in 1997 and 2001, when voter turnout was 90 percent and 68 percent respectively. Besides widespread voter apathy, many Iranians--particularly those under 30, who comprise two-thirds of the country's 72 million inhabitants--say they're boycotting the election to protest the powerlessness of Iran's executive branch. Low voter turnout has some religious authorities in Iran worried, experts say. "Not voting would show that the legitimacy of the rulers is demolished and show the people of the world, especially Western countries, that this government is not a democracy," says Mohsen Sazegara, one of the original founders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Many student groups, including the Office for Fostering Unity, say an election-day boycott will push the government to hold a referendum to reform Iran's constitution and, in effect, curb the powers of the Council of Guardians. But some experts predict that many reform-minded voters will turn up at the polls, despite their boycott threats, to ensure that their preferred candidate, Moin, will make it to the election's second round.

Who are the main contenders?

Among them:

  • Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. A former two-term president (1989-1997) and speaker of parliament, Rafsanjani has been a powerful force in Iranian politics since the ouster of the Shah in 1979. He served as an adviser to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder. Since 1997, has headed the Expediency Council, a powerful body that arbitrates disputes between Iran's parliament and the Council of Guardians. Rafsanjani remains a controversial figure in Iranian politics, experts say, because of his past human-rights record as president, including the use of hit squads in the early 1990s against Europe-based Iranian dissidents, and allegations of corruption against him and his family. The oldest of the eight candidates, Rafsanjani, 70, has reinvented himself as a centrist dealmaker and pragmatist who has recently said he would improve relations with the West. "It is possible to end hostility [with the United States]," he toldTime magazine June 13--if Washington releases $11 billion in Iranian assets that the regime says have been frozen since 1979. Rafsanjani favors completing Iranian efforts to enrich uranium to fuel nuclear power plants, but would allow more international inspectors to monitor Iran's nuclear facilities. On domestic issues, he has courted younger voters and women by campaigning on a platform of moderate reforms that would loosen Islamic dress-code restrictions, expand press freedom, and diminish government control of Iran's economy. Unemployment in some parts of Iran is as high as 25 percent.
  • Mohammed Baqur Qalibaf. Iran's former chief of police and security forces from June 2000 to April 2005, Qalibaf, 44, has a large support base among Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and younger conservatives. Qalibaf remains unpopular among some younger voters for signing, along with 24 other commanders, a letter to President Khatami in July 1999, seeking authority to arrest student demonstrators. But some Iranians credit him with reforming the image of Iran's police force; he was the first police chief, for example, to recruit women. Like other candidates, Qalibaf has played down his military past. He is campaigning as a pragmatic reformer, though he believes in maintaining, at least partially, government control over the economy and press, experts say. Qalibaf's stance on nuclear negotiations is unclear, but some foreign diplomats fear he might further militarize Iran. He has run a forceful campaign that has relied heavily on flashy advertising and conducted Western-style focus group research. One of his campaign slogans: "We are not a nation of camel riders."
  • Mustafa Moin. A former pediatrician and minister of culture and higher education, Moin, 54, has made some bold gestures as a presidential candidate, including openly questioning the authority of the Supreme Leader and signing a pact with a banned liberal group called the Liberation Movement of Iran. He has promised, if elected, to free all political prisoners from Iranian prisons, to appoint a minister of human rights, and to expand the rights of women. But most experts say his reforms, like those of Khatami's over the past eight years, have little chance of succeeding. Nevertheless, Moin is popular among students because, as education minister, he submitted his resignation three times to protest government mistreatment of university demonstrators. Some younger voters say Moin should have withdrawn himself from the race in protest of the Council of Guardian's failure to include him on their list of first-round candidates. Others complain he is uncharismatic. On foreign affairs, Moin has not ruled out re-establishing relations with the United States, but, as he told BBC News in a May 17 interview, doing so should not be Iran's "principal goal." Moin also favors resuming Iran's uranium-enrichment program for peaceful purposes.
  • Ali Larijani. A former head of IRIB from 1994 to 2004, Larijani, 48, is backed by several mainstream conservative groups, including the Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, Iran's most prominent coalition of conservative and cleric groups, and the Islamic Society of Engineers. In campaign speeches, he has pledged to create 800,000 jobs. He holds a doctorate in philosophy, has served as a high-ranking officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and is a trusted ally and security adviser of Supreme Leader Khamenei. His critics accuse him of using his position atop Iran's state-run media to derail President Khatami's reforms and suppress criticism of Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Who are the remaining candidates?

These candidates are considered by polls and pundits to have little to no chance of winning more than a small percentage of the vote. They are:

  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Tehran's mayor since May 2003, Ahmadinejad, 49, has the support of the Islamic Iran Developers Council, or Abadgaran, a powerful conservative group that dominated last year's parliamentary elections. He is a founding member of the student union that overtook the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and has devoted much of his mayoral term to improving Tehran's traffic problems.
  • Mehdi Karrubi. A former speaker of parliament, Karrubi, 68, is regarded as a reformer adept at forging political deals. In 1988, he formed the Militant Clerics, a liberal group of clerics, after cutting ties with the more conservative Militant Clergy Association. He lost influence in Iran after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, with whom he was closely associated, and has since aligned himself with President Khatami. As a former member of the resistance under the Shah, "He has good revolutionary credentials," Samii says. Though unlikely to be elected, Karrubi has said publicly if the election goes to a second round, he would not compete.
  • Mohsen Mehralizadeh. An ethnic Azeri, Mehralizadeh, 49, has served as vice president under President Khatami. As head of the Iran's Atomic Energy Organization in the early 1990s, he was instrumental in the building of the civilian nuclear reactor at Bushehr and attracting Russian investment. He has promised to create jobs and strengthen the welfare state. He is a reformist, experts say, but a long-shot.

--by Lionel Beehner, staff writer, cfr.org

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